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On the Level

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

Our planet’s surface has a distinct lack of smoothness, with hills, slopes and rocky areas dominating the landscape. Sometimes no more than several consecutive square feet of ground in any given direction is level or smooth – certainly nothing large enough to park a motorhome on.

And yet, many of the world’s rockiest areas also contain some of the most spectacular camping spots.

Mountainous territory is usually scenic, after all, making it irresistible to the intrepid traveler. Thus, preparing your motorhome for comfortable camping on rough, uneven surfaces can be a very worthwhile endeavor. For a motorhome owner, the best preparation is to install a good leveling system.

There are plenty of reasons why having a leveling system on your coach makes sense. First, comfort. A level motorhome is more enjoyable to live in and certainly more comfortable to sleep in. Furthermore, a leveling system will eliminate most of the tipsiness caused by wind gusts and people moving around inside the motorhome because the jacks lift the motorhome into a rigid, immobile position. Any time you drop the jacks, your wiggle wagon instantly becomes almost as solid as a fixed dwelling.

Then there’s convenience. A leveling system makes it easy to level your coach in just a couple of minutes. There’s no need to run outside and stuff boards under the tires, and no need to drive the coach back and forth until a level position is found. Doing away with this jockeying also eliminates the need to unhitch your dinghy beforehand, thereby saving even more time and effort. By taking the tedium out of leveling your coach, you’ll find yourself doing it whenever necessary – even when you’re only staying for a few hours.

Safety. Driving a motorhome back and forth over a stack of leveling boards isn’t exactly the safest maneuver, even when someone is standing outside to direct you. Furthermore, misplacing the boards can cause tire damage, particularly under the dual rear tires. The damage isn’t always visible, raising the prospect of an unexpected blowout at some later date.

Resale value. A leveling system is one of the most sought-after accessories in the used-motorhome market, and installing one on your coach will often increase its resale value at trade-in time. Also, since there are some buyers who flatly refuse to consider any used coach that doesn’t have levelers on it already, installing a system now may make the motorhome easier to sell later on. These factors can go a long way toward offsetting the system’s initial purchase-and installation costs.

Hydraulic and all-electric systems are currently available. On all-electric systems, the jacks use a 12-volt DC motor to drive a screw that directly raises or lowers the coach. This scheme has the advantage of being less complex than hydraulic systems, since there is no pump or reservoir required, and no need for hydraulic lines routed to each corner of the motorhome chassis. Also, electric jacks aren’t prone to the accidental deployment that can occur with some hydraulic jacks if a leak should develop. Being leakproof also makes them capable of supporting the motorhome for extended periods without creeping down – very handy for long-term motorhome storage. However, lacking emergency release valves, they may be harder to retract in the event of an electrical or mechanical failure, in some cases requiring the owner to crawl under the coach to manually retract the jack.

Several electric-jack configurations are available. Scissor-type jacks use a screw that operates in the horizontal direction, thereby greatly reducing the jack’s installed height. That makes them especially well-suited to some Class C applications where under-chassis clearance is extremely tight. Vertical-screw jacks tend to be popular on Class A motorhomes, offering greater lifting power, some measure of accidental drive-off protection and an enclosed screw that is more resistant to road grime.

Among the hydraulic jacks, two different types are commonly available – kick-down and straight acting. As their name implies, kick-down jacks have a hinged linkage that allows them to fold up under the chassis when not in use. Aside from enabling the jack to fit in tighter spaces, the hinge’s swing-away design also reduces the chance of damage caused by attempting to drive away with the jacks extended. However, the one-way nature of this linkage means that protection is provided only when driving in the forward direction; attempting to back up could still cause damage to the jack and/or motorhome chassis.

Straight-acting jacks lack any fold-up capability, and are often used on large Class A motorhomes where underchassis clearance isn’t critical. They tend to have bigger pads, thereby providing greater stability on soft ground. Some models are also equipped with flexible jack brackets and pad couplings that allow the pad to swivel in whatever direction makes for maximum ground contact. Although straight-acting jacks lack any inherent drive-off protection, some models use a control system that automatically raises the jacks whenever the engine is started. Others sound an alarm if any of the jacks should ever drop below the fully retracted position while the engine is running. Most current hydraulic systems use a single pump to operate all jack cylinders.

Note that in some factory-installed applications, the extra complexity and weight of a hydraulic system may be partially offset by the use of a common pump for both the jacks and the slideout mechanisms. Although fluid leakage is still a possibility with hydraulic jacks, some designs sidestep the accidental deployment prospect by including a spring that keeps the jack up whenever hydraulic pressure is absent. Some systems also use this spring as the sole method of retracting the jacks; others supplement it with twoway cylinders that exploit the hydraulic system’s tremendous lifting power to ensure reliable retraction out of muddy or icy ground. While the vast majority of motorhome-leveling systems employ four jacks, some manufacturers also offer affordable systems equipped with just three.

Generally, these models employ a jack in each rear corner that provides all the side-to side leveling, also working in combination with a single front-center-mounted jack to provide fore-and-aft leveling. The performance of some of these products approaches their four-point counterparts in moderately off-level situations, although it may suffer in extreme circumstances.

While manually controlled leveling systems continue to be popular, automatic systems are now gaining ground. Automatic systems for new and retrofit applications are available, including products for coaches equipped with air bags. Most systems use an electronic sensor that measures the coach’s state of level, in some cases down to a fraction of a degree. A microprocessor then combines these measurements with a software algorithm to move the jacks until a level condition is achieved. Most automatic systems include bypass controls that allow the leveling to be manually adjusted for improved roof-water runoff, cleaning the holding tanks, etc. Most systems also include an “all-retract” function that allows all the jacks to be quickly retracted at the push of a single button. Until recently, the sensor, control panel and various electrical or hydraulic components were typically installed in several different parts of the coach.

However, there is now a trend toward offering all-in-oneenclosure systems, simplifying the installation task on smaller coaches with limited space. While it’s true that a motorhome chassis is designed to handle considerable temporary flexing due to road variations, long term flex can cause problems at the campsite. In particular, a flexed frame may cause doors and cabinets to bind, and may interfere with the proper operation of slideouts. Leveling-system manufacturers have addressed this problem in several ways. First, the control system can be designed so that the jacks are only extended in adjacent pairs (instead of opposite corners). This scheme takes advantage of the fact that it’s usually possible to level the coach by using any of several different jack combinations. This bimodal (or bi-axis) approach helps ensure that a combination is used that minimizes frame distortions.

Second, an equalization scheme is sometimes used with hydraulic jacks, in which no jack exerts a significant lifting force until all the other jacks have fully deployed. This avoids the undesirable situation of one jack attempting to lift the coach before the others have even reached the ground. Although most leveling systems are installed at either the motorhome factory or a dealer’s service center, some systems also can be installed by just about anyone possessing good mechanical skills and a few tools. Some manufacturers provide installation instructions in downloadable format on their websites, allowing consumers to get a feel for the degree of installation difficulty before ordering a system. Several methods for attaching the jack to the chassis are commonly used.

Welding has the advantage of providing a quick, permanent attachment, with no fasteners to loosen. Bolting has the advantage of enabling easy field replacement of cylinder components. Bolt-on levelers tend to be easier for the average do-it-yourselfer to install, since an electric drill and a set of end wrenches and sockets are the only major tools required. Bolts also make it possible to remove the system prior to selling the motorhome. Since either improper welding or drilling can weaken the chassis, it’s important to exercise care during the installation process. A few motorhome chassis are factory-equipped with leveling-jack brackets; in some cases, adapters are available to affix current-model jacks to these brackets. Although a leveling system is by no means an inexpensive investment, it can pay huge dividends in comfort, convenience and safety. That is reflected in the fact that most people who have a leveling system in their current motorhome will insist on having one in their next one. Once you’ve experienced fast, effortless leveling, you’ll never go back!

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