Washing the exterior of an RV — especially a large one — can seem like a daunting task, but with the proper planning, products and tools, getting a squeaky-clean home on wheels can be accomplished with minimal effort
Like any big investment, an RV needs proper care and maintenance to keep its value and last for years. Regular washing is one of the best ways to keep it looking new and prevent problems that can dampen any vacation. Getting up close and personal to your travel trailer, fifth-wheel, truck camper or motorhome is a good opportunity to do an inspection and make sure items aren’t loose, and that seams, vents and windows are tightly sealed.
Before you think about how to wash an RV, think about where you plan to do it. At home, you’ll need a lot of water — a steady supply, not just a few bucketfuls — and a place for it to drain. The surface should be level and solid enough to support your weight on a ladder without tilting or sinking into the ground. Many campgrounds don’t allow RV washing with water, so you may need a waterless cleaner. If there’s a shady spot available, grab it. Most cleaners work better on cool surfaces than on sun-warmed ones.
Rather than spreading out cleaning products, brushes and sponges all over the ground or taking multiple trips back and forth to the garage, consider a product like Grit Guard’s Universal Detailing Cart. The 40-inch-high-by-24-inch-wide-by-18-inch-long rolling work station is outfitted with three shelves to keep everything needed at your side. A top-shelf cutout is designed to hold a bucket or the company’s Universal Pad Washer, and the cart’s edges are rounded to keep it from damaging the RV should it accidentally bump into it. The durable thermoplastic cart has multidirectional casters for easy maneuvering.
Next, lay out the cleaning tools. The ones you’d use to wash a tow vehicle will probably do, such as a large bucket, a soft wash mitt, sponges, and several brushes with hard and soft bristles. You’ll also need a long or extendable handle for the brushes so you can reach high up on the sides and across the roof. A car-wash-type brush with a long handle that you can attach to a garden hose for a constant supply of clean water works well. Don’t forget a sturdy ladder, and wear shoes with nonslip soles — there’ll be a lot of soapy, slippery water around.
Use the right cleaner for the particular RV’s surface; if in doubt, check the owner’s manual for recommendations. Painted and coated aluminum finishes can scratch easily. Always check the manufacturer’s instructions for cleaning because the wrong cleaner can damage or strip off decals, and even damage the clear-coating on aluminum trailers like Airstreams. Painted metal can be cleaned using the same products and tools for washing a car. For fiberglass, use a washing product that leaves a coating of wax behind.
Use a lot of water to sluice off the loose dirt and grit, and then go over it again with
a soft-bristled brush or a wash mitt and a nonabrasive cleaner. Unless you’re a pro with a pressure washer, don’t use one. High-pressure water can blow right past gaskets, silicone seals and the overlap of sliding windows. It can also peel decals off with frightening efficiency. Don’t use more pressure than a garden hose with a sprayer can generate, and let a brush do the job of freeing up the dirt.
Take It from the Top
Now it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty. It should go without saying, but it needs to be said anyway: Begin by closing all doors, windows and rooftop vents. Now head for the roof. Besides getting the hard part out of the way early on, a top-down wash means the runoff from the roof won’t stream down the walls you just cleaned. But it will loosen and sluice away some of the dirt on the sides, front and back before you tackle them.
Walking around on top of a wet, soapy RV isn’t the surest path to a long and healthy life, and the roof might not even be designed to bear your weight. Here’s where a stable ladder and a long brush extender pay their way. Climb up and reach across the roof with a brush on a pole, spray water around, loosen the dirt, then rinse well. Apply cleaner and do it all again, scrubbing harder this time. Finally, rinse off the roof with plenty of water.
If there are seals and gaskets that need attention, wait until the roof is absolutely dry before making repairs. If you have a walk-on roof with a ladder built on the RV, carefully walk on the trusses if possible (you’ll feel them), or lay a wide board or two down to distribute your weight across the trusses, front to back, if it makes you feel more comfortable.
All Sides Now
The sides, front and back of the RV can be washed using the brush on a pole. Wet down the surfaces, remove the loose dirt, then rinse. Using the appropriate cleaners and brushes, soap up, brush down and rinse off the sides. With smaller rigs — or taller RVers — you may be able to use a soft wash mitt, but be sure to rinse the loose dirt out of it often. Otherwise, you’re just rubbing dirt, and possibly abrasive sand, onto the surface.
This also means that it’s smart to change the water in the bucket frequently to prevent sediment from getting into the mitt or brush and damaging the side walls. Consider a Grit Guard bucket or insert to keep grit out of the soap solution.
To clean a vinyl awning, use a good awning fabric cleaner and your extendable brush. Heavy stains can usually be removed using a slightly stronger cleaner like Spray Nine or Simple Green. Mildew can be cleaned using a bleach solution. Plan on getting wet when cleaning underneath.
Acrylic and other fabric awnings can dry quickly due to air circulation through the fabric. Sometimes a solution of mild dish detergent and water is all you’ll need, but be sure that the awning is completely dry before retracting it to the stowed position. Spot stains can be cleaned with K2r.
During the spring and summer months, lovebugs swarm the highways and byways in the southeastern United States and the Gulf Coast, just waiting to hurl themselves at RVs and other vehicles. Left to bake in the sun, their acidic body fluids can damage paint, plastic and fiberglass. Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida-based Awesome Products’ Love Bug Eraser simplifies cleanup after a lovebug-filled drive.
The secret to the Love Bug Eraser is the patented fibers that give it the ability to wipe off bugs, dirt, bird droppings, grime and road tar when using it in conjunction with car-wash soap and water. The 9½-by-6-inch pad is reusable and safe for use on metal, chrome, glass, plastic, paint and graphics, according to the company. Since no chemicals are involved, it’s safe for use around children. If no hose is available, the product can be used effectively with a spray bottle of water. When done, just rinse out, dry, and it’s ready for its next use.
Love Bug pads are sold individually, in multiples or as part of a kit, and the company also offers an RV Roof Cleaning Kit. Coming soon is a wheel-and-tire-cleaning kit.
MSRP: $7.99, $15.98/three-pack
Don’t forget to clean the insides of the windows along with the outsides. While you’re cleaning the windows, be sure to examine the rubber seals and gaskets for drying, cracking or tears, and clean and treat them with the appropriate conditioner. Exercise all the windows and emergency exits as well.
Wheels and Tires
RV wheels — whether painted, polished or chrome — can be cleaned the same way as those on the tow vehicle, using the same basic products and techniques. This is also an
opportunity to inspect the tires for cracks, splits and punctures, in addition to wear.
Don’t use any cleaners or protectants on the tires that contain petroleum distillates or ammonia. Tire manufacturers almost universally recommend nothing more than a mild detergent. Shiny black tires might look good, but some products that give the tires that look play havoc with chemicals in the rubber compound designed to protect it from ozone exposure and premature sidewall deterioration.
The dirtiest part of any vehicle is the undercarriage, and it is often the most forgotten. Dirt allowed to collect on these surfaces can lead to rust and decay of the frame and other components.
The frame is steel, and will put up with any cleaner or water spray thrown at it. However, slideout seals, underbelly materials and such are not, and using too much water spray in the wrong way can cause water damage to the RV. The Spray Nine and Simple Green type of cleaners, your extension brush and a hose with a sprayer are most likely adequate for cleaning these areas. If the frame is particularly filthy, careful use of a pressure washer is OK, but stick to the frame unless you’re a pro and really know what you’re doing. Once dried, touch up the frame with a good quality rust-stop spray paint.
It’s much easier to spot potential problems on a clean RV than a dirty one, so take the opportunity of a good wash to examine the exterior for damage, rust spots, wear points and anything else that might turn into a bigger problem later. Check outside storage bins and the inside of entry doors and windows for signs of moisture where it shouldn’t be. Small leaks can cause big damage if left unchecked.
While many companies that make or sell RV products include cleaners and wash tools, the following have an outstanding selection of proven cleaning, washing and protectant products.
Black Streak Remover is a cleaner and degreaser that powers through black streaks, bugs, tar, grease, oil and dirt. Awning Cleaner is formulated to remove mold stains, mildew, tree sap and road grime, and, according to the company, is safe for all awning fabrics. Pro-Tec Cleaner for TPO roofs uses a professional-strength blend of surfactant and conditioners to remove black streaks and road grime and extend the life of the membrane. Pro-Tec RV Rubber Roof Cleaner & Conditioner and UV Shield & Protectant is a two-step process to clean and condition, reduce chalking and protect against UV damage. The 40-Foot Coiled Hose Kit comes with a hose with brass fittings, and self-coils for easy storage. The RV Wash Brush with Adjustable Handle adjusts from 43 to 71 inches long and has an on/off valve for easy water control when attached to a hose. An 11-inch-wide cleaning brush has two types of bristles: one to lift dirt and the other to brush it away.
RV Roof Cleaner removes black streaks, dirt, mold, oxidation and other debris using an environmentally friendly formula that permits use virtually anywhere. RV Roof Sealer is
a professional-strength protectant that leaves a silky, UV-resistant finish and prevents drying, cracking and oxidation. Heavy-Duty Concentrated Cleaner cuts through dirt, grease and grime on a variety of surfaces, and washes away black streaks and bugs without harming decals. The easy-to-use Premium RV Awning Cleaner removes black streaks, bird droppings, mildew, dirt and grime, and adds UV protection to extend the life of the awning.
The Poli Glow Kit has everything needed to clean and maintain fiberglass or gelcoat surfaces. The kit includes a 32-ounce bottle of Poli Prep, a 32-ounce bottle of Poli Glow, a Microfiber Mitt Applicator, a Scrub Pad with Handle and a pair of gloves. Poli Strip Concentrate, a liquid stripper, removes Poli Glow, Vertglas and other fiberglass-restorer products so you can start with a clean surface for the next application of Poli Glow. Use the Mitt Applicator to apply Poli Glow. Poli Ox removes heavy oxidation from light- or dark-colored fiberglass, and can also be used to clean and polish stainless steel, chrome and aluminum.
Star brite has a complete line of cleaning products and tools for cars, boats, power-sports products like motorcycles and ATVs, and, of course, RVs. Premium RV Wash & Wax comes in 16-ounce and gallon sizes, and cleans and shines in one step. Black Streak Remover comes in 22- and 64-ounce and gallon sizes, and removes black streaks from fiberglass, metal and plastic surfaces. Rubber Roof Cleaner is available in 32-ounce or gallon sizes, and is said to be safe for rubber roofs and fiberglass and painted surfaces. The Long Handle Utility Brush reaches into tight spaces to dislodge dirt and debris. The Standard Extending Handle with 8-inch Soft Deluxe Brush is adjustable from 3 to 6 feet and comes with nonslip hand grips. The Microfiber Reggae Wash Mitt can be used for dusting when dry and washing when wet, and is machine washable.
Thetford has a cleaner for almost every job. One is Ultrafoam RV Awning Cleaner with a foaming action that keeps the solution on the awning longer. It removes bird droppings and sunbaked bugs, and its nonbleaching formula won’t discolor fabric. Black Streak & Bug Remover has foaming action that prevents dripping and works on black streaks, baked-on bugs and tough soil stains. It’s safe for fiberglass, aluminum and gelcoat surfaces.
Premium RV Wash & Wax is a wash-and-wax-in-one product that cleans and leaves a protective shine, and won’t harm or fade decals. Premium RV Wax removes oxidation and restores color to dull surfaces. It contains a UV blocker and won’t harm or fade decals.
Rubber Roof Cleaner uses a nonpetroleum formula that removes tough stains from rubber, fiberglass and aluminum roofs, and leaves behind a UV blocker. Protect & Shine contains carnauba wax and is petroleum-free, so it’s safe for rubber roof seals and tires. It leaves no abrasive or greasy residue.
The following companies offer additional products aimed at efficiently cleaning RVs
Cleaners and polishes for metal, fiberglass, plastic and glass, degreasers and water-spot removers.
Cleaners, protectants and tools to clean and maintain the inside and outside of RVs.
Telescoping handles with brushes and squeegees.
Rubber roof cleaning, protectant and repair products.
Zap Bug Remover, wheel cleaners and washing products.
Gel-Gloss RV Wash & Wax
Biodegradable cleaner with carnauba wax for fiberglass, metal and rubber.
Mold and mildew stain remover for awnings, fiberglass reconditioner and compressed sponges that expand when wet.
Cleaners, polishes, waxes and protectants for almost every surface.
Cleaning products, tire and wheel care, wash mitts, nonslip-grip brushes and scratch-free microfiber towels.
Rubber roof care, fiberglass oxidation remover, black-streak cleaner and degreaser, and slideout lube aerosol.
The Reliable 1
Cleaners, polishes, protectants and general cleaning supplies for the exterior and interior
of RVs. Super Spray Cleaner for RV washing removes black streaks, grease, rust and mold without water.
Scrub brushes (with and without handles), sponges, wash mitts, flexible water blades, detailing brushes, microfiber towels, and bug and tar remover.
Voom RV Cleaner
All-purpose concentrated cleaner that is safe for all
surfaces, according to the company. Biodegradable and contains no petroleum distillates. Gold formula produces a UV-resistant film to protect surfaces from oxidation.
Walex Green Hornet
Super-concentrated biodegradable cleaner and degreaser works on RV rubber roofs, awnings and black streaks.