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RV Tech Q&A: January 2016

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

Stabilizer Stability

Q: We recently bought a used 2011 Keystone Montana 35-foot fifth-wheel. Our question is about stabilizing the trailer. After we lower the front feet and rear stabilizers, put the ratchet-style scissor chocks between the tires and place the kingpin on the hitch, the trailer still has a wobble effect, moving back and forth when we walk inside. How can we prevent this from happening? We even tried putting a little too much tension on the back stabilizers.

Jim and Janis McCullough, Buffalo, New York

A: Even with those landing legs and stabilizer jacks deployed, most of the trailer weight is still riding on its suspension and tires, so it’s going to shift around a bit. You can buy various braces that help provide extra fore-and-aft or lateral stiffness for jacks and stabilizers, and these can help a great deal with steadying your trailer when parked. Check out JT’s Strong Arm as one type of trailer-stabilizing product. — Jeff Johnston

Leaking Water Heater

Q: Jim Snider’s “Winterizing Woes” letter in October’s RV Clinic about problems with his trailer’s leaking water heater sparked me to write. Each fall when I winterize my RV, I always bypass the water heater and drain it thoroughly. I have found that water still resides in the bottom of the tank and cannot be drained. I bought a plastic cooking baster and attached a foot-long piece of clear plastic tube. I suck out the remainder of the water and leave the drain plug out for the winter. I then use a paper towel to plug the drain hole, gas-igniter area and other places where spiders may decide to take up winter residence.

Jim Popovich, Mora, New Mexico

A: It never hurts to be thorough, but that last little bit of water in the bottom of the water-heater tank is far less critical than leaving any water in the lines or fittings. Inside enclosed plumbing, when the water freezes and expands, it has nowhere to go and can burst a line, for example. The bottom of the water-heater tank is bowl shaped, or more accurately, cylindrical, with the wider convex side “up.” If any residual water freezes, it simply expands up into the open air space in the tank because there’s nothing to bind or trap it in place. Your suggestion about removing the last of the water is a sound idea, though, and may help some readers who wish to do just that. — J.J.

WD Hitch Application

Q: I’m considering buying another trailer and need clarification on how a weight-distributing (WD) hitch may affect the allowable hitch weight in relation to the tow vehicle’s hitch capacity. My Tahoe has a 1,000-pound-capacity receiver and a 3:42 rear end. It has an 8,500-pound towing capacity. The 30-foot trailer has 6,400 pounds dry weight and an 8,835-pound gross vehicle weight rating (gvwr), and has a stated 835-pound hitch dry weight. With front storage and LP-gas cylinders, it wouldn’t take much to reach and exceed the 1,000-pound hitch rating. Two dealers told me that the WD hitch will compensate and spread the load, and that it would be OK. But I have read in Trailer Life that “hitch weight is hitch weight” and should not be exceeded. Can I safely exceed the hitch weight if using a WD hitch, and if so, what would a safe guideline be?

Niles Toole, North Augusta, South Carolina

A: You are correct, Niles. A WD hitch doesn’t allow you to exceed any manufacturers’ towing-related specifications, including hitch weight, tow rating, gvwr or gross combined weight rating (gcwr). The WD hitch helps distribute the weight between the tow vehicle’s front and rear axles, but the weight is still there. That 835-pound “dry” or fantasy hitch weight will rack up in a hurry, as you fill the LP-gas cylinders, add cargo and, depending on the location of the tank, fresh water to the trailer. I’d also keep an eye on your trailer’s weight, as that, too, adds up. Take the trailer to a certified public scale to learn its real-world weights and go from there. — J.J.

End Caps Revisited

November’s RV Clinic letters about prematurely faded and discolored Keystone end caps brought in a lot of reader comments about similar problems and other end-cap issues. Here are four of them. — J.J.

I don’t think the problem is oxidation. My son is going through the same thing with his Jayco. The end-cap has dull blotches in several places, and the dealer can’t seem to resolve the issue. My guess is that the RV manufacturers are all in the same general geographical area, and they all use the same vendor to manufacturer the end caps. I am familiar with the fiberglass and gelcoat process, and would bet that the problem is with the equipment used to apply the gelcoat to the mold. When the gelcoat is sprayed, there is a catalyst (MEKP) mixed with it at the spray gun. If the mix is not right at the gun, the end result will be small craters or dull areas in the finish. I suggest that the vendor consult with his spray equipment supplier to resolve the problem.

Bill Land, Garland, Texas

I bought a new Sydney Outback by Keystone in 2013. The front cap began to fade within several months of ownership. Not only do I always wax my RVs, I also store them indoors. I contacted a local body shop and was told the fading is a result of improper primer on the fiberglass. This information comes from the manager of a body shop that has been in business well over 25 years. I took my RV to the dealer, and the company repainted the front. Since the three letters were written by owners of 2013 and 2014 Keystone products, I contend that this is not an oxidation problem caused by weathering or improper care.

Ken Baker, Greencastle, Pennsylvania

I had the same problem with my 2012 Keystone Outback and tried everything to correct it. Finally, on my second trip to the dealer, I was told that it was a paint problem. The dealer advised me to take three pictures, and they would contact Keystone and let me know the outcome. Within two weeks, Keystone acknowledged the problem and offered to have my front cap repainted at no cost. That was done, along with placing new decals. Thank you, Keystone, for taking care of your customers.

W.H. Krizmanich, Columbia, Maryland

Thank you for the information about the gelcoat chemicals, guys. Some manufacturers use outside vendors, and others have in-house fiberglass facilities, and chemical problems can happen in either example. — J.J.

End-Cap Cracking

Q: Our 1995 Skyline Nomad fifth-wheel end cap has been cracking along the sides for a number of years. A little caulk kept them under control, but now we have a large crack down the middle, starting at the roof and proceeding down the center. We lived in Minnesota at the time, and the local RV dealer said it was due to contraction during the cold winters. We have moved to Sioux Falls, South Dakota (a little warmer), but still have concerns. My research indicates the material is ABS, so I have applied Rhino glue to the 30-inch crack, which held this summer with limited use. Next summer we are heading back to Alaska for the seventh trip with this trailer. Any suggestions? After having a wet bed, which caused us to discover the crack, I covered the crack with white duct tape, which got us home from Alaska with no problems.

Don Patrick, Sioux Falls, South Dakota

A: Don, the cracks occurring on your 20-year-old trailer seem like what can happen with almost any fiberglass component on an RV. Fiberglass is a wonderfully useful material for RVs, but it’s somewhat brittle. As an RV frame flexes, it places stress on the fastening points on a fiberglass component, and sooner or later, stress cracks start to appear near those fasteners. The fact that your 20-year-old trailer is starting to show these cracks seems like a pretty reasonable lifespan for the product. A shop qualified to work on fiberglass would be the best place to have this repaired, as it involves filling and refinishing the cracked areas. This type of repair won’t make the source of those cracks go away, but it will get your end cap looking good again for the duration. — J.J.

Step-Down Electrical Adapters

Q: While browsing through my favorite RV-accessory store, I was surprised to note that on the shelf was an electrical adapter to step down from a 50-amp outlet to a 30-amp outlet, and then another electrical adapter was available to step down from a 30-amp outlet to a 20-amp or 15-amp outlet. If we choose to operate one or two 1,500-watt electrical heaters from a hardware store on an extension cord to take the chill off, as my wife and I occasionally do while camping, we are only actually protected by a 50-amp circuit breaker. Not a good electrical practice?

Oscar Wiltse, Flowery Branch, Georgia

A: This type of step-down-adapter string works two ways. If you start with a campground power pole with a 50-amp receptacle and use step-down adapters to eventually run a 15-amp extension cord to your RV, then yes, you’re powered through a 50-amp circuit breaker. However, you can run only as many appliances as you can normally power from a 15-amp connection because that’s what you are ultimately using to connect to the shore-power supply.

If, on the other hand, your RV has a 50-amp power cord and you’re using the step-down adapters to connect your RV to a 15-amp outlet, then you’re routing power through the 15-amp circuit breaker. As with the previous scenario, you can run appliances only up to that 15-amp supply line and circuit-breaker capacity. That pair of 1,500-watt heaters, if operated on High, would seriously overload a 15-amp circuit. Stay plugged in to 30-amp or higher service, without the 30- to 15-adapter, and you’ll be fine. — J.J.

Selecting an RV

Q: My wife and I have retired and intend to sell our home and buy an RV for travel. For several years, we have subscribed to both MotorHome and Trailer Life. We would really prefer a fifth-wheel trailer, but due to our age, we are concerned about the three steps up to the bedroom area. We have been researching higher-end trailers but are unable to find any that are generator-ready and equipped with instant hot water. Are you aware of any manufacturers that provide these options? We would appreciate any assistance you can offer.

Rick and Mary Day, Washoe Valley, Nevada

A: If you are concerned about the steps up, you are probably better off with a flat-floor travel trailer or perhaps a motorhome. If you go with a fifth-wheel trailer, since you have to tow it with a pickup truck or flatbed, consider mounting a generator just behind the cab. Many owners do this. It isolates the noise and vibration from the trailer, and you don’t lose storage space. If you insist on having a built-in genset, any good RV shop should be able to set one up, if you can’t get the manufacturer to build one in. Many fifth-wheels are available with a generator-prep option, but it’s not commonly ordered, so you may need to look pretty deep to find it on a specification chart.

Several brands of instant water heaters are designed just for RVs. The Truma AquaGo is receiving some very good reviews. These water heaters fit in the same space as traditional tanks, so a dealer should not have a problem installing one for you.

Don’t let a lack of these features be a deal breaker. If the trailer you want is not offered with these options, many manufacturers and dealers are flexible about components when they want to make a sale. — Ken Freund

Battery Draws Down

Q: We have a 2011 Forest River Surveyor Sport 186 trailer. It comes with one 12-volt battery. By the third day dry camping, I have only one light showing on the battery monitor with not a whole lot of juice left. It’s a new RV/marine battery. I have one small light on the refrigerator, one on the gas detector and one on the stereo, even when it’s off. I don’t even use the lights in the trailer for fear of wearing the battery down. There seems to be a fan that keeps going on and off all the time — not sure if it’s from the refrigerator or the converter. My power converter is a Cheng model WF-8955EC. Does the trailer need two batteries, or is there a possible problem? When running the small generator I have with 9-amp output, can I hook up directly from the 120-volt AC power-cord plug to the generator or use the battery clips and put them on my battery, or do I need to bring a battery charger with me?

Tom Grimm, Warrenton, Oregon

A: Your trailer has a lot more power draws than you realize, and to get three days of dry camping from one charge on one battery is actually quite good. Keep in mind that it is not good for conventional lead-acid batteries to be drawn down to less than 50 percent charge. If you are presently drawing your battery down deeper than that, you may need to add a second battery, or you may consider charging it more often or adding solar panels.

If you decide to add a second battery, the existing battery should be replaced at the same time. If they aren’t replaced in pairs, you may find that, as the older one weakens with age, it may start to “cannibalize” the stronger, newer one, drawing power from it when the two are connected in parallel. Some owners install a battery-selector switch (such as the ones from Perko) so they can use one battery at a time and isolate them.

You can plug your trailer into the generator, provided you don’t have a total power draw higher than 9 amps. However, the power converter will likely take longer to fully charge the battery than a separate battery charger. Connecting the battery-charging clips generally provides an unregulated charging rate and is not an efficient way to charge your battery. — K.F.

Tow-Rating Question

Q: My wife and I have a Coachmen Freedom Express 246RKS that weighs 4,806 pounds dry. We started out pulling it with a 2008 Dodge Dakota with the 4.7-liter V-8 five-speed automatic transmission with 3:92 gears, with a tow rating of 7,050 pounds. Everything was fine until we decided to go to Branson, Missouri. Going up some of the steep grades, the transmission overheated. So, on returning home, we bought a new 2015 Ram 1500 with the Hemi engine, six-speed transmission and 3:92 gears, with a tow rating of 10,360 pounds. Can we safely go to a larger trailer in the 5,500- to 6,000-pound dry-weight range? We usually carry around 500 pounds of equipment or less with us. I also use a weight-distributing hitch.

Robert Templeton, via email

A: Your present truck should handle your trailer fine. However, I highly recommend that you refrain from using dry weights when figuring tow ratings and capacities. These weights don’t exist in the real world and only get people in trouble by encouraging overloading. Instead, use the trailer’s gross vehicle weight rating (gvwr) as the actual weight, until you have weighed your fully loaded trailer on a truck scale (which everyone should do). I also recommend installing a transmission fluid temperature gauge, which could have saved you a transmission, and therefore a tow vehicle.

As a final suggestion, be sure you manually shift from Overdrive (OD) to Drive (D) when you’re towing on grades. If you leave the transmission in OD, it’s going to be “hunting” back and forth to the lower gears when climbing. That hunting can lead to transmission overheating, and shifting to D helps eliminate that problem.  — K.F.

Trailer Life Tech Team

KEN FREUND: Ken is a former ASE Certified Master Technician, service manager and shop owner who has authored numerous books on automotive repair.

JEFF JOHNSTON: Jeff served as technical director of Trailer Life for 20 years and has been an RV enthusiast, mechanic and writer since he could hold a wrench.

RV Clinic from January 2016 Trailer Life

See Related Story:
RV Clinic FAQ:
Top 20 Tech Questions

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