Approx. 2 years ago, our family went from owning our own house to being houseless – we sold our sticks and bricks and bought a toy hauler to call home while we travel the country. In the past few weeks, we have gone from being houseless but with a home (our toy hauler), to being homeless. Our 5th wheel has suffered frame failure. And it’s not just our frame that is experiencing failure, I believe that there is a failure of the RV community to realize that this is a problem that happens to 5th wheels all too commonly (and a few other rvs too!).
So, are you sitting down? Because I’m writing you a book here about our experience…
We had never heard of frame failure before having to deal with it ourselves – after all, something like that couldn’t happen to our beastly rig – these hunks of wood and metal are designed to withstand the rigors of use and the tumult of being hauled down the highway at 60 miles per hour. Aren’t they? I’m beginning to wonder. The more that I research frame failure, the more I’m beginning to wonder if the manufacturers don’t just want us to use our rvs as driveway ornaments, at least long enough to get past the one year warranty. And now that I think about it, why is the frame warranty only for ONE year on most rvs??? As the backbone of the rv, shouldn’t they be built hefty enough that the manufacturers would feel confident enough in the quality of their product to offer a more appropriate warranty???
For the record, our 5th wheel was an EnduraMax 40Max – a 40 foot toy hauler built by Gulf Stream on top of a Lippert frame. For some of you, that will tell the whole story. If not, and you are a bit intrigued, you may want to head over to the rv.net forum and do a search on ‘lippert frames’ or ‘frame cracks’ or ‘frame failure’; it’s quite enlightening – sometimes amusing – often maddening – with the threads usually ending up being closed as the comments come to blows over the issue of blame… As for our EnduraMax, we actually chose this toy hauler because we thought that it was a ‘higher end’ trailer (at least as much as was in our budget), which we hoped would mean fewer problems in the long run.
We were happy with our 5er, for the most part – it had a few issues, as I think all rvs do. But a few weeks ago, when we were hitching up to leave a campground, my hubby noticed that the 5th wheel was sitting a little lower on the truck than it used to – there seemed to be less clearance between the 5th wheel and the truck bed. It seemed solid, and we were nowhere near any sort of dealership or repair shop, so we drove home stopping a few times to check on it; it really didn’t seem structural or dangerous. When we arrived back home, he took the cover off the underside of the 5er around the pin. And found a mess. Each of the 4 corners was cracked, and there was also a 3 to 4 inch crack in the tube steel just to the right front of the pin. The frame had completely separated from the walls of the upstairs of the 5th wheel, and the floor was flexing with the weight of the 5er. The cracks themselves really didn’t look so bad until he placed the trailer back on the truck – the weight of the trailer forced the cracks and tears in the tube metal to open up as the floor of the master bedroom was raised on the hitch and the rest of the 5er was settling with the weight of itself.
Wow! Made him wonder what else was happening, so Vaughn (hubby) pulled off all the panels that cover the bottom of the length of the trailer and found a crossbeam that had become separated on both sides; it was located between the first and second axle of the toy hauler – right where the weight distribution would change. If you are unfamiliar with toy haulers, they carry all their weight between the pin and the first axle – the kitchen, bath, all water/waste tanks, propane, slides…
At this point, we really didn’t know what to do – this was obviously out of our league, so we called Gulf Stream. We had discovered online that this certainly wasn’t the first time one of their trailers had experienced frame failure. Surely they could help us. After talking with John Bruhn at Gulf Stream both over the phone and through emails, sending pics of all the problem areas as he asked us to, we got an email back saying (basically) ‘try ___ shop, they should be qualified to fix your trailer’.
During this time, we were also working with an area welder who works on a lot of big trailers – everything from large horse trailers to rvs to lowboys and reefers. The welder was kind enough to come out and look at the trailer. What he had to say certainly wasn’t very encouraging – the gist of it being that he could fix it but without some redesigning (an engineered fix) it would just happen again – in his opinion the frame was underbuilt for the size and weight of the trailer they built upon it. After talking with the welder, we wrote back Mr. Bruhn and told him (nicely) that we thought that Gulf Stream should take care of the fix since we felt that frame was inadequate for the trailer. That was over 2 weeks ago, and our repeated emails and telephone calls have gone unanswered. Not a peep. I even emailed Randy Baskerville, Jerry Sell, and Steve Jacobs, all executives at G.S. and Phil Sarvari, the Exec. V.P. Not even a single ‘we’ll look into it’ courtesy brush-off email have we received in reply.
We were also trying to get Lippert, the frame manufacturer to work with us. Same deal there. ‘Send us pics and we’ll see what we can do’. Sent off the pics, and once we mentioned that we felt they should help us fix it, we were left hanging with a dial tone. We asked them for engineered fixes for the frame (this happens enough they should have them – unless there is no fix that really works!?!) and the welder has also tried to talk with them about the best way to repair the frame. Again, not a sound back.
What is with the Ignore Button when it comes to customer service these days???
The welder did say that we could pull it to his shop without danger, so we hitched up after 2 weeks of trying to work with Gulf Stream and Lippert. We pulled it into town and stopped for a second opinion at the largest rv dealership in the area. They have an extensive (for around here anyway) repair shop, and we wanted them to look at it since the welder was planning on having them remove and replace the nose cap and do the interior repair (remember that flexing floor? – loosened the front wall, sheered the screws holding the nightstands, and who knows what else…). They took one look at the frame around the pin and said that it would be impossible to permanently repair it (which is how we felt after talking with the welder some more and why we wanted a second opinion). In fact, they had never seen anything like it and ran all their guys out to take a look… The best they could suggest was that maybe the manufacturer could fix it back at the factory, but they would certainly have to pull of sidewalls and then we would have delaminating issues on top of everything else (oh, and it would have to be hauled back there on a semi trailer – cha-ching!).
The past month, with the whole frame failure fiasco, has been quite a ride. We now find that our toy hauler is unfixable – and undrivable (at least not safely). What we thought was taking it in for a 2 week repair job has turned into a permanent parting. It is currently in a storage lot at the dealership and we are staying with family.
My purpose in sharing all this is because the public deserves to be informed. We wish that we had known about this before we bought our trailer. Would it have influenced our decision? I can’t say for sure, but it very well might have influenced us to go with a manufacturer that uses a different frame maker, and had we looked into Gulf Stream’s customer service reputation a little more thoroughly, that may have convinced us to go with a different rig also. We had never heard of frame failure – we just always figured that the manufacturers would have at least safety in mind when building these big beasts. And certainly they would stand by their product, right?
We feel that being informed is the best way to protect ourselves and others from having to deal with issues like this. Our toy hauler still looks great from the outside. We would never have known there was a problem except for the clearance difference – until it came apart doing 60 on the interstate…and then it would affect a lot more than our traveling accommodations! Would the people following us have been able to dodge the 40 feet of 5th wheel laying across several lanes of traffic? Our sidewalls have no cracks to alert us to the lurking disaster, the pin box is secure and one would never guess it is shoving the floor up in the bedroom from the outside; as for the loosening of the front wall, I attributed it to my leaning against it while I blogged in bed :). (diet time? LOL!) Too often we figure if we can’t see a problem, then all is good. But, with what we are going through, it makes us wonder how many other rvs out there are experiencing the same issue but just haven’t realized it yet. We wonder if it could have been fixed by reinforcement before it got so bad. Taking off the panel around the pin and along the bottom of your rig to check frame corners and welds isn’t generally considered routine maintenance, but maybe it should be. Just something to ponder…
That is how we have found ourselves homeless; our 2008 toy hauler has been condemned to the salvage yard. And while I realize that our rv is out of warranty, this isn’t just a failed furnace or a water leak or a slide needing adjustment.
I find myself torn; I’m not big on gov. regulations, but if the rv manufacturers won’t hold themselves up to a certain level of safety standards, maybe someone needs to step in and do it for them. Would it really add a large cost onto each rv to have frames engineered to stand up to the size and weight of the trailer that they are building on it? Would it really add that much cost if the welds were thorough instead of sloppy? Would it add that much cost if the rvs were built to withstand being hauled/driven down the road instead of with the intent of decorating the driveway? And wouldn’t that minor additional cost to get a safe and solid structure be worth it in the long run? What do you think???