Hi Mark My Words Readers! We’ve got a mixed bag of questions this month: Fridges, roofing, brakes, appliances and double-towing. Have a great spring, and keep those questions coming! Email your questions to [email protected]
We plan to store our fifth-wheel for a month at a campground site with electricity while we assist my mother-in-law. The refrigerator will be empty while we are gone. Is it better to leave the fridge on? The fifth-wheel will be stored in southern Indiana. We will also leave the AC on as well.
If the fridge is empty, might as well shut it off and prop the doors open while you’re gone. They are designed to be turned off and on, and it’s always better to turn off everything you can if you leave the RV for an extended time. Be sure to shut the propane off at the tank before you go, and shut the city water off and turn off your freshwater pump.
I received your name at a boot camp and have a question regarding roofing materials for our 41-foot fifth-wheel (with two AC units, two skylights, a bathroom fan unit, a small solar unit and TV antenna). We are full-timers and have a damaged roof that needs to be replaced. The mobile RV Repair service we contacted has mentioned replacing the OEM roofing material with an upgraded vinyl material that will better resist abrasions and hail, etc. I would appreciate your guidance and/or recommendation. What would be acceptable and upgraded material choices? I assume that there are different qualities in each category and so forth.
I’m unfamiliar with vinyl for roofing materials, and I’m unable to track any such product down. I can only assume that the material they are referring to is an EPDM or TPO rubber membrane.
Typically, RV roofs are either aluminum, fiberglass, or rubber. All have pros and cons. Aluminum is very damage resistant and requires no maintenance, but it is hard to apply to any RV with compound curves or roof crown, so it’s usually only found on small units with flat roofs. Fiberglass is resistant to tears, like from a tree branch, and holds up pretty well, but can be pierced or cracked by falling objects. I don’t see it much anymore on new RVs. Rubber seems to be the industry standard for larger RVs, and if correctly applied, it is a long-lasting and dependable roof, with at least a 20-year lifespan. Rubber membrane is used in commercial roofing and has a long track record. It is impact-resistant, and quiet, but can be easily torn or sliced, so you need to be careful of tree limbs, etc. It also does require some maintenance, mostly washing every year or two to remove tree sap and the white residue that forms as the membrane ages.
There are two types of rubber typically used for RV roofs: EPDM and TPO. TPO is lighter and easier to install, but EPDM is cheaper and lasts longer. Here’s a good discussion of the differences.
I hope that helps!
I consider myself a future full-timer in a fifth-wheel. I read somewhere in a forum that a “must-have” is something that can’t be added later and must be part of the original equipment of the RV. Anything that can be added “after-market” you can leave out of the original purchase and try living without until your experience confirms that it must be added. Considering this, I have a pretty settled conviction that disc brakes are needed. They don’t fade as much on long downhill grades. You get my thought, I’m sure. My only question is whether it is best considered a necessary part of the fifth-wheel’s original equipment or whether it, too, can be something you figure on adding to your rig after experience tells you that it really, truly is better than drum brakes. I write this because I have read that you can convert from drum to discs, but I have no idea of the practicality or cost of it. Is it something to be really avoided or something to be nonchalantly stored away as an idea that you can implement whenever it suits you?
Almost no production fifth-wheels come with disc brakes; most don’t even offer them as an option. However, it is possible to convert later, as several companies offer conversion kits for most standard trailer axles. Bring your Visa card, though, because they are EXPENSIVE! Usually around $700 to $1200 per axle for a complete electric/hydraulic conversion kit, last time I looked. Most of these kits will bolt right up and could probably be installed by most competent shade-tree mechanics.
Check out this kit selection.
Are disc brakes better? You bet! They last longer, are less prone to heat fade and provide more stopping power. Are discs necessary? I’m not so sure. I traveled a lot of miles with my fifth-wheel and got by fine with the standard electric drum brakes. I did keep them in top condition, though, with regular inspection/maintenance/adjustment. On long downhill grades, you’d better be getting most of your braking from engine/gearbox and not riding the brakes anyway! While discs won’t fade as readily as drum brakes, they sure can overheat and either warp, fail or cause a fire or bearing failure. (Because they won’t fade, discs can produce serious heat, way past the temp where drums would be “smoking.”) By the way, most over-the-road commercial trucks and trailers are equipped with — you guessed it — drum brakes. Probably because they will stand up to more abuse. I’d wait till you have the rig and operate with it awhile before you decide, unless you have special use needs, like living on top of a mountain or something.
We always read your column with interest. We have been RVing for 20 years and had a fair number of drive-train failures with the vehicles, but never had an appliance failure. Extended-warranty ads tout the high cost of replacing refrigerators (the most expensive appliance). We wonder if, when an RV refrigerator dies, must it be entirely replaced, or can you replace its components? Do RV appliances have a higher failure rate than those in a house?
Don and Cynthia
Hi Don and Cynthia,
RV fridges do die, and the most common cause is a failed cooling system. Have the refrigerator checked: In some cases, it’s just a switch or a circuit board that fails, and that it’s relatively inexpensive. If the cooling unit has leaked or is stopped up, then you only have two choices: Replace the whole fridge or just the cooling system. If your fridge is in good shape, a cooling system replacement will usually be less than half the cost of a whole fridge. Here’s a website that specializes in replacement cooling systems, just to give you a feel for the prices. Most RV fridges only last 10 to12 years, definitely less than a residential unit! RV water heaters and furnaces have a similar lifespan, in my experience, but are less expensive to replace, requiring hundreds, instead of thousands, of dollars.
We pull a 29-foot fifth-wheel, and we would like to tow a car behind it. I tow a boat behind it with no problem, but I have never seen a car towed behind a fifth-wheel. We would use a tow dolly. We have called our local RV dealer to ask if they knew anything about the laws in regard to this, but they did not know. The same is true of the highway patrol. I was hoping you could tell us something about what is required to tow a car behind a fifth-wheel or where we could find out the information regarding this issue.
There are several issues surrounding towing anything behind your fifth-wheel, often referred to as “double towing” or “triple towing.” The first is legal: Many states enforce a total length limit on vehicles or combos, and it varies quite a bit. Other states do not allow you to tow double without a commercial license with a tandem endorsement. See the links below for more information. It’s always a good idea to review your home state’s laws first. If they don’t allow it, you’re not going anywhere! The second issue is safety-related. Since most trailer frames are not designed with such usage in mind, the frame may not be strong enough to safely tow a car or heavy trailer. Even if the frame is strong enough, towing a car on a dolly or towbar will make it impossible for you to back up at all without unhooking the car and dolly. The additional weight affects your ability to stop and may also exceed the tow vehicle’s gross combined weight rating. The last two could subject you to additional liability should you be involved in an accident and it was determined that the additional weight contributed to the accident. I suspect it’s unlikely that you will be able to safely tow this setup with a light-duty truck. A medium-duty tow vehicle may be needed. I would personally recommend against towing this way. The combination of varying state restrictions, licensing issues, and weight issues make it problematic. However, with proper attention to licensing and safety, it can be done.
Research state-by-state basic towing laws here.