It's been said that the best offense is a good defense, but I don't buy it here. One must be aggressive in terms of preventive care and routine maintenance to keep vehicles running smoothly - and from looking foolish watching your motorhome billow smoke 150 miles outside Albuquerque. Waiting to handle trouble after it comes, dooms us into logging time spent waiting for tow trucks and frantically getting your cell phone to work as traffic blasts by at 75 mph. The best way to keep things nice-nice is to follow the maintenance suggestions listed in your owner's manual to the letter, meaning scheduled visits to your friendly neighbor service center for regular service. Think of it like going to the dentist - the longer you put it off, the more painful it becomes.
Hopefully, embracing a Type A personality when it comes to a strict routine of oil changes, radiator flushes, and engine once-overs will keep you out of trouble. However, vigilance is a full time job, meaning one should always be on the lookout for potential trouble. Consider the much-storied "walk-around" before departing on any sizable trip as your last defense between clear sailing and a buzzing "check engine" light on the dash. Yes, this simply means, well, walking around your RV. Examine the ground for puddles of fluid, grab the tire pressure gage and measure your tires, look underneath the chassis for items that seem out of place - like that giant sucking hole under the living room. This is also a good time to make sure exterior compartments are properly latched, awnings and antennas are retracted, towing connections are secure, and the like.
In a perfect world, an ounce of prevention would always be worth a pound of cure. Of course, most of us aren't whiz mechanics and don't like to spend our Sunday afternoons during football season out checking and changing our RV's fluids. With that in mind, Phase 2 of handling a breakdown is planning for the inevitable - a breakdown. It could be a wobbly wheel, an empty gas tank, or some terrifying noise followed by your tow vehicle's unwillingness to go another foot. If you can keep driving, do so until you find a decent place to beach your rig, like a rest stop, truck stop, or - lucky you - a convention of RV service technicians. Just take it slow, put on your hazard lights, and get there. If the trouble is of the dire looking or smelling variety, it's probably best to find somewhere to pull over and do so fast. Make sure you're as far off the road as possible without tumbling down that ravine. And when the spouse and children look at you with those worrisome expressions, be cool.
Do oncoming traffic a favor by setting up reflector triangles and/or flares (skip it if oil or gas leaks are present) to persuade them to other, safer lanes. Do your family a favor by not getting run over in the process. If you've got that blaze orange vest from your Cousin Al, put it on - or any other reflective clothing. My advice is to have all passengers vacate the RV or tow vehicle and get some distance away in case it's swiped by an oncoming vehicle. Set the hazard lights a blinkin' and keep a couple of lights on in the vehicle to stay visible (but don't drain the battery in the process).
If you spent your childhood learning the basics of auto mechanics from your Mom, maybe you can fix the problem. After all, you've been lugging around that tool box for thousands of miles and have never been afraid to get your hands dirty. In that case, simply fix the thing and get going. However, for most of us, we're overmatched when it comes to all but the most obvious repairs, particularly in the case of changing a motorhome tire that's as big as a fourth grader. It's time to call for backup.
Call the Calvary
Assuming you can't cure what ails you, someone has to come and do the fixin'. Hopefully, you're already the proud owner of a cell phone and a member in good standing of one of numerous roadside assistance programs designed for RVers. One without the other is slightly problematic. For those who decided to skip either service to save a few bucks, your night should be spent either trying to get to a phone, a tow truck, and/or a place to fix your vehicle. You need both a tow truck that can handle your RV and a quality RV service station that won't take demented delight in seeing your trailer towed in to their service bay. If it's late and you're unable to find help, I recommend a non-emergency call (9-1-1 if you're in danger) to the police for assistance, or at least a cab to get a ride into the nearest town.
More easily remedied problems, such as running out of gas or a winding up with a dead battery, can usually be handled by the local service station. RV-specific setbacks - tires, towing, and mechanical maladies - require some advanced assistance, which is again where roadside assistance comes in. A word of caution here. When signing up for such an emergency plan, make sure the company offers nationwide protection and has access to the kinds of heavy-duty tow trucks that can bail out the type of motorhome or trailer you own.
Want to see an unscrupulous mechanic cry for joy? Show up on the lot with your RV pulled behind a tow truck. That's the bad news. The good news is that a reputable roadside assistance company (stop me if you've heard this before) for RVers has screened their network of service stations to avoid such nasty encounters. Again, enrolling in such a program and their 800#, which is home to some answers, offers consumers at least some protection. If you're unsure who to call to get your vehicle fixed, contact your RV's or tow vehicle's manufacturer for a list of quality service centers. You can also check the Yellow Pages, where the display ads may show which dealers sell and service which different brands. Campground directories may also have information about nearby service centers.
Alas, such emergency repairs and unfamiliar repair shops are chancy. You don't exactly have a lot of bargaining power when you're engine is blown. However, we're never powerless. If you feel you're being taken for a ride (and not a fun ride like those at Disney World), buck the trend by calling for a tow truck to take you to another service facility. Yeah, it's a pain, but it's better to be broken down than broken down and ripped off. Otherwise, throw the dice and take your chances - and then never let it happen again.
About the Author:Article written by Brent Peterson for the May 2009 issue of the Camp Club USA e-Newsletter.