Handling breakdowns

(This article is for sale for use in publications)
Copyright 1996, Franklin Hu

Handling road trip breakdowns
by Franklin Hu

When you think of road trip breakdowns, do you get visions of belching
smoke and gears flying out of the transmission with thousands of
dollars of repairs at the hands of an unscrupulous mechanic?  While it
is certainly possible that this might happen, chances are you won't
have to deal with something this dramatic.  There are many minor
breakdowns that might stop your RV, but won't take a lot of money or
time to fix.  This article describes some of the problems I
encountered during a cross country road trip and how I handled them.
By being prepared, these minor breakdowns don't have to ruin your

My road trip involved traveling 10,000 miles in two months from
Seattle to Orlando in an 18 year old used RV that I had just
purchased.  My RV worked flawlessly for four straight weeks and 3,000
miles from Seattle down the west coast to San Diego and then east to
Louisiana.  Then I had a tire blow out.

This isn't like having a flat tire.  When your tire blows out, it
explodes into tiny little pieces in a fraction of a second.
Fortunately, a rear tire blew out on my RV and because my RV had two
tires on each side of the axle, losing one tire didn't affect the
handling of the RV.  It does however make a huge thump!  thump!
thump!  noise.  It also damage the underside of my RV.  I was able to
safely pull over to the side and use my cell phone to contact a local
campground.  They recommended a local tire repair shop for me to call.

When you're sitting in the middle of a Louisiana bayou with a blown
out tire, a cell phone is worth it's weight in gold.  While I could
have waved someone down to help me, it's just a lot easier to get out
my big Woodall's campground directory and start calling.  The
campground directory lists RV repair shops as well as campgrounds.
The cost of cell phones has dropped dramatically.  I was able to get a
phone from US West that cost $30 to activate the phone plus $25 a
month.  I was also able to return the phone anytime which was great
for me since I only needed the phone for my road trip.  Your local
phone company may offer other similar deals for cell phones.  Having a
cell phone is still costly (I spent nearly $120 total on my phone),
but it can make the difference between having a nerve-wracking
breakdown experience or a calm collected “I'm in control” experience.

Getting your RV repaired on the road can be unnerving since it's hard
enough to find a mechanic you can trust at home.  Getting
recommendations from a local campgrounds is a good start.  I look for
major repair shops like Goodyear or Firestone.  Any repair shop should
be at least ASE certified.  The total bill for emergency road service
and getting a new tire was $170.

After having a tire blow out, I stopped at another repair shop two
days later to have the fan belts replaced.  I knew the belts were old
and cracked so I had them replaced as a precautionary measure.  While
I was stopped, I also had the air conditioner serviced because it
would quit working after 30 minutes.  It cost $70 to replace three
belts and $60 to service the AC.

Further down the road in Florida, my RV unexpectedly lost power.  I
was on a straight and level road, so I was able to pull over safely.
I found that my battery had been automatically disconnected by the
‘Battery Buddy' power protection device I had installed on my battery.
The Battery Buddy is supposed to disconnect the battery from any drain
if it senses that the battery might not have enough power to start the
RV.  I pressed the reset button on the Battery Buddy, and I was
quickly back on the road.  By looking at my gauges, I could see that
the battery wasn't getting charged.  I stopped in the next town to get
the problem fixed.  This time, I went to an RV dealership since I
wanted a mechanic who was familiar with RVs.  The mechanic was very
informal and I couldn't get an estimate of how much it would cost to
fix the problem.  However, he quickly fixed the problem and only
charged me $25.  The reason why the battery wasn't getting charged was
the main alternator wire had shorted out against the exhaust pipe.
This short could have been caused by improperly installing the new fan
belts, so even preventative maintenance has its risks.  Every time you
take your RV for servicing, there is always the chance that they might
break something else.

The RV was trouble free on the westward return trip until I hit the
high desert of New Mexico.  Driving up to Santa Fe, the RV hesitated
badly when going up hills.  It seemed that the more I pressed the gas
pedal, the less power it had.  The RV could barely crawl up hills.
While this wasn't a ‘breakdown', I felt something had to be done since
the rest of my trip involved nothing but driving up hills.  I stopped
in Albuquerque and this time I went to a performance engine
specialist.  After diagnosing the engine, they explained that the high
elevation and engine heat were causing the gas to vaporize in the fuel
line.  This is what is known as ‘vapor lock'.  The solution was to add
an electric fuel pump.  This would be the most costly repair at $75 to
diagnose the engine and $200 to add the fuel pump.  I didn't have to
get this fixed, but I thought it might be dangerous to have the RV
hesitate or stall when climbing hills.  After the new pump was put in,
I was charging up the hills with no problem.

A few days later, the RV wouldn't start in the morning.  Not being too
choosy, I find the nearest mechanic up the street who happens to be a
sixteen year old kid.  He determines that the engine had flooded and
after sticking a few screwdrivers into the carburetor, gets the engine
to start.  For this, he charges only $10 and I'm back on the road.

Finally, near the end of my trip back to Seattle, I glanced down at my
instrument panel.  I noticed that the oil pressure gauge was going up
and down.  At times, it showed nearly zero pressure.  I stopped and
added oil, but the gauge continued to bounce up and down.  I stopped
at the nearest RV repair shop and they diagnosed the problem as a bad
oil pressure sensor.

The mechanic wanted to charge a minimum of $50 for doing the diagnosis
based on their hourly $50 rate although they diagnosed the problem in
half an hour.  So I haggled the price and got them to charge $25 for
the diagnosis.  The total repair bill was $42.  When paying for auto
repairs, the repair shop manager has a fair amount of leeway in what
they can charge.  If something seems like too much - don't be afraid
to question it and haggle the total cost of the repair.

During my cross country trip, I stopped at six repair shops and spent
$652 in repairs.  There was no belching smoke or flying gears, just a
series of easily repaired “garden-variety” problems.  Unless you are
driving a vehicle with less than 30,000 miles, you can expect to have
similar problems.

When planning, you should expect that you'll have some mechanical
difficulty every 3,000 miles when you go on a long trip.  I had three
incidents that stopped my RV (blown tire, engine dies, engine won't
start) during a 10,000 mile trip.  The other three incidents were
optional improvements to the RV (replace belts, add fuel pump, replace
sensor).  It took about five hours to resolve each of these problems,
so you should plan some extra time to handle repairs during your trip.

While my RV had a few more problems than I would have liked, it didn't
ruin my trip.  You should be mentally prepared to handle problems so
that when things go wrong, you won't panic and get stressed out.
Breakdowns are rarely catastrophic and most repair shops are honest
and try to do their best.  Just treat breakdowns as part of your RV
adventure and you'll get through it just fine.