RV Plumbing Tips – Cleaning RV Faucets, Sink Drains & Shower Wands

The effects of hard water on RV sinks, faucets and drains can be an ongoing problem for RVers. This page describes a few tips for how we remove these pesky mineral deposit buildups from our bathroom and kitchen sinks in our fifth wheel trailer and keep the water flowing smoothly in our shower wand and RV toilet rinse sprayer.

RV plumbing tips for cleaning RV faucets and drains and removing mineral deposits

RV plumbing tips for removing mineral deposits and cleaning RV faucets and drains.

We like the water to flow freely in our RV vanity sink faucet, kitchen sink faucet and in the shower and RV toilet sprayer wands, however, periodically these faucets begin to spray water in weird directions because their inner workings have gotten clogged up by mineral deposits from the hard water.

In our bathroom vanity, our first step is to remove and clean the screen filter in the faucet. Sometimes the faucet tip can be unscrewed by hand, but if we’ve let it go too long, we have to use a pair of pliers to break the faucet tip free due to corrosion that makes it impossible to unscrew.

Remove RV faucet screen with pliers

Remove the RV faucet screen (with pliers if it’s stuck!)

Then we unscrew the entire screen assembly from the faucet.

Disassemble RV faucet

The faucet tip unscrews from the faucet.

Dirty RV faucet screen

Ugh… the screen is pretty dirty. No wonder the water comes out funny!

This time the screen was very corroded. We remove the corrosion and mineral buildup by putting all the pieces in a bath of white vinegar for 20-30 minutes or so.

Prior to putting the pieces in the white vinegar bath, it is a good idea to make note of the order that these parts go into the faucet assembly!

Soak RV faucet parts in white vinegar

After noting how the pieces go together, soak them in white vinegar.

After the bath, the bits of corrosion can be seen in the white vinegar!

RV faucet parts get cleaned with white vinegar

Here are all the pieces. You can see the dirt that came off in the vinegar bath!

Using an old toothbrush, we scrub each piece until it is clean.

Use toothbrush to clean RV faucet screen

Use a toothbrush to get the screen totally clean.

RV faucet cleaning with toothbrush and white vinegar

Scrub all the parts with the toothbrush.

Then we reassemble the pieces in the correct order and orientation.

Reassemble RV faucet after cleaning 2

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Reassemble RV faucet after cleaning 1

Reassemble the pieces.

Put RV faucet together after cleaning it 2

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Put RV faucet together after cleaning it

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To make it easier to remove the faucet tip the next time we do this job, it helps to grease the threads with a marine PTEF lubricant prior to screwing the assembly back onto the faucet.

Lubricate RV faucet with PTEF lubricant grease

Lubricating the threads makes it easier to unscrew next time!

Lubricate RV faucet after cleaning

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Reassemble RV faucet

Screw it back into the faucet.

RV faucet cleaned and lubricated

Ta da! Now the flow will be smooth and full.

Our trailer has white plastic sinks in the bathroom and kitchen, and these sinks often develop a skanky brown ring around the sink drain. For years, we relied on Comet to clean these sinks. We sprinkled it on the entire sink, let it sit for a bit, and then scrubbed.

We recently discovered that Baking Soda is just as effective!! The fantastic thing about Baking Soda is that it is non-toxic. This is wonderful not only for our gray water holding tanks but also for the RV dump stations as well as the septic fields and municipal waste water treatment systems that are downstream from them.

It’s also really cheap!

Tips for cleaning an RV sink drain

White plastic RV sinks are prone to getting ugly stains.

Dirty RV sink drain

Yuck!

We simply sprinkle it on the sink and then scrub the sink with a damp Scotch-Brite scrubbing pad.

RV sink drain cleaning with baking soda

Sprinkle the baking soda in the sink and scrub the stains with a damp scrubby pad.

What a great result — a wonderfully squeaky clean sink!

RV sink drain is sparkling clean

Sparkling!

The drain plug also gets gummy, and we use an old toothbrush to scrub it clean with either baking soda and/or Murphy’s Oil Soap (a handy all around biodegradable cleanser).

In an RV that is used for dry camping a lot, like ours, the bathroom vanity sink drain can get really gross really quickly because in an effort to conserve fresh water not much clean water gets flushed down the drain.

This can result in foul odors in the sink drain, and it’s pretty unsightly too.

So, we do two things.

First, we scrub the inside of the bathroom sink drain with an old toothbrush. To get a longer reach down the drain, we taped our toothbrush to an old tent stake we had lying around. Anything long and narrow will work.

Toothbrush and extension rod to clean RV sink drain

Tape an old toothbrush to a long stick to reach deep down the RV sink drain.

Cleaning an RV sink drain

Scrub inside the sink drain.

We also scrub the sink drain plug.

Second, to keep the RV bathroom sink drain fresh smelling, we use Happy Camper Holding Tank Treatment which we’ve found is a particularly good deodorizer. We put scoop of powder in an old water bottle, fill it up with water and shake it well (the bottle gets warm as the enzymes get activated!), and then pour it down the drain.

Most of it goes into the gray water tank, but a small amount stays in the bathroom sink drain p-trap and does its magic there, killing off the offensive odors.

Use toothbrush to scrub RV sink drain plut

Scrub the sink drain plug with a toothbrush.

To keep our RV shower in tip-top shape, we clean the drain there as well. The biggest problem in our RV shower drain isn’t foul odors, because the shower drain gets flushed with lots of water everyday. Instead, the challenge with the RV shower drain is accumulated hair.

In a house, it’s easy enough to use a powerful cleanser like Drano to clean out any clogs caused by hair, but we don’t want strong chemicals like that sitting in our gray wastewater holding tank. Afterall, we want the enzymes and bacteria in the Happy Camper and Unique RV Digest-It holding tank treatment products we use to thrive and go to work breaking things down!

So, we use a long spring hook (and flashlight) to pull the hair out. It just takes a few minutes and then the drain is clear.

Some RV shower stalls may have drain components that can be removed for cleaning. Ours doesn’t.

Cleaning hair from an RV shower drain

Use a spring hook to pull hair out of the RV shower drain.

Periodically, the RV shower wand gets crudded up with mineral deposits just like our RV sink faucets do. Again, we rely on white vinegar to clean up the deposits clogging the spray holes in the shower nozzle.

First, we pour the white vinegar through the shower wand to let it soak from the inside.

Tips for cleaning an RV shower wand

The RV shower wand can be cleaned with white vinegar.

Then we soak the shower wand’s face in a bath of white vinegar.

Tips for cleaning an RV shower wand

Put the RV shower wand face down in a white vinegar bath to clean all the little holes.

If we’ve let a little too much time pass, we’ll also use a toothpick to clean out each hole in the shower head. We use bamboo toothpicks because they hold up well in water. Ordinary wooden toothpicks tend to disintegrate when they get wet. A scribe also works well.

The before-and-after difference in the flow of water through the shower wand is startling. When half of the little holes are blocked from mineral deposits and the other half have an impeded flow, the water can feel like needles on your skin. After cleaning the wand, it is more like a waterfall.

Clean each hole in an RV shower wand with a toothpick or scribe

Use a toothpick or scribe to clean each hole in the shower wand.

Lots of RVers love the Oxygenics RV shower head. We don’t use it because it doesn’t work well with the low water pressure we use to conserve water since we dry camp every night, but for RVers who get water hookups a lot, these shower heads are extremely popular. Of course, in hard water areas, these shower heads will need periodic cleaning as well.

The RV toilet bowl rinsing wand is also subject to corrosion from mineral deposits, and after a while when we go to rinse the toilet bowl we find the water flow from the sprayer is restricted and funky.

RV toilet sprayer wand cleaning

The RV toilet sprayer wand gets clogged with minerals too.

Again, it’s easy to unscrew the end of the toilet spay wand, put it in a white vinegar for 20-30 minutes, scrub it a bit with a toothbrush, and then put it back on the wand.

RV toilet rinse wand cleaning

Unscrew the tip of the toilet rinsing wand and soak it in white vinegar to clean the holes.

As an aside, if you have energy leftover after cleaning all your RV sinks, faucets, drains and spray nozzles, a spray bottle filled with a water and white vinegar mixture is super for washing the windows. As I wrote this, some flies got in our trailer and Mark started spraying them when they landed on the window next to him using a spray bottle filled with water and white vinegar. Besides slowing them down and killing them, he was really impressed with how clean the window was when he finished!

So, these are a few of the things we do to keep our sinks and drains flowing smoothly in our life on the road in our RV.

We hope they help you too!

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B&W Companion Hitch Performance in a Fifth Wheel Trailer Rollover Accident

The April 2017 issue of Trailer Life magazine featured our article on the new Companion OEM fifth wheel hitch from B&W Trailer Hitches. Ironically, just as that issue came out, a reader emailed us the harrowing tale of his recent fifth wheel trailer rollover accident.

Trailer Life Magazine Latch and Release B&W Companion OEM Fifth Wheel Hitch article

Trailer Life Magazine, April 2017.
Text and photos by Emily Fagan.
Installation by Mark Fagan and Mark Graika.

Like most RVers, we installed our hitch without giving much thought to rollover accidents, and we have been very happy with it.

The B&W Companion OEM fifth wheel hitch is special because it is designed to fit into the new puck sytems that the diesel truck manufacturers are now making available in the beds of their pickup trucks.

This makes it easy to install the hitch in the truck without having to take the truck to a shop.

Mark was able to install it in our truck with a friend’s help in about an hour, using minimal tools, and that included opening the boxes and reading the instructions. A step-by-step guide for how to install the B&W Companion OEM hitch are at this link:

B&W Companion OEM Hitch Installation Guide

The other fabulous thing about the B&W Companion OEM hitch is that not only is it easy to install but it is easy to remove from the truck.

Anytime you want to use the bed of your truck to haul something big like lumber, fire wood or furniture, it is a very straight forward process to take the hitch out of the truck.

The best part is that there are no hitch rails in the bed of the truck, so once the hitch is removed, the bed of the truck is totally flat.

These features are not part of the design of conventional fifth wheel hitches, like the conventional rails-based B&W Companion hitch (not an “OEM” model), so it’s a worthwhile to consider buying a truck with the optional puck system on it if you are considering buying a late model diesel truck.

When buying a truck/trailer combination, not only are the quality of the truck and trailer important, but the hitch is really important too, and not just for its ability to tow a heavy load…

We were shocked when full-time RVers Mark and Doran Gipson sent us photos of their terrifying rollover accident with their fifth wheel. They were towing their home, a 2007 32′ Hitchhiker Discover America fifth wheel, with a 2008 Dodge Ram 2500, and they were hitched together with B&W Companion hitch.

While driving at 60 mph on I-10 outside in El Paso in February, two very inconsiderate drivers suddenly cut them off in a series of swerves right in front of them.

Here is Mark’s description of what happened:

“We were going 60 mph and were cut off by two vehicles who decided to not exit on loop 375. They dove back into our lane within 2 car lengths. With no time to brake, I swerved to the inside lane only to have the second vehicle also move into that lane as well. I lost the trailer when I swerved back to miss the concrete median.”

The result was that the trailer went over on the driver’s side at 60 mph, slid 150 feet and hit its roof on the concrete median.

Hitchhiker trailer wheel trailer RV rollover accident

The Hitchhiker fifth wheel hit the pavement at 60 mph and slid 150 feet.
Most trailers would have splintered on impact.

Fortunately, as the trailer went over on its side, the B&W hitch — which comes in two pieces: a base on the bottom and a coupler on the top — separated in two. The coupler stayed attached to the trailer’s king pin as the trailer toppled over while the base stayed in the bed of the truck, allowing the truck to remain upright.

Hitchhiker fifith wheel trailer rollover accident with B&W fifth wheel hitch coupler still attached

The upper half of the fifth wheel hitch — the coupler — remained attached to the trailer
as it rolled over on the driver’s side.

So, while Mark and Doran came to a skidding stop in their truck, sitting upright in their seats, the trailer rolled over, detached and slid to a stop on its side.

Truck damage from fifth wheel trailer rollover accident

As the trailer went over, the fifth wheel overhang crushed the driver’s side of the truck bed.

If the truck had rolled over too, Mark and Doran could have easily been very badly injured or even killed. However, because the truck stayed upright, they walked away unscathed. Thank heavens!!

With the truck badly damaged and the trailer on its side on I-10, Mark called for help and a wrecking crew arrived. As he wrote to me:

“The wrecker driver came with two trucks and a trailer because he had not gotten to a 5th wheel rollover without the truck also on its side and the trailer in pieces. He said that it would collapse when he tried to pick it up. But he put it on its wheels and towed it to his shop and still can’t believe how well built it was.

“Things were tumbled around inside but we virtually lost none of our possessions.”

Fifth wheel trailer damage from RV rollover accident with Hitchhiker 5th wheel trailer

The wrecking crew righted the trailer and were amazed that it stood up just fine on its own wheels.
The damage to the trailer was cosmetic except for a roof rafter.

“We tested the slides and everything worked. The major damage was cosmetic on the side that slid and possibly a broken roof rafter where the AC unit came against the concrete barrier. Though everything was scrambled inside, nothing was broken. We lost almost nothing of our possessions including TV and computers.”

My husband Mark and I saw a trailer accident on the highway once, and the entire trailer was in splinters. That is what usually happens in trailer accidents and that’s why the wrecker driver arrived at the accident scene prepared to pick up a million pieces off the highway.

Hitchhiker fifth wheel trailer sustained little damage in 5th wheel trailer rollover accident

The wrecking crew expected the trailer to fall apart when it was righted, but it stood right up.
They towed it away on its own wheels just fine.

It is quite a testament to the way the Hitchhiker Discover America trailers were built that one could fall over on its side at 60 mph and still be intact with the slide-out mechanisms still functioning and only cosmetic damage on the side that skidded on the asphalt.

Unfortunately, Hitchhiker (NuWa Industries) stopped building fifth wheel trailers in 2013, but used models of all ages can still be found. Our blog posts from our visits to NuWa in Chanute, Kansas, can be found at the following links:

B&W Trailer Hitches is located just a few miles away from the NuWa plant (NuWa is now called Kansas RV Center) in Humboldt, Kansas, and we enjoyed a wonderful factory tour and a unique American heartland small town celebration that was sponsored in part by B&W Trailer Hitches two years ago (blog post here).

For Mark and Doran, the key to their truck staying upright during their rollover accident was the way the pivot arm on the base of the B&W Companion hitch bent sideways and let the coupler break free as the trailer toppled over.

Bent pivot arm on B&W fifth wheel hitch after 5th wheel trailer rollover accident

Looking forward towards the cab of the truck, the pivot arm on the driver’s side bent outwards allowing the coupler to break free (with some small broken parts inside) while the entire hitch base stayed planted in the bed of the truck. This kept the truck upright.

B&W fifth wheel hitch bent pivot arm after 5th wheel trailer rollover accident

Bent pivot arm on the fifth wheel hitch base.

It is impressive that the B&W hitch allowed for the hitch coupler and hitch base to separate completely once one of the pivot arms on the hitch base began to bend as the trailer went over. As the wrecker driver noted, usually both the truck and the trailer roll over together because once the trailer starts to go over the hitch forces the truck over too.

B&W Fifth wheel hitch coupler after trailer rollover accident

The coupler stayed attached to the trailer’s king pin.
In this photo it has been removed from the king pin and laid in the bed of the truck for inspection.

B&W Companion hitch coupler after rollover accident broken pieces inside

The coupler is flipped upside down here to reveal the broken pieces inside.

Broken pieces inside the B&W Companion fifth wheel hitch after a rollover accident

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In the end, Mark and Doran decided to replace both their truck (a 2008 Dodge Ram 2500) and their trailer (a 2007 32′ Hitchhiker Discover America) as well as their slightly damaged B&W Companion hitch with a new set: a 2012 3500 Ram dually truck, 2012 36′ Hitchhiker Discover America and a new B&W Companion hitch!

We feel very blessed to have towed our fifth wheel trailer so many tens of thousands of miles and seen so many beautiful places in nearly 10 years of full-time travel. We’ve had our share of near misses, especially in our trip back east two years ago where traffic is blindingly fast on very crowded and confusing highways, and we’ve seen our share of accidents too.

One RV upgrade we did that has made a massive difference for us in dealing with sudden stops at high speed while towing our 36′ 14k lb. fifth wheel trailer was a trailer disc brake conversion where we upgraded from standard trailer drum brakes to electric over hydraulic disc brakes. This is a pricey upgrade, but one we highly recommend doing.

Hitchhiker fifth wheel RV with B&W Companion OEM fifth wheel hitch under sunny skies

RVing in a fifth wheel trailer is so much fun, especially in gorgeous places far from the open road.
But accidents do happen and good equipment — from truck to trailer, hitch and brakes — can make a huge difference in the outcome when things go wrong.

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Dodge Ram Truck Owners — Please note:
Late model Dodge Ram 1500, 2500 and 3500 trucks have been recalled (beginning 6/23/17) for side airbag problems in a rollover accident. See this article for details: Dodge Ram Side Airbag Recall

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Is RV Solar Affordable? 3 Solar Solutions for RVs and Boats

Is RV solar power affordable or is installing a solar power system on a motorhome or trailer — or even on a sailboat — just too darn expensive to be cost effective? We never thought this question would be hard to answer until recently.

Solar panels on a fifth wheel trailer

Can a solar power installation on an RV or sailboat pay for itself?

Ever since we installed our first (very small) solar power system on our first full-time RV nearly ten years ago, we’ve been excitedly telling people it is a very affordable do-it-yourself project for anyone with some mechanical and electrical knowledge. And for those who can’t turn a wrench, it shouldn’t be that much more.

Our first 130 watt solar power system cost us about twice as much as the same system would today, but even at that high price, we felt it was dollar-for-dollar an equal value to buying a Yamaha or Honda 1000 generator. Best of all, once a little system like that was installed, it was a whole lot less noisy, expensive to operate and complicated to use than a generator would be.

At today’s super cheap solar prices, that little solar power system is even more valuable compared to one of those nice Japanese portable gas generators than it was 10 years ago!

Installing solar panels on a motorhome RV

Installing solar power can be a DIY project if you’re handy.

Recently, however, we’ve heard some crazy prices being quoted for installing solar power systems on RVs. We met one couple with a gorgeous brand new DRV Suites fifth wheel who were quoted $13,000 for a solar power installation. Not long after that, we read an article in a popular RV magazine describing a $12,000 solar power installation on a fifth wheel.

Yikes!! These are outrageous prices!!

We sure hope no one is finding they have to spend that kind of crazy money to get a solar power system installed on their trailer or motorhome or sailboat.

We’ve got oodles of articles on this website that go into the nitty gritty details of things to consider when designing and installing a solar power system on an RV or a boat (located HERE). However, all that theory aside, it’s not all that complicated.

Here are three solar power “packages” — with approximate prices — that will do the trick whether you’re a part-timer or full-time RVer.

Although it is possible to buy “pre-packaged RV solar power kits” online, we suggest hand selecting the components you want so that just in case any individual item has a problem it can be returned easily.

We’ve heard of cases where people bought a pre-packaged solar power kit online and then had problems returning a broken part because they had to return the entire kit — solar panels, charge controller, cables and all — just because the one item wasn’t working right.

 

SMALL RV SOLAR POWER KIT – 150 WATT SYSTEM

Affordable solar panel with a popup tent trailer

For part-time RVers, installing solar on the roof isn’t a requirement.

The following is essentially what we put on our roof and what we camped with off the grid every night for a year when we started.

The brands are not exactly the same, but these components are highly rated and will do the trick for anyone that wants a roof-mounted solar power system on their motorhome or trailer.

This kit includes both a solar battery charging component and an 110 volt AC power component provided by an inverter. If you don’t understand the distinction, please see our post: RV Solar Power Made Simple.

The simplest inverter installation is to connect the inverter to the batteries using heavy duty cables and then to run an ordinary (but long) power strip (or two) from the inverter to somewhere convenient inside the rig.

Rather than using the wall outlets in the rig, just plug the AC appliances into the power strip as needed, taking care not to operate too many things at once and overload the inverter.

Prices always change, so check the links to see the current prices.

The nice thing about this kit is that it is easily expandable. If a second or third solar panel is eventually desired (to double or triple the size of the system to 300 or 450 watts, for another $200 or $400), those panels can be purchased at a later date. At that point the solar charge controller can also be replaced with a bigger and more sophisticated charge controller (for $600).

 

PORTABLE FOLDING SOLAR POWER KIT SUITCASE – 200 WATT SYSTEM

Portable folding solar panel suitcase for RV and motorhome use

A portable solar power kit that folds up and can be carried like a suitcase is an awesome solution for weekenders, vacationers and seasonal RVers.

A really nifty alternative for anyone that isn’t super skilled with tools or that’s a bit spooked by electrical things, is a portable solar power kit that folds into a suitcase. These come with two matching solar panels, battery cables with aligator clips, and a panel-mounted solar charge controller. The solar panels are hinged together and can be folded towards each other. A handle on the side of one of them makes the whole thing easy to carry and store like a suitcase.

These portable folding suitcase solar panel kits come in all sizes. A good size is anywhere from 120 to 200 watts:

The advantage of a portable suitcase solar kit like this is that it is self-contained. If you think you might upgrade to a different RV soon, then there’s no loss in investment when one RV is sold and another is purchased. Also, if you decide to install a roof-mounted system at a later date, the suitcase solar panel kit can be sold to another RVer.

Another suitcase solar kit that includes a small charge controller to protect the batteries is Go Power’s 120 watt kit ($565).

As for the inverter, heavy duty cables and power strip, they are included here just to round out the package so you have AC power in the rig as well as the ability to charge the batteries just like the “small solar power kit” described above.

 

Affordable solar power on a motorhome

Installing solar panels on tilting brackets is popular, but only necessary in mid-winter. We’ve never done it.

With a big RV solar power installation, it is likely that the RV’s house battery bank will need to be upgraded or replaced too, so this package includes a “replacement” AGM battery bank.

The Magnum inverter is an inverter/charger that has a built in transfer switch, making it very straight forward to wire the inverter into the house AC wiring system so you can use the standard wall outlets in the rig rather than plugging things into a power strip.

We’ve been living exclusively on solar power since we started this crazy traveling lifestyle in 2007, and this system is larger than any system we’ve ever had on a boat or trailer. So it ought to work just fine for anyone who wants to RV full-time and do a lot of boondocking.

 

INSTALLATION COSTS

If you are not a DIY RVer, you’ll need to budget for the installation labor too. As a very rough estimate, I would allow for $500-$1,000 for a small system installation and $1,500-$2,500 for a big system installation. The variations in labor costs will depend on how difficult it is to work in your rig, how hard it is to mount the various components and run the wires from roof to basement, and whether or not you choose to have the batteries upgraded or replaced.

 

RETURN ON INVESTMENT

RV park and campground prices are all over the map, but assuming that the average cost is $25 per night for a site with hookups if you don’t take advantage of monthly discounts or $15 per night if you do, these systems can pay for themselves in anywhere from 18 camping days to 14 months, depending on what size system you buy, whether or not you do the installation yourself, and how you typically camp. Of course, this assumes the rig is equipped with a refrigerator that can run on propane and that if air conditioning is needed an alternative power source like a generator is used.

As with everything in the RVing world, starting small and cheap is the best way to go.

 

COMPLEX SOLAR POWER INSTALLATIONS

Solar panel arch with solar panels on sailboat transom

Installing solar power on a sailboat has its own set of challenges.

We have installed three different RV solar power systems and one solar power system on a sailboat.

We published an article in the February 2017 issue of Cruising World Magazine (one of the top magazines in the sailing industry) describing the solar power system we installed on our sailboat Groovy back in 2010. This system gave us all the power we needed to “anchor out” in bays and coves away from electrical hookups in marinas for 750 nights during our cruise of Mexico.

Cruising World has posted the article online here:

Sunny Disposition – Adding Solar Power – Cruising World Magazine, February, 2017

Installing solar power on a sailboat is very similar to installing it in an RV, but there is an added complexity because there isn’t a big flat roof to lay the panels on. Instead, we had to construct a stainless steel arch to support the panels. Fortunately, our boat, a 2008 Hunter 44DS, had a factory installed stainless steel arch over the cockpit already. So, we hired a brilliant Mexican metal fabricator named Alejandro Ulloa, to create our solar panel arch in Ensenada, Mexico.

Solar power installation on sailboat Hunter 44

We turned to Alejandro Ulloa of Ensenada, Mexico, for our solar panel arch
He can be contracted the Baja Naval.

Solar panel arch installation on Hunter 44 sailboat

Alejandro is an artist. He wrapped the arch in plastic to prevent scratches until it was permanently mounted on our boat!

Solar panel arch on sailboat Hunter 44

The arch went back to Alejandro’s workshop for tweaking after this measuring session.

Solar panel arch on sailboat Hunter 44 installed by Alejandro Ulloa

Dimensions now perfect, Alejandro mounts the arch permanently.

Getting the 185 watt 24 volt solar panels up onto the arch was a challenge. Getting solar panels up onto an RV roof is tricky too!

Affordable marine Solar panel installation on sailboat Hunter 44

Getting the solar panels onto the roof of an RV or up onto this arch takes two people (at least!)

Installing solar panels on an arch on sailboat (Hunter 44) with Alejandro Ulloa Baja Naval Ensenada Mexico

The second of the three panels gets installed.

The solar panel arch was going to double as a “dinghy davit” system with telescoping rods that extended out over the transom. These davits supported a pulley system to hoist the dinghy up out of the water. So once the solar panels were mounted on the arch, we had to be sure it could handle the weight of the dinghy.

Our dinghy weighed a lot less than the combined weight of Mark and Alejandro!

Strong solar panel arch and dinghy davit extension

Alejandro and Mark test the arch to be sure it can support the dinghy (which weighed half what they do).

The solar panels were wired in parallel because they would be subjected to shade constantly shifting on and off the panels at certain times of the day as the boat swung at anchor.

Wiring solar panels on a sailboat (Hunter 44) marine solar power installation

Mark wires up the panels in parallel.

Affordable solar panel installation on a sailboat

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Solar panel arch with dinghy davit extension supporting affordable solar power on sailboat

A beautiful, clean installation with wire loom covering the exposed cabling and the rest snaked down inside the tubes of the Hunter arch. The davit extensions for hoisting the dinghy are clearly visible under the panels.

Solar panels installed on arch on Hunter 44 sailboat

Nice!

Down below the cockpit inside a huge locker in the transom, Mark mounted a combiner box that brought three cables in from the three panels and then sent out one cable to the solar charge controller.

Emily and Mark Fagan aboard sailboat Groovy

The transom locker in our Hunter 44DS sailboat was very large!

Combiner box for solar panel parallel wiring on a sailboat

A combiner box brings the wires from the three panels together before a single run goes to the solar charge controller (this is optional and not at all necessary).

The solar charge controller was installed in the cabin inside a hanging locker in the master stateroom.

Xantrex solar charge controller installed in sailboat locker

We have an Outback FlexMax charge controller on our trailer but chose a Xantrex controller for our boat because there were no moving parts. We compare the two HERE.

The solar charge controller was located about 8 feet from the near end of the battery bank which spanned a ~14 foot distance under the floorboards in the bilge.

Two 4D AGM batteries in bilge of sailboat

We had four 160 amp-hour 4D AGM batteries for the house bank and a Group 27 AGM start battery installed under the floorboards in the bilge.
One 4D house battery and the Group 27 start battery are seen here

This 555 watt solar power system, which charged a 640 amp-hour house bank of 4D AGM batteries, supplied all of our electrical needs, including powering our under-counter electric refrigerator.

Usually our engine alternator provided backup battery charging whenever we ran the engine. However, at one point our alternator died, and we were without it for 10 straight weeks while we waited for a replacement alternator.

Why such a long wait for a simple replacement part? Getting boat parts in Mexico requires either paying exorbitant shipping fees and import taxes or waiting for a friend to bring the part with them in their backpack when they fly from the US to Mexico.

During that long wait our solar power system supplied all our electricity without a backup while we were anchored in a beautiful bay. Diesel engines don’t require an alternator to run, so we moved the boat around and went sailing etc., and lived our normal lives during our wait.

Solar panel arch and dinghy davit extension with solar panels installed on sailboat

View from the water — cool!

The dinghy davit extensions on the solar panel arch made it easy to raise and lower the dinghy from the water and also to raise and lower the 6 horsepower outboard engine.

Solar panel arch and dinghy davit extension on sailboat

A pulley system on the davit extensions made hoisting the outboard and dinghy a cinch for either of us to do singlehandedly.

Solar panel arch and solar panels on sailboat transom

For 7 months we left our boat at the dock in Chiapas, unplugged from shorepower, and let the solar panels keep the batteries topped off. Everyday during that time they put 19 amp-hours into the batteries which was essentially the power required to operate the solar charge controller!

At anchor, sometimes the solar panels were in full sun all day long if the current and wind and the pattern of the sun crossing the sky allowed the boat to move around without the sun coming forward of the beam of the boat.

However, whenever the sun was forward of the beam, the shadow of the mast and the radome fell on the panels. We could watch the current production from the panels go from full on, to two-thirds, to one-third and back again as the shadow crossed one panel and then two at once, and then one and then none, etc, as the boat swung back and forth at anchor.

Mast and radome cast shade on solar panels on sailboat

RV solar installations have to avoid shade from air conditions and open vent hatches.
On boats the shade from the mast and radome is often unavoidable.

Mast and radome cast shade on pair of sailboat solar panels

When the shadow fell across two 185 watt panels at once, it knocked both of them out of the system so only one of the three solar panels was actually producing power.

The coolest and most unexpected benefit of having our solar panels mounted on an arch over the cockpit was the shade that they provided. The sun in Mexico is very intense, especially out on the water, and it was wonderful to have two huge forward facing jump seats at the back of the cockpit that fully shade as we sailed!

Under the shade of solar panels and a solar panel arch on a sailboat

Made in the shade — What a life that was!!

We have more solar power related articles at these links:

SOLAR POWER OVERVIEW and TUTORIAL

BATTERIES and BATTERY CHARGING SYSTEMS

LIVING ON 12 VOLTS

Our technical articles in Cruising World magazine can be found here:

Do We Miss Our Boat “Groovy” and Sailing?

We describe our thrilling — and heart wrenching — first and last days on our wonderful sailboat in the following posts. It is very true that the happiest days of a boater’s life are the day the boat is bought and the day it’s sold!

Our most recent posts:

More of our Latest Posts are in the MENU.
New to this site? Visit RVers Start Here to find where we keep all the good stuff!!

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Hitch Tighteners – Anti-Rattle Hitch Clamps Stop the Creaks & Wiggles!

We carry our bicycles on the back of our 36′ fifth wheel trailer with a Kuat NV bike rack inserted into the trailer’s hitch receiver (we reviewed the Kuat bike rack here). We installed this bike rack in 2012 and it has been great for the past five years of our full-time RV travels.

Kuat NV Bike Rack on back of fifth wheel trailer RV

We carry our mountain bikes on the back of our 5th wheel with a Kuat NV Bike Rack

To keep the bike rack from dragging on the ground in crazy places like steep gas station ramps or deep gulleys on small roads, we had a “Z” shaped “hi-low” hitch riser made. This raises the rack up quite high, so now the first thing to hit the ground is the hitch receiver itself rather than the bike rack.

Hitch extension with Kuat NV bike rack

A “Z” shaped “hi-low” hitch riser raised the bike rack so it can’t drag on the ground in a gully or dip.

As is often the case with hitch receivers, the bike rack isn’t a perfectly tight fit in the hitch receiver riser, and the bottom of the riser isn’t a perfect fit in the trailer’s hitch receiver either. So, the whole bike rack tends to wiggle.

We’ve used various shims to make it all tight, but too often they would wiggle loose over time, and eventually the bikes would be jiggling all over the place on the rack again.

Using a shim in a bumper hitch

We wedged shims in to tighten things up, but it wasn’t an ideal solution

Last fall we stopped in at JM Custom Welding in Blanding, Utah, to talk with Jack, the man who had made our “Z” hitch riser (more info about it here). We wondered if he had any tricks up his sleeve for making our bike rack arrangement less wobbly.

JM Custom Welding Blanding Utah

Mark and Jack of JM Custom Welding in Blanding, Utah

It turns out that he had solved this very problem for other customers by making a hitch tightener. This is essentially a hitch clamp that fits over the end of the hitch receiver and snugs up whatever is inserted into the receiver with some lock washers and nuts.

Bumper hitch tightener for car or RV hitch

Jack put this nifty hitch tightener on our hitch receiver.

Bumper hitch tightener for bike rack

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So, we got two of them, one for the top and one for the bottom of our “Z” shaped hi-low hitch riser extension.

Hitch tightener on RV for bike rack

He put a second hitch tightener on the trailer’s receiver as well.

The difference in the amount of movement of the bikes was absolutely astonishing. They were rock solid now!

Hitch tightener for bike rack mounted in bumper hitch

Looking down at both hitch tighteners on our hitch extension.

After installing the hitch tighteners, which was just a matter of tightening the nuts, Mark drove the rig around the JM Custom Welding dirt lot while I walked behind and watched the bikes, and they were steady as could be.

Hitch tighteners on bumper hitch mounted bike rack

Hitch tighteners at the top and bottom of the hi-low hitch riser extension.

Hitch tightener for bike rack mounted in bumper hitch

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But unlike the shim solution we’d used before, these hitch tighteners have stayed tight without needing any adjusting or fuss for several months and several thousand miles of driving on all kinds of roads.

Kuat NV BIke rack and bike rack extension and hitch tightener

The whole system is completely rigid now and has not needed any adjustments in six months of use.

The hitch tighteners do make for some extra steps if we want to move the bike rack from the hitch receiver on the trailer to the hitch receiver on our truck. However, we’ve started hauling our bikes in our truck in a different way using a furniture blanket, so there’s no need to take the bike rack off the trailer any more.

Mountain bikes on truck rather than a bike rack

An easy way to get the bikes from the trailer to the trail head!

Jack makes these hitch tighteners in batches, so if you are passing through Blanding, Utah, perhaps on your way to or from the beautiful Natural Bridges National Monument, just a mile or so south of Blanding you can stop by JM Custom Welding and pick one up! In 2016 the were $38 apiece.

We discovered later that hitch tighteners of various kinds are also commercially available. So, if Blanding, Utah, isn’t in your sights, you can choose from many different kinds of hitch clamps online.

However, a visit to Jack’s welding shop is very worthwhile, especially if you need any kind of custom metal fabrication done on your RV. He is very creative and does excellent work.

While we were in Jack’s office, we noticed a display of his for a folding storage solution for the beds of pickup trucks he’s created that fits right behind the truck cab. He calls it the “Jack Pack” and it is essentially a framed canvas storage bag the width of the truck bed that is easily opened to throw your bags of groceries into and then easily folded away when you need to haul lumber or fill the truck bed with something else.

If we didn’t have that part of our truck filled up with extra water jugs, we would have snagged one of those from him at the same time!

We’ve got a few more links below.

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Info on hitch tighteners and hitch clamps:

There are many brands of hitch tighteners on the market. These are a few:

There’s also a “Z” shaped hi-low hitch riser available:

If you need custom metal fabrication work done:

Related Posts:

Our most recent posts:

More of our Latest Posts are in the MENU.
New to this site? Visit RVers Start Here to find where we keep all the good stuff!!

RV Tips and Tricks – Make RVing EASY and FUN!

There are a million RV tips and tricks to make the RV life easier, and this page offers some little jewels we’ve discovered since we started RVing full-time in our fifth wheel trailer in 2007. We’ve broken them down into:

RV Tips and Tricks for making RVing and the RV Life easy

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OUTDOOR RV TIPS and TRICKS

High Powered “Search” Flashlight

We often camp in areas that are quite remote, and getting to and from and around the rig at night is much easier with a very high powered flashlight!

Lumintop SD75 LED flashlight

Lumintop SD75 Flashlight compared to a pocket Maglite

We have a Lumintop SD75 Flashlight which is downright phenomenal. We have hiked Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon at night to photograph the stars and the Milky Way, and this flashlight is literally like holding a car headlight in your hand.

Here is more info about this flashlight:

Lumintop SD75 Flashlight Review

Getting Parked Without Damaging Anything

The most basic element in RVing is learning to hitch up and unhitch, whether you are driving a car pulling a popup, a diesel truck towing a fifth wheel or a Class A motorhome towing a car. Of course, lots of people have loads of fun in their motorhomes without towing a car behind, but getting hitched up and unhitched is part and parcel of the RV lifestyle for an awful lot of us.

The most important thing for the driver and the person standing outside of the rig is to stay in eye contact with each other. This is entirely up to the person running around outside. If you can see the driver’s face in the rear view mirrors, you are golden. If you can’t, then any kind of gesture you make, including jumping up and down and waving your arms because the driver is about to drive the rig right off a cliff, will never be seen.

We use two-way radios to give us a way to talk to each other and to lessen the impact if I inadvertently end up in a position where Mark can’t see me in the rearview mirror. We use the longest distance radios we can get, to make sure the signal is decent. Right now we have 36 mile GMRS radios, which are realistically good to about 3-5 miles. We used these on our boat (a godsend when anchoring) and we’ve used them ever since we started RVing. We’ve gone through three sets so far, because the salt air ate up two pairs during our cruising years.

Two-way radios for backing up an RV

We use our two-way radios all the time…

Besides the radios, it’s really helpful to have good hand signals. I indicate the distance until disaster by spreading my arms wide and then bringing my hands closer and closer together until I give a “halt” sign (palms forward). Shaking my head and waving my hands and giving a few slices to the neck can help too if it starts to look really bad.

Midland 36 mile GMRS radios

36 mile GMRS radios

It is royally embarrassing to make all these gestures when you’ve got an audience of people watching, but I’ve learned that there’s no ego in getting the rig parked well. Every RVer who has been around a while has made a huge blunder of some kind while parking, and they’ve all lived through it. So a few members of your giggling audience will probably be very sympathetic to whatever mistakes you have up your sleeve.

My worst gaffe was in front of two very special friends we hadn’t seen since we’d moved into our fifth wheel a year earlier. They had come out to camp with us, and we were all excited. I had just finished telling them (with great pride) that we didn’t need their help parking because we parked our rig all the time, we had a system, and we had gotten pretty darn good at it.

Mark began to back up as our friends watched, and I began to warn him that he needed to go more towards the driver’s side to avoid a tree. He adjusted, but again, I told him, he needed to go more towards the driver’s side! I kept repeating my instructions louder and louder as our good friends watched in bewilderment. When Mark was just about to cream the tree, we all started shouting STOP!!! Mark got out of the truck, calmly assessed the situation, and then said to me: “Ahem…. which side does the driver sit on?”

Our friends smiled weakly and I looked for the nearest rock to crawl under…

So, don’t be embarrassed and don’t be shy. Make your gestures big and strong, and remember which side of the rig the driver sits on!

Hitching and Unhitching a Fifth Wheel Trailer

Some folks drive their RVs solo, and although I can’t say much about hitching and unhitching a motorhome and car combo, our good friend Bob has found a great way to hitch and unhitch a fifth wheel trailer solo. He marked the front landing leg that’s near the extend/retract button at regular intervals all the way up and down the leg.

Fifth wheel landing leg marked with hash marks

Hash marks on a landing leg help get the rig back to the right height before hitching up.

Then he numbered each hash mark. He keeps a pad and pen in the hatch near the landing legs button. When unhitching, once he’s raised the trailer to where he can drive the truck out from under it, he jots down the hash mark number that is visible on the leg. Then he drives out, parks, and returns to the trailer and raises or lowers the landing legs as necessary to get the trailer level.

When he hitches up again to leave, he adjusts the trailer height to the exact position where he unhitched. That way, when he gets in the truck to hitch up, he knows the trailer will be at the correct height as he backs the truck up into the hitch pin (and he doesn’t have to get in and out of the truck several times to check and adjust the height of the trailer).

We marked our landing legs at 1.5″ intervals and have not numbered them. There are only 6 hash marks, and I make a mental note of what mark we were at when we unhitched. Frequently, by the time we leave, I’ve forgotten where we were at before we leveled the trailer, but I’ve developed a good eye for knowing how much to raise or lower the rig as Mark backs the truck towards the trailer.

We also marked the centerline of the fifth wheel pin box and pin plate so it is easy for Mark to line up the hitch with the pin box and king pin when he is backing the truck into the trailer.

Leveling the Trailer

There are many methods for getting a trailer level, and hydraulic leveling is a blessing that takes all the excitement out of it. For those without hydraulic leveling, we found in our early years that with two 5′ lengths of 2″x8″ board and one 5′ length of 1″x8″ board we could always find a combination that worked to get the trailer level from side to side. A 5′ board is relatively easy to drive onto and provides a solid platform for the trailer’s wheels.

We store the boards in the bed of the pickup. When using two boards, we stagger them a few inches so the trailer is driven first onto one level and then up a step to the next. We have to remember to back up when coming off stacked boards or the upper one will tip up and hit the bottom of the trailer while driving off it (think of a sailor walking the plank).

Leveling boards fifth wheel RV trailer

This was an extremely unlevel spot where we used quite a few boards and strips of horse stall mat.

If you don’t like the idea of hauling long boards around in your truck, there are nifty plastic leveling board kits (here’s another type) that are very popular.

We also use plastic wheel chocks whenever we park on a steep incline to prevent the trailer from rolling, especially while unhitching and hitching up.

Our friend Ken introduced us to using a sliced up horse stall mat rather than pine boards. We cut a 4’x6′ sheet of horse stall mat into five 1×5 strips and four 1×1 squares, and those have worked really well for us. They hold up to the elements really well and they roll along with the contour of whatever crazy surface we might park on. It is also possible to drive off of them either forwards or backwards because they don’t slap the underside of the trailer.

The only disadvantage is that they are much heavier than pine boards, but we can drag them around and they don’t disintegrate. We use the 1’x1′ squares under the landing legs and scissor jacks for cushioning.

We also have four large blocks made of three 1′ lengths of 2″x8″ boards screwed together. We put handles on the ends to make them easy to lug around. In a really unlevel site in the Smoky Mountains we had to stack them on top of each other AND extend the jack legs all the way!

RV fifth wheel landing legs

A very unlevel spot that required two blocks plus all the leg length.

What Is Level and How Do You Know?

Determining what constitutes “level” inside an imperfectly constructed RV is an interesting trick. We used a carpenter’s level on our kitchen floor, in several directions, and on our table, and on the bedroom floor. Of course, none agreed! But we found a good compromise and then mounted some RV levels on the outside of the rig to give us a reasonable guess when we’re setting up.

There are two different types of levels: Bubble Levels that have an air bubble that floats to the high side, and Ball Levels that have a ball that drops to the low side. Bubble levels are more responsive (the bubble moves more quickly as the RV moves). Ball levels take a few seconds to react. If you use both types, you can get confused because they move in opposite directions.

We have a large Level Master level on the fifth wheel pin box that is easy to see from inside the truck. We also have two small bubble levels on the trailer on the corner by the landing jack power button, one facing forward (for left to right leveling) and one facing sideways (for front to back leveling).

RV Fifth wheel hitch level and center mark

The ball style level (visible from inside the truck) shows which side of the rig is low.
We painted a line on the pin box to help with hitching up.

Our pin box mounted Level Master, a ball level, is easy to see from inside the truck. When the trailer is higher on one side than the other, the Level Master ball falls to the low side.

Our smaller levels on the front corner of the fifth wheel are bubble levels, so the one on the front of the rig showing the side-to-side level has a bubble that rises to the high side. This is the opposite of the ball level on the pin box, and sometimes, when we are struggling with white line fever from hours on the road, this messes us up.

RV bubble levels on a fifth wheel trailer

Small bubble levels show left/right and front/rear level near the landing jack power button on our fifth wheel.

I’d recommend sticking to either ball levels or bubble levels and not mixing and matching like we did! A good solution might be to mount a ball level like this on both the pin box and on the front of the trailer near the landing jack power button.

Why do you need two side-to-side levels? When I’m running around placing the boards in line with the wheels for Mark to drive onto, I want to see a level on the fiver easily myself, and the front of the pin box is impossible to see from the side of the truck when we’re hitched up.

However, lots of folks rely on a single pin box mounted level that has both side-to-side and forward-back levels in it. There are a few from Camco and Hopkins that are very popular.

You can forego all this nonsense with a slick hydraulic leveling system. However, this does introduce a complicated and expensive system into your life, and we’ve heard many stories of the jacks falling down while driving, or not retracting properly and systems failing in other ways. On the plus side, though, you can easily jack up the trailer to change a flat!

 

Cordless Drill for Easy Jack Setup

We don’t have electric stabilizer jacks on our fifth wheel trailer (nor did we on our travel trailer). However, we use an 18 volt cordless drill, and it’s very easy.

Cordless drill set up for RV stabilizer jacks

Ready for action with the drill, extension and socket for the stabilizer jacks

We use the following setup to crank the scissor jacks:

We keep the 1/4″ Hex to 3/8″ Socket Adapter in the drill. Mark glued the extension and 3/4″ socket together with JB Weld, making it ultra easy to grab the extension, jam it in the drill and go.

18 volt cordless drill, 8" extension and socket for RV scissor jacks

18 volt cordless drill, extension, socket and adapters for RV scissor stabilizer jacks

This setup worked on both the four stab-jacks on our travel trailer and the two rear scissor jacks on our fifth wheel. We keep the drill right inside a basement hatch door so it’s easy to find during both setup and breakdown of the trailer.

RV stabilizer jacks with cordless drill

Raising and lowering the jacks takes 2 seconds!

Rigid Drill Set Radio

This goofy radio is in the Rigid Drill Kit (along with an impact driver & regular drill & lithium ion batteries and charger). We love it even more than the other stuff!

Camco makes a special Leveling Scissors Jack Socket that replaces those three pieces, but there is no 8″ extension. Personally, I like the long extension because you don’t have to crawl in so far to make contact with the scissor jacks.

Last year we bought a Rigid drill kit which includes a regular 18 volt drill, an impact driver (awesome for the lug nuts when changing a tire) and a radio as well as two rechargeable lithium-ion batteries and a charger.

After going through three different 18 volt drills during our years of RVing and sailing, we’ve been really impressed with this Rigid kit. The Lithium-Ion battery charges up in about 15-20 minutes and it’s good for a really long time.

The kit comes with two batteries, so we use one for the drill and one for the radio. And what a hoot it is to have a portable radio. In this day and age of slick electronics, we’ve gotten such a kick out of this thing…

 

Cleaning the RV

No matter where we park, the slide roofs need attention before we bring them in. Either they are dusty, in the desert, or they are covered with twigs and leaves, in the woods, or they are wet from rain. Slide toppers might help with this, although I have heard that they tend to make noise in high winds, sag over time, and sometimes end up with leaves and twigs trapped underneath.

Mark has a long handled squeegee he uses to get the water off, a broom for the leaves and branches, and a California Duster and/or broom for the dust. Getting up on the roof is also useful for checking out all the rooftop items like hatches, TV antenna, solar panels and wiring. His favorite cleaning tool for all this is a telescoping scrub brush that we used for cleaning our boat.

Scrub brush on RV roof

Our telescoping brush from our boat is a favorite for cleaning the rig.

He just loves this soft bristled brush. Murphy’s Oil Soap mixed with water is a good solution to wash the roof. To get rid of black scuff marks on the outside of the rig, he uses Mr. Clean Magic Eraser sponges.

Telescoping Ladder

Telescoping ladder on an RV

A second ladder is really helpful!

Telescoping ladder

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The first trailer we lived in full-time didn’t have a walk-on roof, and the signature of an RV without a walk-on roof is that it doesn’t have a built-in ladder.

We got a telescoping ladder so we could get up on the roof, and we have kept that ladder and used it ever since, even though our fifth wheel has a built-in ladder.

You may not think you need a second ladder when you’ve got one on the rig already, but polishing the front cap is one job where you do.

Washing or working on any part of the rig that is high up and out of reach of the ladder on the back is much easier with a second ladder, including the high corner of the rear end opposite the built-in ladder!

 

RV Patio Mats

A beautiful patio mat extends your living space and defines your outdoor area in an elegant way, and we love ours.

RV Patio mat defines outdoor space while camping

A classy patio mat extends your living space into the outdoors.

But they can be pricey if you’re just getting started with weekend RVing. An alternative is to get some green indoor/outdoor carpeting. We had this with our popup tent trailer, and it fit the bill perfectly (and our friends who now own our popup still use it!).

Popup tent trailer indoor-outdoor carpet patio mat

Save a few bucks and use green indoor/outdoor carpeting!

Waxing the Fifth Wheel Cap

Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix for getting the fifth wheel cap to have a deep shine. It’s made of ABS plastic and shows every swirl mark of a first-pass at waxing. The only way to bring back the luster it had when it was new is to use an orbital buffer and fiberglass polish and a whole lot of elbow grease.

Polished front cap on RV fifth wheel trailer

An orbital buffer and 3M Marine Cleaner Wax give the front cap a nice shine
but leave Mark’s shirt speckled with white spots!

Mark likes the 3M Marine Cleaner & Wax that we used on our sailboat. Unfortunately, you’ve gotta do this a bunch of times, and the worse condition the front cap is in, the more times it takes. But eventually you can get the shine back. Just be sure you keep the buffer moving lightly across the surface at all times so you don’t dig a hole in the plastic!

We have more cleaning tips for giving an RV that extra shine while boondocking here: Tips for Washing an RV While Boondocking

 

Truck Overloads

Timbren SES Suspension System for truck

Timbren SES Suspension

Our 14,000 lb. fifth wheel was right at the weight limit of what our 2007 Dodge 3500 could tow, and the pin weight of the trailer along with all the things we carry in our truck loaded down the bed of that truck quite a bit.

When hitched up, although the rig looked quite level, the truck sagged a bit, leaving the front wheels a little light and giving the truck a tendency to wander.

To alleviate this, we installed a Timbren Suspension Enhancement System between the axles and leaf springs of the truck. These are solid rubber donuts (not airbags) that fit between the axle and the leaf springs. That made the truck sit better and wander less.

We had that setup for eight years. In 2016 we purchased a 2016 Dodge Ram 3500 dually truck which had a much higher weight capacity in the truck bed and could handle the pin weight of the trailer along with the additional weight of the water jugs and leveling boards we carry in the bed of the truck much better.

How to Put Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF) in a Truck

Our 2016 Dodge Ram 3500 has a five gallon Diesel Exhaust Fluid tank which needs to be refilled every thousand miles or so. We’ve got some tips for where to get this stuff cheap and how to get it in the truck without spilling here:

How to Put Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF) in a Truck and Which Brand is Cheapest

How to put Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF) in a truck without spilling

Putting DEF in a diesel truck is a new necessary evil, but there are tricks to make it cheap and easy…

RV Grill Operating on the RV’s Propane Tanks

Mark loves to barbecue, and ever since our first popup trailer, we’ve had a wonderful, small RV barbecue, the “RV sidekick grill.” It comes with a mounting kit to hang it on the side of an RV. Flipped sideways, this same kit becomes legs so the grill can stand up off the ground.

RV grill attached to fifth wheel trailer

The RV sidekick grill is designed to hang on the side of an RV or stand on its own.

We had this grill installed on the side of both our popup tent trailer and travel trailer, but with the fifth wheel, Mark installed an extra gas line and valve coming from the RV’s propane tanks so it can run from them. A quick disconnect LP gas hose goes from the grill to this gas line.

RV grill gas pipe connection

An extra gas line and valve lets the grill runs from the trailer’s propane tanks.

We’ve had this little grill since 2005 and it still makes a great meal!

 

RV Water Toys – Water Spigot Connections

In many dry camping campgrounds where there are water spigots available but no water hookups at the campsites, the water spigots don’t have threads. We’ve found a water bandit makes it possible to thread our water hose onto the spigot so we can fill up with water easily.

Water Bandit spigot adapter for RV fresh water at campgrounds

The water bandit makes it possible to connect a fresh water hose when there are no threads on the spigot.

In cases where we get water hookups and leave the water hose connected to the trailer, we screw a 90 degree elbow onto the trailer so the hose can hang straight down rather than come out of the our city water connection horizontally and then droop down towards the ground, putting pressure on the connection and potentially causing drips. We discovered this nifty little elbow when we lived on our boat in a marina before our cruise.

RV water connections to fresh water hose

The elbow here is 45 degrees. 90 is even better

In addition, a water pressure regulator keeps the water pressure down to a level inside the rig that prevents any unexpected damage or leaks. A quick release makes it easy to connect and disconnect the fresh water hose. Mark also keeps a Y valve in his water hose arsenal. This is handy if the rig is connected to city water and we want to fill pails with water for washing the truck, or if an RV dump station has only one water spigot and we want to fill our fresh water tanks and run the black water flush at the same time.

Lots of folks like to attach a water filter as well. We used various filters at first, but no longer use any, although we periodically add a cap full of bleach to the fresh water tank. When we got a new fresh water tank, we were surprised that there was no sludge of any kind inside the old tank, even after 7 years of use.

Changing the Inner Rear Tire on a Dually Truck

We have a Dodge Ram 3500 dually truck with a B&W fifth wheel hitch, and wouldn’t you know it, the first time we had to change a tire on it, it was the inner rear tire. Ugh!

We had always wondered exactly how you went about doing this, and we found out. Here is a blog post that explains the entire process:

How to Change the Inner Rear Tire on a Dually Truck

 

INDOOR RV TIPS and TRICKS

Creating STORAGE SPACE with Seating for Four in the Dinette

We replaced the two chairs in our dining area with two wonderful storage ottoman benches, and this has increased our storage space by quite a bit. The storage ottomans we chose have a nice faux leather padded top that is really comfy to sit on, and they have voluminous storage space inside.

Storage benches in RV dinette

Our dining area – lots of storage and seating for four.

We have his-and-hers benches, and we keep our camera gear in them. The great thing is it got rid of all our clutter and gave us a place that is low down in the trailer and slightly ahead of the trailer’s axles (a smoother ride) where we could make custom padded storage for this delicate gear.

For more info and more pics of our benches, see this blog post about our setup: Making STORAGE SPACE in an RV.

You can buy the storage ottomans we purchased HERE, and you can get ideas of other brands and sizes of storage ottomans on the market HERE.

Protecting the Carpets Under the Slide-Outs

The carpets take a beating as the slide-outs roll in and out. Some slide-outs aren’t quite square and one wall or the other presses particularly hard on the floor while driving. You can buy fancy carpet protectors that fit under the slides. We went a cheaper route and bought a package of four flexible plastic cutting boards.

RV tips - cutting boards under RV slide-out

Flexible cutting boards taped together protect the carpet under the slide-outs.

We used packing tape to tape two of these together, end-to-end, and each pair fits under the slide-out walls perfectly yet are thick enough to protect the carpets. I keep one pair under one slide-out wall while driving, because that slide is crooked and its one wall gets wedged against the floor pretty tightly. The other slide-out walls hover above the carpet as we drive, so I pull the plastic cutting boards out from under them so they don’t get lost underneath while in transit.

Keeping the Cabinets Closed

After having a cabinet door fly open while driving over a bumpy road, causing two unbreakable Corelle bowls to fly across the trailer and break in half, we now latch every cabinet door with 6″ bungee balls. For drawers we use mini 10″ bungee cords with a hook at each end, hooking the top and bottom drawer handles.

RV tips bungee balls and bungee cord on RV cabinet doors and drawers

Bungee balls and bungee cords ensures the cabinets and drawers all stay closed.

Rolled up Carpets

We have a large pots-and-pans drawer that occasionally likes to open. We roll up our throw rugs and place them so they can’t unroll in front of the drawer to keep it closed.

How to keep RV drawer closed in kitchen

Rolled up throw rugs keep this big pots and pans drawer closed while driving.

Rubber Shelf Liners

Rubber Shelf liners are invaluable, keeping everything in its place on each shelf as we travel. We try to make sure no plates, mugs or glasses are touching each other when we set out.

Shelf liner for RV shelves

Shelf liner keeps things in place when we drive

Closet Organization with Plastic Drawers

Our bedroom has a marvelous 8′ wide closet with sliding doors on it, but the interior is just open space with a rod for hangers. We don’t use it as a hanging closet (we have a different closet for that). Instead, we put stacked plastic drawers inside to give us more drawer space as well as a horizontal surface on the top.

RV closet plastic drawer organizer

We created more drawer space in one closet with lightweight, inexpensive plastic drawers.

These drawers don’t latch closed, so Mark drilled a hole through each drawer and the frame, and we simply slip a screw through each hole to keep it closed as we drive.

How to keep RV drawers closed

A screw through each drawer keeps it from opening in transit

Book Organization with Special Bins

We like to keep our heaviest items, like books, on the floor, as shelving in an RV tends to be quite flimsy. I found an awesome line of Rubbermaid “All Access” bins that have a clear plastic latching door on the front. Ours fits neatly under our desk (which we never use as a desk, so it’s wasted space). We can move the whole thing easily, can load it from the top easily and can get at the books from the front easily.

Rubbermaid All Access storage in RV

Rubbermaid’s “All Access” bins have clear front opening doors!

Dish Drying Mat

We do several small loads of dishes everyday, and I just love our little dish drying mat. It soaks up all the water, and once I move the dishes off of it I can hang it up to dry. Every so often I throw it in the laundry with the dish towels, and it comes out just fine.

RV dish drying mat

A dish drying mat sops up water, can be hung out to dry and thrown in the laundry.

How to Defrost an RV Refrigerator in 20 Minutes!

Propane RV refrigerators build up a lot of frost very quickly. After trying many different methods for defrosting our fridge over the years, we’ve outlined the steps we use to get this job done quickly:

How to Defrost an RV Refrigerator in 20 Minutes!

How to defrost an RV refrigerator

Defrosting the fridge doesn’t have to be a big nasty chore…

LED Wax Pillar Candles

I love romantic lighting, and there’s nothing like candles for that. But having an open flame isn’t great. Sailing friends of ours introduced us to pillar shaped LED candles made of real wax, and they are delightful. We’ve had ours for five years now, and we’ve had to change the batteries just once. They are wonderful for dim lighting in the pre-dawn hours or late at night, and they are a nice light around the rig when we watch a movie. The best part is they really look and feel like real candles, but you don’t have the risk that comes with an open flame.

RV tips LED flameless wax pillar candles in RV

LED pillar candles add warmth and create romantic mood lighting

Departure Checklist

RV Departure Checklist

All our mistakes on one page
with the worst ones underlined!

We thought we could memorize all the things that need to be done when we pack up the rig for towing, but a few mishaps taught us otherwise.

We now have a checklist taped inside the same cabinet that houses the main slide-out controls.

A quick glance before we leave ensures us that indeed all the hatches are closed, the shower door is latched, the window-mounted hummingbird feeder is not stuck on a window somewhere, etc.

This list is a comedy of errors made over several years of RVing. I’m sure more items will be added in the future!

 

Simmons Beautyrest Mattress

An RV can be outfitted with ordinary residential furniture, and we have upgraded our recliners to comfy La-Z-Boys.

More important for full-time RVers, there is no need to sleep on some funky RV mattress every night. We upgraded our mattress to a Simmons Beautyrest and just love it.

One important note is that many RV mattresses are non-standard sizes. An “RV Queen” is shorter than a standard Queen, and an “RV King” is narrower than a standard King. Here’s a chart showing the differences:

Standard “RV” Size
Queen 60″ x 80″ 60″ x 74″
King 76″ x 80″ 72″ x 80″
Simmons Beautyrest Plush Pillowtop mattress for RV

A good night’s rest…

In most rigs that have a Queen bed, the floorplan clearly states whether it is an RV Queen or a regular Queen. However, in virtually all RVs that have a king bed, it is an RV king. If you are buying an RV with a king bed and think you might want to upgrade to a residential mattress someday, make sure there are 4″ of extra width on the sides so the mattress can fit, even if it hangs over a little.

 

Laptop Lap Insulator

I mentioned that we don’t use our desk, and that’s because we use our dining room table for writing things out by hand and we use our laptops on our laps in our recliners. To keep from frying our legs with our laptops, we each have a laptop sized thin piece of foam that was part of the packaging of a solar panel. If you don’t have that handy, there are laptop lap insulators that can do the trick.

Laptop on thin foam insulation

A thin piece of foam keeps our legs from cooking under our laptops

Cleaning the Ceiling

We have a fabric ceiling liner and twice we’ve had to clean a stain from it. Each time we used spray bleach and the results were miraculous. You couldn’t see where the stain had been. Just make sure you cover everything nearby before spraying bleach in the air or you’ll have not just a clean ceiling but white spots on the rugs and upholstery too.

 

HEALTH and COMFORT in the RV LIFE

Living in an RV is not all that different than living in a stick-built house, so anything you enjoy in a conventional life is more than likely going to be something you can enjoy in your RV life. Here are some goodies that we use everyday, that have made a significant difference in our lives, and that we will continue to use daily no matter what kind of home we live in:

Amazing Grass

Amazing Grass powdered wheat grass drink

Helps keep fair haired people with thin skin from bleeding!

Mark has found that when he works around the rig, it is really easy for him to get little cuts and blood spots on the backs of his hand his hands. This turns out to be common with fair haired (red haired) formerly freckle-faced guys over 50. After some research, we found that the remedy is bunches of Vitamin K, and it turns out that wheat grass is loaded with Vitamin K! It has lots of other beneficial nutrients as well.

As long as Mark drinks a small dose of wheat grass everyday, his hands are as tough as when he was 20. But miss that wheat grass for a few days, and the next time he does any work around the rig, the slightest flick of his hand against something breaks the skin and he’s bleeding again. The best brand we’ve found is Amazing Grass.

Sound weird or too good to be true? We’ve suggested this crazy remedy to formerly red-haired friends, and they are now big believers and wheat grass connoisseurs too. Mark mixes it with fruit juice and actually loves the flavor! For those who don’t like veggies, the claim is that a spoonful of this wheatgrass powder is akin to a bushel basket of veggies. I don’t believe that myself, and I keep putting broccoli on our plates, but I think this stuff is worth its weight in gold when it comes to toughening up thin skin.

Hand-held Electric Massager

As former athletes, we’ve both spent a lot of time looking for ways to soothe aching muscles. We’ve owned a lot of different hand-held massaging tools over the years, including the very popular Thumper Sport massager, and they’ve all been okay. But many of them ultimately wound up in yard sales because they had bad habits of pinching skin or were awkward to use.

Brookestone electric massager

Brookestone electric massager

We’ve found that the hand-held Brookestone massager is really fantastic. Because it has just one ball head on it (rather than the more common and goofy twin ball heads), you can place it over any sore spot and get instant relief. Rub it slowly on your leg muscles after a hike or bike ride or rub it on that weird spot in your neck after you sleep funny and wake up unable to turn your head, and you’ll feel better right away.

This massager was a lifesaver for me after a bad cycling accident I had years ago that messed up my shoulders and collar bone for a very long time, and Mark recently relied on it heavily when he wrenched his back. We’ve never had it pinch our skin at all.

The neat thing about these massagers is that they increase the blood and fluid flow in the sore area, which is really helpful for getting nutrients into the injured spot and getting waste fluids out. You don’t need to press hard on it — just place it on the sore area and you’ll feel the muscle relax instantly.

We have had ours for four years now, and we used it both on the boat and in our RV. It’s amazing just how kinked up you can get living in a small space, and it is so helpful to be able to get unkinked in a matter of minutes. We keep it in our living room so it’s always handy.

Sonicare Toothbrush

Sonicare toothbrush

Sonicare toothbrush

If only these Sonicare toothbrushes (and toothbrush heads) had been around when we were kids! It may seem ridiculous to spend a bunch of money on an electric toothbrush, but brushing your teeth with one of these makes your mouth feel like you just came from a cleaning at the dentist’s office. I’ve used a Sonicare toothbrush for 13 years now, and what a difference it has made in the overall health of my teeth.

One note for boondockers and off-the-grid RVers living on solar power, Phillips, the manufacturer of Sonicare toothbrushes has noted that the rechargeable batteries do not like modified sine wave inverters very much. I read this years ago, and have always charged ours on our pure sine wave inverter. Perhaps the batteries are better in newer models, I don’t know.

Also, for tech junkies who like to collect tech goodies, the magnet inside the Sonicare toothbrush heads is incredibly strong. Mark has saved a few of the magnets from our discarded Sonicare toothbrush heads and has found all kinds of interesting uses for them, including gluing one onto a long stick to retrieve tiny metal objects from hard to reach spots in the bowels of something.

Other RV Tips & Tricks

We have loads of other tips and tricks for RVers on this website. Many of the links can be found here:

RV Tech Tips and Product Reviews

A small sampling is below:

A wonderful website dedicated to RVing tips and tricks is RVtravel.com

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Edge Engine Tuner => Max Truck Power!! (Escapees Mag Feature!)

A few years ago we installed an Edge Evolution diesel tuner in our truck to give it a little more power in the mountains and to increase our fuel economy a bit when not towing. This super easy DIY project turned out to be really worthwhile. We picked up 1-2 miles per gallon in fuel efficiency, and we got some extra horsepower and torque when climbing the Rockies and the Smokies with our trailer in tow.

Escapees Magazine Engine Tuners Mar-Apr 2016 Emily Fagan

Escapees Magazine – March/April 2016 Issue
Article: Engine Tuners by Emily & Mark Fagan

The March/April issue of Escapees Magazine features our article about the Edge Evolution Diesel Tuner. We have also written extensively about our Edge Tuner on this website, and you can read our blog post about it here:

Edge Evolution Diesel Engine Tuner – Peak Truck Performance!

Engine tuners (or “programmers”) are electronic components that modify the input parameters for an engine’s on-board computer. An engine tuner makes it possible to operate the truck with settings that are optimized for specific driving conditions.

So, whereas the factory settings on a Dodge Cummins engine in a Ram 3500 truck make the engine run pretty well in all conditions (towing, not towing, highway driving, mountain driving, etc.), an engine tuner will operate the engine with settings that are optimized for just one of these situations at a time.

If you will be towing a heavy trailer in the Rockies, you can program the tuner specifically for that kind of driving. If the truck won’t be towing anything for a while, you can program the tuner to maximize fuel economy.

We have used just two of the modes on our Edge engine tuner, Level 1 (“Economy”) and Level 2 (“Towing”).

In both cases we have seen an improvement in miles per gallon. In the towing mode, we’ve also found the increased power is significant. On the freeway this means it is easier to get up the speed to pass a slower moving vehicle. In the mountains it means the truck can get up steep inclines more easily.

There is a mode on the Edge Tuner that puts the truck into “stock” mode, effectively changing all the engine’s input parameters back to their factory default settings. It is also easy to disconnect the tuner all together. So, installing an Edge engine tuner is a non-destructive upgrade. The tuner is there for you if you want to use it, but you can easily opt not to use it too.

When we bought our the simplest programmable model, our 2007 Dodge Ram 3500 single rear wheel long bed truck had 85,000 miles on it. We drove the truck 20,000 miles with the tuner installed, and we were very happy with the performance. This past December we upgraded to a 2016 Dodge Ram 3500 Dually long bed truck, and we have just installed an Edge tuner on it as well.

We recently bumped into the Jeep Safari Week in Moab, Utah, and while we were wandering around the booths looking at all the cool gear for Jeeps, we suddenly saw the Edge Products trade show booth. We went over to chat with the team and tell them about our installation. We met Jared Venz, one of their marketing guys. How cool is that?!

PowerTeq Edge Products tradeshow booth at Moab Jeep Safari event

Mark found a fellow diesel motorhead buddy in Jared Venz of Edge Products when we bumped into
the Edge Products / Superchips team at the Moab Jeep Safari event!

When we got our first Edge tuner, we chose the simplest programmable model, because we weren’t sure if a tuner would be a worthwhile upgrade. This time around we got a more sophisticated model. With all the products laid out on their table in boxes in front of us, Jared helped us understand the overall product line. Here it is in a nutshell:

There are three types of Edge tuners:

Insight – The most basic model that simply displays the engine data that is coming from the engine computer’s outputs. It does not have the ability to change the engine’s parameters or program it in any way .

Evolution – This model can modify the input parameters to the engine’s computer and also displays key data like the Transmission Fluid Temperature and Engine Coolant Temperature. It also indicates when the truck has gone into a “Regen” to burn off the particulates that have built up in the engine’s particulate trap (part of the “Blue Tech” 2010 EPA requirements for diesel engines).

Knowing the truck is in a Regen is especially useful, because the coolant and fluid temperatures increase, and there is a slight loss of power, but there is no indicator on the truck dashboard to show when one is happening. We found it very helpful with our old Edge Tuner to know exactly when a Regen was going on.

The Edge Evolution tuner uses the truck engine’s input port to modify the engine’s input parameters. So, the installation is very easy. A single cable plugs into that input port (the OBD II port on Dodge Ram trucks). However, in order to change from one programming mode to another (for instance, from Level 1 (Economy) to Level 2 (Towing), the truck must be parked and you have to go through a series of steps that take a good 5 to 10 minutes.

Juice with Attitude – This top of the line model has an additional computer module (the “juice”) that makes it possible not only to adjust the input parameters on the truck’s on-board engine computer, but also allows you to change modes on the fly. So, rather than having to stop and reprogram the tuner to change from Level 1 to Level 2, you can hit a button and make the switch instantly. For instance, if you are towing and want to unhitch to go drive somewhere without the trailer, you can change modes simply by pressing a button.

However, the installation is more complex, because the “juice” computer that is part of the tuner must be wired into the truck engine’s on-board computer via two wiring harnesses.

There are also two display options for each Edge tuner model:

The smaller and more simplistic display has a monitor screen that is 2.4 inches wide. The Edge tuner models that use this smaller screen have “CS2” in the model name.

The larger, more sophisticated and detailed display has a monitor screen that is 4.3 inches wide. The Edge tuner models that use this bigger screen have “CTS2” in the model name.

The final two digits in the model number distinguish between the various truck makes, models and years.

The Juice with Attitude model is available only in the large monitor screen size.

The basic model breakdown is:

  • Insight (Data Display Only – no engine programming capability):
    Insight CTS2 (large screen) vs. Insight CS2 (small screen)

  • Evolution (Engine programming, easy install, manual mode switching):
    Evolution CTS2 854xx (large screen) vs. Evolution CS 851xx (small screen)

  • Juice with Attitude (engine programming with mode switching on the fly and more complex installation):
    Juice with Attitude (large screen only)

Because each diesel truck manufacturer uses a different engine (Dodge has Cummins, GM products have Duramax and Ford has Ford built engines), the tuners come in different models for each truck engine. There is some variation between truck model years as well.

We’ve chosen the Edge Juice with Attitude engine tuner for our 2016 Ram 3500.

Our article, “What Puts You in the Driver’s Seat? Engine Tuners!” is the latest feature article of many that we have contributed to the Escapees RV Club member magazine since 2008. Escapees is a very varied RV and travel club that touches on all the possible concerns and interests that full-time and seasonal RVers have.

Back when the club was first started in 1978, there were no RV clubs that catered specifically to the needs of full-time and extended-travel RVers. Escapees began as a simple bi-monthly newsletter to bring full-time RVers together and to give them a place to share ideas and pass on information.

Today, the bi-monthly Escapees Magazine is one of the most informative and fun to read magazines in the RV industry.

Escapees Magazine covers

Escapees Magazine covers on display in the mail sorting facility at Escapees HQ in Livingston, Texas

We became Escapees members a few months after we started full-time RVing, and we feel that anyone interested in using their RV for extended periods of time should consider becoming a member too. Besides receiving the wonderful magazine for free, members receive discounts of up to 50% at participating RV parks.

In addition, Escapees RV Club offers a wide range of overnight parking options at its own various RV parks, from overnight accommodations to seasonal stays to long term leases to ownership, and they offer a list of boondocking locations via the Days End Directory subscription.

Escapees also hosts a very informative online forum, RVnetwork.com. The participants in this forum are often very experienced RVers, and although non-members can read the forum, only Escapees members can join in the conversation or ask questions. For new RVers, Escapees hosts Boot Camp events where folks learn All Things RV, and each year Escapees puts on a huge rally called Escapade where members from every corner of the country come to share experiences, socialize and learn from each other. Younger Escapees also gather at Xscaper Convergences.

This coming summer, from July 24-29, there will be an Escapade Rally and Xscapers Convergence in Essex Junction, Vermont. Just before that, from July 21-23, there will be an Escapees Boot Camp for New RVers.

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B&W Companion OEM Fifth Wheel Hitch Installation – Easy!

The B&W Companion OEM fifth wheel hitch uses the new and very clever puck hitch mounting system that can be ordered with Ram and Ford trucks in their fifth wheel and gooseneck towing prep packages. This truck option has five “pucks” installed in the bed of the truck: four in the corners to mount a fifth wheel hitch and one in the center for a gooseneck.

The new style fifth wheel hitches that are designed for these puck systems stand on four legs that each have a quarter turn locking mechanism at the foot to secure them into the four pucks in the bed of the truck. This allows the hitch to be installed or removed from the bed of the truck easily. When the hitch is removed, the truck bed floor is totally flat and free of obstacles, because there are no hitch rails to get in the way. Ford, GM and Ram have different puck layouts in the beds of their trucks.

When we were going through the process of buying a new Ram 3500 dually truck, we knew we wanted the best of breed fifth wheel hitch that incorporated this new design for our full-time RV lifestyle. After a factory tour of the B&W Trailer Hitches plant in Humboldt, Kansas, we were sold. You can navigate this page using the following links.:

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B&W Trailer Hitches

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B&W hitches have long had a stellar reputation in the RV industry, and when our 36′ Hitchhiker fifth wheel trailer was getting a slew of big repairs done at the NuWa factory service center in Chanute, Kansas, (thank goodness for our RV warranty), we discovered B&W Trailer Hitches was just a ways down the road. So we took a factory tour of the plant.

B&W Fifth Wheel Hitches

All of the hitches manufactured by B&W Trailer Hitches are on display at the manufacturing plant.

What struck us more than anything is that B&W Trailer Hitches is a company that cares. They not only turn out a superior product, but they take take care of their employees.

When the RV manufacturing industry went into a steep nose dive in the years following the financial debacle of 2008, many of the employees that had worked at NuWa industries building fifth wheel trailers eventually found employment over at B&W Trailer Hitches as NuWa’s need for workers shrank. And when B&W didn’t have enough work for everyone to do, the company paid their employees to do city maintenance work in their hometown of Humboldt, Kansas.

How cool is that. And how RARE is that?!

Checking out a B&W Fifth wheel hitch

Mark checks out one of the hitches on display at B&W.

We got a taste of just how deeply these community values run when we saw the Biblesta celebration and parade during our visit to Humboldt, Kansas. In an age of political correctness when many people are afraid to express their beliefs publicly, this is a town that has been openly celebrating Christianity in an annual festival for the past 52 years. All the churches in the area — as well as B&W Hitches — have a float in this extraordinary parade. Read our blog post about it here: America’s Heartland – Is It In Humboldt Kansas?

B&W Trailer Hitches Moses Float Biblesta Parade Humboldt Kansas

B&W Trailer Hitches sponsored a float in the Biblesta parade in their hometown of Humboldt, Kansas

B&W Trailer Hitches Float Biblesta Parade Humboldt Kansas

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Founded in 1987 by Joe Walker and Roger Baker as B&W Custom Truck Beds, the company long ago became B&W Trailer Hitches. They still build custom truck beds, but the company has grown and now manufactures many other products.

In 1991, B&W invented the clever turnover ball for gooseneck hitches, and that put them in the forefront of the towing industry. For trucks that have a gooseneck socket in the bed of the truck, the turnover ball gets inserted this socket and a fifth wheel hitch can be installed that latches onto the ball and also onto rails that are installed under the bed of the truck. When the fifth wheel hitch is removed, the turnover ball can be turned over to make the bed of the truck completely flat since the rails for the hitch are under the bed.

This makes the entire bed of the truck available for hauling when the fifth wheel hitch isn’t installed, and it also allows the truck to be set up for either gooseneck or fifth wheel towing really easily. This is handy out in ranch country where one truck might tow a variety of trailers, and also be used to haul big loads.

B&W Hitches factory tour

B&W hitches on the assembly line in Humboldt, Kansas.

The new puck style hitch mount offered by the truck manufacturers is a similar concept. Rather than just one connection point between the 5th wheel hitch and the truck bed in the center, there are four points of contact in the four corners. The four puck system also allows for an even heavier duty weight rating on the biggest fifth wheel hitches, so larger fifth wheel trailers can be towed.

B&W Trailer Hitches is into quality, and one of the things that sets their hitches apart is that they are made from American steel. Since we have dealt with axle and leaf spring problems on our trailer several times over the last year, we have come to realize just what a huge difference there is between Chinese made steel and American steel. When it comes to something that puts your life on the line because it is carrying heavy loads, American made steel is the only way to go.

B&W Fifth wheel hitch bases stacked up at factory

Stacks of B&W fifth wheel hitch bases (these are not the new puck style base)

Another hallmark of quality in B&W hitches is that the nuts holding the hitch base to the truck are castle nuts. This means you can lock them with a sheer pin so they don’t back out.

Also, just about everything at B&W Trailer Hitches is done in-house. That way, they can retool the assembly line easily, as needed, for instance, if they improve the design or the puck layout is changed by the truck manufacturers.

B&W Fifth wheel hitch heads stacked up at factory

Stacks of fifth wheel hitch couplers (the top part of the hitch).

Lots of metal shavings are generated in the production of hitches on the B&W assembly lines. We were impressed that B&W recycles all the metal shavings at Missouri Metals. Very green!

Metal shavings from B&W Hitches recycled at Missouri Metals

B&W recycles all the metal shavings from their production lines

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B&W Companion Fifth Wheel Assembly and Installation

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We chose the 25,000 lb. B&W Companion OEM fifth wheel hitch. This is way overkill for our 14,100 lb. trailer, but our goal in our whole truck-and-hitch upgrade was to be able to tow our fifth wheel effortlessly. It also gives us options down the road in case a day comes when we want to replace our trailer with something bigger or beefier.

The whole installation of the B&W Companion OEM 5th wheel hitch could easily be done right in the bed of the truck, but we we got the hitch before we got our truck! So, we did it in two stages. First we assembled the hitch in a friend’s garage. This took 40 minutes. Then, once we got our new truck, we installed the hitch in the bed of the truck. This second stage took 20 minutes because we needed to fine tune the mating of the four pucks and the four legs. In the future, lifting the hitch in and out of the truck bed will take just a few minutes.

So, it’s about a one hour DIY job to install a B&W Companion 5th wheel hitch right out of the box. That’s a huge improvement over paying the fifth wheel dealership to do a two hour installation like we did when we installed our first fifth wheel hitch in our first truck!

These are the tools for the project:

Our B&W Companion OEM fifth wheel hitch was shipped to our friend’s house by UPS. It came in two boxes.

UPS Delivers B&W Companion Fifth Wheel hitch

Exciting day — UPS delivers our hitch!

There is a base and a head (or coupler) and assorted parts. We laid them all out to get a look at them.

B&W Fifth wheel hitch assembly pieces

We lay out all the parts and the instructions.

There is a one page installation instruction sheet that comes with the kit (also available online here). There’s also a sticker on the hitch base with instructions for mounting the hitch’s two parts into the truck bed.

Instructions on B&W Companion fifth wheel hitch

The orange sticker on the hitch base has instructions for mounting the hitch in the truck bed.
The sticker faces the truck cab.

The first step is to install the big triangular pivot arms that support the hitch coupler (the top part of the hitch). The orientation of these triangular pieces depends on the placement of the hitch over the axles, which varies by truck model. In the case of the Ram 3500 dually long bed, they are oriented so the shallower slope goes towards the cab of the truck.

The hitch has a big orange sticker on the side that faces the cab, so the shallow slope of the pivot arms faces that sticker.

B&W Fifth wheel hitch assembly

The shallow sloping side of the pivot arm faces the truck cab in our installation.
The pivot arm orientation varies with the type of truck bed.

There are four pairs of lock washer and bolts, two for each pivot arm. There are five possible holes, so you can set the height of the pivot arm higher or lower, which will change the gap spacing between the overhang of the fifth wheel trailer and the sides of the truck bed. We chose the middle setting for starters.

Bolts locking nuts and plates for B&W Companion Fifth wheel hitch

The pivot arms are attached using these parts.

The bolts and lock washers screw into the threaded block an the back side of the pivot arms.

B&W Companion OEM fifth wheel hitch assembly

Use a socket and ratchet to tighten the bolts.

Assembling a B&W Companion fifth wheel hitch

The bolts screw into a threaded block plate on the back side.

Assembling a B&W Companion fifth wheel hitch

Mark bolts the pivot arm to the threaded block plate

The next step is to install the wire torsion spring on the flange on the driver’s side pivot arm that is closest to the truck cab.

B&W Companion fifth wheel hitch parts

The wire torsion spring is next.

The mounting clip (below the spring in the photo above) is attached to the spring. Then the spring is installed so there is 1/2″ of clearance between the top of the spring and the bottom of the rubber bumper on the pivot arm. A few taps with a small hammer secured the clip onto the flange.

Tap the pin into place B&W Companion 5th wheel hitch

Tap the spring into place with a small hammer

Measure distance to pin B&W Companion 5th wheel hitch installation

The spring must be 1/2″ from the bottom of the rubber bumper
on the pivot arm.

Now the pivot arms are fully installed on the hitch base.

B&W Companion 5th wheel hitch assembly

The two pivot arms are in place (photo is prior to mounting the torsion spring).

The next step was to put the hitch head — the coupler — onto the hitch base and install its handle and three safety pins.

5th wheel Hitch assembly

The coupler (top of the hitch), seen upside down here, is next.

We lubricated the rubber bumpers on the tops of the pivot arms with CRC Lithium Grease.

Grease the 5th wheel hitch assembly

Spray some grease onto the rubber bumpers

Then, holding the coupler by the two saddle handles on either side, Mark placed the coupler onto the hitch base. When you set the coupler down on the base, press down on the handles to secure it.

Mount B&W Companion 5th wheel hitch head on base

Set the coupler on the base and press down on the handles to secure it

The coupler rests on the hitch base. Saddle locking pins under the two saddle handles prevent it from lifting up. A “hairpin” holds the saddle locking pin in place.

Fifth wheel hitch head chain link

A saddle locking pin prevents the coupler from lifting off the base.
It’s held in place with a hairpin (cotter pin) that is under Mark’s fingers in this photo.

Next, the coupler cam handle gets installed onto the coupler.

B&W Companion 5th wheel handle installation

Install the coupler cam handle onto the coupler

The handle is secured to the coupler with two button head cap screws (tightened with a 7/32″ allen wrench), and it is held closed (or open) with the coupler’s cam handle safety pin.

B&W Companion fifth wheel handle assembly

Two button head cap screws and a the cam handle safety pin do the trick.

B&W Companion 5th wheel hitch locking clevis pin

The cam handle safety pin.

Then lube the inside of the hitch jaws with Lucas Oil X-tra Heavy Duty Grease or a similar automotive chassis grease.

Greasing the jaws of the fifth wheel hitch

Grease the inside of the jaw so the trailer’s king pin can turn smoothly inside.

B&W Companion OEM fifth wheel hitch

Done!

Nice work, guys. 40 minutes by the clock! (I’m glad I was just the camera woman!)

Completed assembly of B&W Companion OEM fifth wheel hitch

Now all we need is a truck!
(Continued below…)

.

 

Installing the B&W Companion OEM 5th Wheel Hitch in the Truck Bed

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As mentioned above, all of these assembly and installation steps could have been done in the truck bed, but we did not have our truck yet, and we were excited to get started and work on the hitch in the meantime.

Finally our truck arrived and we had a blast with Alice Cooper as part of the purchase!

The gooseneck / fifth wheel hitch tow prep package puck system in our Ram 3500 dually truck was ready for the hitch installation.

Tow prep package puck system Dodge Ram 3500 Dually truck

The gooseneck / fifth wheel tow prep package has five pucks in the bed of the truck.
Fifth wheel hitches use the outer four pucks.

Mark and his buddy lifted the hitch base into the truck bed. Back in our article about our truck, a reader noted that he hoists his fifth wheel hitch in and out of his truck bed using a hydraulic lift table. If you are going to be moving the fifth wheel hitch in and out of your truck bed a lot, and you have the garage space, and you don’t have a strong, strapping friend at your beck and call to help you, this seems like a super idea.

The 25,000 lb. B&W Companion OEM fifth wheel hitch has the following weights:

  • Hitch base – 131 lbs.
  • Coupler – 75 lbs.
Placing the B&W fifth wheel hitch in the bed of a pickup truck

The hitch base is placed in the bed of the truck.

Each foot of the base required a little adjustment to fit properly into the truck’s pucks. This was done by loosening and tightening the cap screws on the pilot assemblies on each foot.

Installing B&W Companion OEM fifh wheel hitch in truck bed

Each puck requires some small adjustments the first time.

Then the tension in the latch handle was set by adjusting the height of the castle nut. We used needle nose pliers to remove the cotter pin and then reinstall it and bend the end once the castle nut height adjustment was set.

Bending the sheer pin

A sheer pin prevents the castle nut from backing out.

It took a little pushing and shoving to get everything in place, but these are one-time adjustments. The latch handles could now be opened and closed easily.

B&W Companion OEM fifth wheel hitch leg and puck in truck bed

Hitch latch handle in the open position.

B&W Companion OEM 5th Wheel Hitch levers in locked position

Hitch latch handle in the closed position.

The B&W Companion hitch base was now installed in the bed of the truck.

B&W Companion OEM fifth wheel in truck bed

The base is installed and all four latch handles have been adjusted to open and close easily.

Next, the hitch head (the “coupler”) was set on the hitch base. The two saddle handles were pushed down and the saddle lock pin was put in place.

Placing fifth wheel hitch head on base in bed of truck

The coupler is placed on top of the hitch base.

Ta da!! The B&W Companion OEM 5th Wheel Hitch is installed in the truck and ready for use.

Installation of B&W Companion OEM fifth wheel hitch

The B&W Companion OEM 5th wheel hitch is completely installed!
This view (above photo) is looking towards the tailgate.

Installing a B&W Companion OEM fifth wheel hitch

This view is looking towards the truck cab.

Great job, guys. Thanks!!

B&W Companion OEM Fifth Wheel Hitch installation on Ram 3500 Dually truck

Hey, can I have a beer too?

Celebrations behind us, the next day we hitched the new truck up to our fifth wheel trailer and took our home on a joy ride up and down some nice long 7% grades nearby. What a combo!!!

Prior to hitching the truck to the trailer the first time, we cleaned the hitch plate on the trailer and lubed both that and the coupler plate on the B&W hitch with CRC silicone spray.

We ended up adjusting the pivot arms down one notch, and that seems right for our particular truck and trailer.

Dodge Ram 3500 Dually truck B&W Companion Fifth Wheel OEM Hitch

We adjusted the height of the pivot pins by one notch to get the distance between the sides of the truck and the fifth wheel overhang right.

After ten thousand miles of towing with the B&E Companion OEM hitch, we are happy to report that we have been very happy with this hitch. In early 2017 we heard of a case where this hitch performed extraordinarily well in a fifth wheel rollover accident. You can read about it here:

Fifth Wheel Trailer Rollover Accident and B&W Companion Hitch Performance

Where can you get a B&W Companion OEM 5th Wheel Hitch? At these links:

The following info is FYI for those whose truck does not have a Puck System in the bed.

The Gooseneck Turnover Ball hitch is one option which allows you to have a totally flat truck bed when the hitch is removed. The other option is to go with the traditional rail mounted Patriot fifth wheel hitch.

B&W Gooseneck Turnover Ball Hitches:

Unlike the Puck System hitches, the Gooseneck Turnover Ball hitches require installing the Gooseneck Turnover Ball in the bed of the truck with rails mounted underneath. So, each truck bed in each model year has a different kit. The B&W Companion Hitch that mounts onto the Gooseneck Turnover Ball in the bed of the truck comes in two flavors: long bed and short bed (slider hitch).

Gooseneck Turnover Ball Companion Hitches (these are the “couplers” or actual hitches):

Gooseneck Turnover Ball Mounting Kits (the under-bed rail system and gooseneck turnover ball itself):

B&W Traditional Rail Mounted Patriot Hitches:

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More info about the B&W Companion Hitches and our truck and trailer:

Dodge Ram 3500 dually truck with B&W Companion OEM Fifth Wheel Hitch in the bed

The B&W Companion OEM 5th Wheel Hitch connects our Ram 3500 Dually truck
to our NuWa Hitchhiker fifth wheel trailer.

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Trailer Disc Brake Conversion – Electric Over Hydraulic Disc Brakes – WOW!

There are several types of braking systems available on bumper pull travel trailers and fifth wheel trailers today. Two of the most common are electric drum brakes, a less expensive system, and electric over hydraulic disc brakes which are a bit more costly. We recently converted our 36′ fifth wheel trailer’s braking system from factory installed electric drum brakes to electric over hydraulic disc brakes. What an incredible improvement this upgrade has made in our stopping power and personal safety. The difference is like night and day!!

This page outlines our reasons behind doing this upgrade and the components we chose for our brake conversion. It also gives a pictorial overview of the installation process.

Trailer hydraulic disc brake and caliper installed on an RV wheel

The disc (or rotor) and caliper with red brake pads peeks out from inside our trailer wheel.

This is a long post. You can skip down to the different sections using the following links:

HOW TRAILER BRAKES WORK

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Electric drum trailer brakes and electric over hydraulic disc brakes function very differently.

To engage electric drum brakes in a trailer, when the driver depresses the brake pedal in the tow vehicle, an electrical signal is sent to the trailer’s brakes via a brake control unit in the truck. The brake control may be factory installed or it may be an external unit that is installed by the owner. The electrical signal engages an electromagnet on the trailer’s wheels that expands the brake shoes as the current gets stronger, creating friction on the wheel and slowing it down.

Brake Pedal -> Electrical Signal via Brake Control -> Trailer Brakes

To engage electric over hydraulic disc brakes on a trailer, when the driver depresses the brake pedal in the tow vehicle, an electrical signal is sent to a brake actuator unit in the trailer via the brake control unit in the truck. The brake actuator in the trailer then pumps hydraulic disc fluid through a line to the disc brake calipers on the trailer’s wheels. The build-up of fluid pressure actuates the brake calipers which, in turn, squeeze the brake pads against the disc, slowing the trailer down.

Brake Pedal -> Electrical Signal via Brake Control -> Brake Hydraulic Fluid Pumped by Brake Actuator -> Trailer Brakes

Drum brakes are an older technology. However, RV trailer manufacturers continue to install electric drum brakes to this day because it is far less expensive than installing electric over hydraulic disc brakes. The highest end full-time fifth wheel trailers are frequently offered with an option for electric over hydraulic disc brakes, but they are rarely provided as standard equipment.

Besides greatly increasing overall braking power, one of the biggest advantages of hydraulic brakes is that it is much easier to modulate the brakes for smoother stopping. In contrast, electric drum brakes on trailers can be very jerky, as the brakes are either ON or OFF. We often used to feel the trailer bump into the back of our truck as we stopped, hitting us with a jolt.

TRAILER ELECTRIC OVER HYDRAULIC DISC BRAKES versus CAR HYDRAULIC BRAKES

Cars are manufactured with hydraulic brakes, sometimes with disc brakes in the front and hydraulic drum brakes in the back. Many high end bicycles are even built with hydraulic disc brakes! Electric over hydraulic trailer disc brakes are slightly more complex than car hydraulic brakes, but they provide trailers with the same smooth stopping power that we enjoy in our cars.

The difference between the way hydraulic disc brakes on cars and electric over hydraulic disc brakes on trailers function is that there is no electrical signal involved in a car’s braking system. This is because the car is a single vehicle. No signal needs to be passed from one vehicle to another, as it does with a truck and trailer combo. The tricky part about a truck/trailer is that the brake pedal is in the front of the truck by the driver’s foot while the trailer’s brakes are way behind the driver at the back end of the trailer. Also, in a car, the hydraulic fluid is located under the hood in a master cylinder which performs the same function as the brake actuator that is located in the trailer.

Again, in a car, when the brake pedal is depressed, hydraulic fluid flows directly to the brakes to engage them. In a truck and trailer combo, an electrical signal has to be passed from the truck to the trailer to activate the hydraulic disc brakes in the trailer via the brake actuator.

ON THE ROAD COMPARISON OF TRAILER BRAKING SYSTEMS:
Electric Drum versus Electric Over Hydraulic Disc Brakes

Our fifth wheel trailer, a 36′ 2007 NuWa Hitchhiker II, came with factory installed electric drum brakes. We towed it, with that braking system, behind our 2007 Dodge RAM 3500 truck for the first six years we owned it, for a total of about 40,000 miles. When we upgraded to electric over hydraulic disk brakes, we were stunned by what a massive improvement in braking power and safety that simple upgrade provided!

We have now towed our trailer over 1,200 miles since the brake system upgrade, traveling on interstate freeways, maneuvering around tight gas stations and campgrounds, and driving in gnarly stop-and-go-traffic in slick, rainy weather. All we can say is:

“We should have done this a long time ago — probably on Day 1!”

The differences we experienced between the electric drum brakes and the electric over hydraulic disc brakes can be summed up as follows:

DRIVING AND STOPPING COMPARISON

Electric Drum Brakes Electric over Hydraulic Disc Brakes
The truck felt like it was stopping the trailer The truck and trailer stop together evenly without one stopping the other
Braking was either ON or OFF, resulting in a jerky motion Braking is proportional to your speed and is very smooth
Had to mess with the brake control every time we changed between highway and gas station speeds Haven’t touched the brake control since the upgrade was installed
As brakes age, braking power decreases As brakes age, braking power does not change

 

MAINTENANCE COMPARISON

Electric Drum Brakes Electric over Hydraulic Disc Brakes
Have to remove wheel and brake hub to inspect brake pads
  • Easy to inspect disc pads without removing the wheels to see if they are worn (use a mirror if they are hard to see)
  • Periodically have to adjust the drums Never have to adjust the discs
    Have to have drums turned OR replace the drums and backing plate with magnet, shoes, springs and cables Easy to replace brake pads with standard GM brake pads from an auto parts store if rotors are okay
    Removing trailer tires to grease the wheel brearings

    Mark removes the trailer wheels to grease the wheel bearings.

     

    DECIDING TO UPGRADE THE TRAILER BRAKING SYSTEM

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    We decided to do this brake system upgrade after Mark inspected the condition of the electric drum brakes that had been factory installed on our fifth wheel when we bought it new seven years ago. He was greasing the trailer’s wheel bearings, and while he had one of the wheels disassembled, he inspected the brake assemby inside.

    Greased wheelbearings on a trailer

    Mark used a Zerk gun to grease the trailer’s wheel bearings.

    He was dismayed to find that both the magnet and the braking surface were basically shot. He completed the wheel bearing lube job, but after he got the wheels mounted back on the trailer, we weighed our options for the brakes.

    Inside a trailer brake drum

    The inside of the trailer wheel and electromagnet at the bottom.

    Electromagnet inside an RV trailer brake drum

    Lots of wear on the electromagnet that controls the electric drum braking mechanism.

    As mentioned above, besides providing inferior braking power all together, one of the disadvantages of electric drum brakes is that, as the brakes age, the braking power gets progressively worse. Not only does the braking surface wear down but the electromagnet gets worn as well.

    In recent months, Mark had been noticing that the trailer brakes were not working as well as when the trailer was new, although he was shocked to see just what poor shape they were in when he disassembled the wheels!

    It is possible to have trailer brake drums turned. “Turning” involves putting the brake drums on a lathe and grinding the surface down to get rid of ridges and make it smooth. However, while a car’s drum brakes can be turned at an auto parts store, trailer brakes need to be taken to a machine shop. This is because they have to be turned not only on the braking surface that the brake pads ride on, but on the electromagnet surface as well. One of the disadvantages of turning the drums, however, is that it makes the braking surfaces thinner and weaker.

    When we began investigating the cost of having the drums turned, we found that it would not be that much less than the cost of replacing the brakes all together which would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $500.

    An alternative to turning the drums or replacing the brake assemblies would be to upgrade the trailer’s entire braking system to electric over hydraulic disc brakes. This is an expensive endeavor, on the order of $3,200, but the more we thought about our personal safety on the road, the more it seemed like it was a wise choice to do the brake conversion.

    THE COMPONENT PARTS OF AN ELECTRIC OVER HYDRAULIC DISC BRAKE SYSTEM

    There are three components involved in the installation of electric over hydraulic disc brakes:

    • Brake Control in the truck
    • Brake Actuator in the trailer
    • Hydraulic Disc Brakes on the trailer wheels

    In between these components there is both wiring and high pressure line:

    • The Brake Control must be wired into the truck (late model trucks have factory-installed brake controls).
    • The Brake Actuator must be wired into the 7-pin connector on the trailer that the truck plugs into.
    • High pressure lines must be installed between the Brake Actuator and the Disc Brake assembly on each wheel

    Our first job was to determine which components to install. Reading many reviews and talking at length with each manufacturer and visiting several booths at the Quartzsite Arizona RV Show, we chose:

    Kodiak Hydraulic Disc Brakes

    The heart of the electric over hydraulic disc brake system is the disc brake assembly itself, and Kodiak makes superior quality brakes.

    Kodiak has been making disc brake assemblies for over twenty years and is very highly regarded. Kodiak originated as a parts manufacturer for boat trailers, and their brakes are extremely popular in the boat trailer market.

    Kodiak dIsc brake rotor and caliper assembly for RV electric over hydraulic disc brakes

    Kodiak disc brake assembly
    Rotor and caliper installed on the axle.

    Since many boaters launch their boats in the ocean, Kodiak hydraulic disc brake assemblies are offered with dacromet coating and stainless steel options so they can withstand the continuous and highly corrosive drenching they get when boaters launch their boats on and off their trailers in salt water.

    Kodiak disc brakes are also very popular in the horse trailer industry, especially on the largest, heaviest horse trailers that carry multiple horses and have living quarters as well.

    To see the parts included in a Kodiak disc brake assembly, click here.

    Hydrastar Brake Actuator

    The brake actuator is the key middleman in the trailer braking system, and the Hydrastar Electric over Hydraulic Disc Brake Actuator from Cargo Towing Solutions has an excellent reputation as being extremely durable and rugged, even when mounted on the tongue of a travel trailer.

    The role this unit plays is vital, as it is the part of the system that receives the electrical signal coming from the brake control in the truck and, in turn, pumps the hydraulic fluid out to the disc brakes on the trailer’s wheels.

    Hydrastar electric over hydraulic disc brake actuator from Cargo Towing Solutions

    Hydrastar electric over hydraulic disc brake actuator.

    Like Kodiak, the the Hydrastar electric over hydraulic brake actuator is engineered for the salt water boat trailer market where water and corrosion are everyday challenges. The Hydrastar brake actuator is sealed extraordinarily well so it can be mounted on the tongue of a travel trailer. The whole circuit board is covered in epoxy and can function perfectly well when submerged under water. One of their most popular trade show demonstrations is to show the Hydrastar brake actuator working while suspended inside an aquarium full of water.

    Prodigy P3 Brake Control

    We have had an older generation Prodigy brake control in our truck since we purchased our first 27′ 2007 Fleetwood Lynx Travel Trailer, however, it does not work with electric over hydraulic disc brakes. We were delighted to find that there is a much better Prodigy brake control on the market now.

    Prodigy P3 Brake Controller

    Tekonsha Prodigy P3 Brake Control

    The Prodigy P3 is portable and has been designed for people who use many different tow vehicles to tow many different trailers. Not only can it be moved from truck to truck easily, it can memorize its programmed settings for different trailers. It can even be programmed for one trailer that has different characteristics at different times, for instance, a 7-horse trailer that may be loaded with 7 horses or may be empty.

    Best of all, we could swap out the old Prodigy for the new P3 easily because the new unit used the same wiring harness as the old one.

     

    INSTALLING ELECTRIC OVER HYDRAULIC DISC BRAKES ON A TRAILER

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    Mark was confident he could do the upgrade himself. However, he was not sure he wanted to tackle running the high pressure hydraulic lines. He did that kind of work when we installed the engine-driven ocean water desalination system on our sailboat, and it was challenging getting the lines cut and getting the fittings installed on the cut line. He decided he would prefer to have professionals install this system, and we did a search to find a company that has done hundreds of trailer brake system upgrades.

    Trailer brake upgrade at Zanetti Trailer Repair

    Our buggy gets set up in a repair bay at Zanetti Trailer.

    Zanetti Trailer Repair is located just west of Fort Worth, Texas, in the town of Weatherford, and they do this kind of brake conversion frequently. Considered a horse trailer guru, Pete Zanetti started the company in 1980, and it is still a family operated business.

    Texas doesn’t have the best winter weather, and when we arrived after driving through the remnants of a horrific ice storm, our trailer was covered with a thick layer of road grime, but our gleaming new parts were ready and waiting.

    Electric over hydraulic disc brake upgrade parts

    The disc brakes, brake actuator and brake control are ready to be installed on our trailer.

    A team of three mechanics jumped on the job. To our amazement, within three hours they had completed the entire installation!

    Below is a summary of the steps they took to do the brake system upgrade.

    First, after jacking up the trailer, the wheels were removed.

    Removing wheels from a 5th wheel trailer

    Our buggy’s wheels are removed once again.

    Wheels removed from fifth wheel trailer RV

    Right down to the axles and spindles.

    Then the backing plates for the disc brakes were installed on the axles.

    Disc brake backing plate on a trailer axle and spindle

    The disc brake backing plate is mounted on the axle.

    On a table to the side, the four sets of brake assemblies and bearings were laid out, ready to be greased and put together.

    Hydraulic disc brake components- calipers, rotors and bearings

    The four rotors and calipers will be put together in assembly-line fashion.

    Here’s a closeup of the brake calipers with the red brake pads inside. The red brake pads will need to be replaced when the indented brake surface material wears away.

    Kodiak disc brake caliper with brake shoes

    The Kodiak disc brake caliper.

    Kodiak trailer disc brake caliper with brake shoes

    The brake pads are red, and when worn down to the indent, they will need replacing.

    The wheel bearings and seals were laid out, ready to be inserted in the brake rotor.

    Wheel bearings for Kodiak trailer disc brakes

    New wheel bearings ready to be lubed up and installed.

    Mark had just finished greasing the old wheel bearings on our trailer using a zerk gun. What a surprise it was to see a huge trash barrel filled with wheel bearing grease!

    Barrel of wheel bearing grease

    A Barrel O’ Grease — wow!
    They used an extremely sticky grease.

    The rotors were greased and then the new bearings were pressed in.

    Greasing the rotor on RV hydraulic disc brakes

    Greasing the inside of the rotor.

    Pressing the wheel bearings into the rotor on trailer disc brakes

    Pressing grease into a wheel bearing.

    Then the brake rotors were installed on the axles, and the brake calipers were installed on the rotors.

    Trailer disc brake rotors installed

    The brake rotors are installed on the axles. A brake caliper waits its turn on the ground.

    Kodiak dIsc brake rotor and caliper assembly for RV electric over hydraulic disc brakes

    Kodiak disc brake assembly with rotor and caliper mounted on the trailer’s axle.

    Outside (in the rain!) the old brake hubs had been discarded.

    Old trailer electric drum brakes in the trash heap

    We won’t need these any more!

    Meanwhile, the installers got busy installing the Hydrastar brake actuator in the trailer and wiring it to the fifth wheel pin box. To test the installation, they used a special electronic unit to simulate a person pressing on the brake pedal in the truck.

    Installing the Hydrastar brake actuator on a fifth wheel trailer

    Wiring the Hydrastar brake actuator into the
    fifth wheel pin box.

    Then they unrolled and straightened the stainless steel brake line tubing…

    Measuring and cutting electrical wire for trailer disc brake actuator installation

    Unrolling and straightening the stainless steel brake line tubing.

    … and ran the electrical wires from the pin box into the fifth wheel basement

    Wiring in electrical cable for disc brake actuator in a 5th wheel trailer RV

    Feeding the electrical wire through to the fifth wheel basement.

    The Hydrastar brake actuator unit found a home just inside one of the basement side access doors.

    Hydrastar disc brake actuator from Cargo Towing Solutions

    Hydrastar disc brake actuator installed in the fifth wheel basement.

    Hydrastar hydraulic trailer disc brake actuator from Cargo Towing Solutions

    The Hydrastar disc brake actuator is close to a side hatch for easy access.

    On the underside of the trailer and along the trailer axles, they did a superior job of dressing the hydraulic brake line and connections.

    Hydraulic brake line dressed on bottom of RV

    Looking up at the bottom of the trailer, the hydraulic lines run underneath the trailer, neatly dressed.

    And then they bled the brake lines.

    Bleeding the hydraulic brakes on an RV

    Bleeding the hydraulic brakes. A special box simulated a person depressing the brake pedal in the truck.

    Then it was time to put the Prodigy P3 Brake Control into the truck. This is a portable unit that comes with a carrying pouch. We have only one truck, so we won’t be carrying the brake control from one truck to another. Mark later found the little pouch was perfect for his pocket camera!

    Prodigy P3 Brake Control from Tekonsha

    The Prodigy P3 Brake Control is a nifty portable unit that can be moved
    from one tow vehicle to another.

    The brake control is on the lower right side of the dashboard under the steering wheel.

    Prodigy P3 Brake Control installed on a Dodge RAM 3500_

    Prodigy P3 Brake Control mounted below our Dodge RAM 3500 dashboard

    We were astonished that all this had taken just under three hours, and the installers were almost finished. Wrapping up the job, the wheels were mounted back on the trailer and the trailer was taken off the jacks.

    Replacing the wheels on a fifth wheel trailer

    The wheels get mounted back on the trailer axles.

    The new disc brakes looked very spiffy peeking through our dirty wheels!

    Dirty Wheels and new electric over hydraulic trailer disc brakes

    Oh gosh — sure wish we’d cleaned those wheels before this installation!
    But the brand new disc and caliper look great in there…

    It was time to hitch up the trailer and hit the road with our new brakes. I loved the little painted stone outside the office door.

    Zanetti Trailer - We'll Fix Your Wagon

    Zanetti Trailer’s motto is “We’ll Fix Your Wagon” !!

     

    SUMMARY

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    Mark was blown away when we got the trailer out on the highway. On the Prodigy P3 Brake Control, he experimented with a few settings and settled on a boost of “B2” and 8.5 volts. As we eased onto the highway, he commented, “It feels like I’m driving a car!”

    During the next three weeks we made our way from central Texas to the Florida coast, driving in all kinds of conditions, from remote back roads, to many miles on the I-10 Interstate freeway. We sat for hours in massive stop-and-go traffic jams around big cities, and Mark coped with tricky driving situations on small downtown city roads with lots of stop lights.

    In the past, if a traffic light turned yellow at the wrong moment as we approached, we just had to keep going and cross our fingers that it wouldn’t turn red while we were crossing the intersection, because we just couldn’t stop the trailer in such a short distance. No more!! On many occasions, as we came to an intersection, the light turned yellow on our approach, and Mark was able to stop the truck and trailer in time in a nicely controlled manner.

    In Fort Worth, TX, and again around Baton Rouge, LA, we found ourselves in amazingly congested traffic. Mark was able to relax in the heat of the battle, completely confident that he could stop the trailer in a very short distance if need be.

    Fifth wheel trailer RV in Florida at sunset

    Sometimes the best improvements are not something you can see on the surface!

    When we got into Sarasota, Florida, we came across some astonishingly aggressive drivers. One driver cut us off with just an inch to spare, instantly coming to a complete stop directly in front of us. It was a heart stopping moment that all RVers dread. Mark slammed on the brakes with a force I have never seen him use, either in a car or in our truck pulling our home.

    All the tires of the truck and trailer squealed as we came to a shockingly abrupt stop, leaving lots of rubber on the road behind us. We were both stunned that the trailer stopped in such a short distance. There is no doubt that if we had had our old electric drum brakes, we would have rear-ended the car in front of us and had a really bad — and possibly life threatening — accident.

    Believe me, the irony that we had just replaced our brakes, and had jokingly said we needed to test just how good they were, was not lost on us. But we never would have lurched our house like that just to see if the brakes worked!!

    This brake conversion is an upgrade that Mark dreamed of doing for ages, ever since our RVing mentors Bob and Donna Lea had told us about how differently their electric over hydraulic disc brakes performed on their 33′ fifth wheel compared to the electric drum brakes they’d had on other trailers.

    In the end, it was totally painless and very easy to do, and looking back, we realize we should have just bitten the bullet the first year we owned our trailer and gotten it done right away.

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    Edge Evolution CS Tuner Review – Peak Truck Performance!

    The engines in most cars and trucks are computer driven these days, but the installation of an engine tuner puts the driver in the driver’s seat instead. An engine tuner, or programmer, gives the driver the ability to fine tune the engine’s efficiency and performance by manipulating the computer’s input parameters to suit the driving task at hand.

    Since 2007, we have lived year-round in a 14,100 lb, 36′ 2007 NuWa Hitchhiker fifth wheel trailer. For eight years, the truck we used to tow this big trailer was a 2007 Dodge Ram 3500 Single Rear Wheel Long Bed truck. Half of our miles driven, we towed the trailer. The other half, we drove it around town with nothing in tow and a few hundred pounds of cargo the bed of the truck. Once in a while we threw in an off-road adventure just for fun.

    2007 Dodge RAM 3500

    Our 2007 Dodge RAM 3500 single rear wheel truck

    When the truck had 85,000 miles on it, we installed an Edge Diesel Evolution CS tuner, and what a world of difference that made to our driving experience, not only when we were towing but also when we were driving the truck around without the trailer attached.

    In a nutshell, it has:

    • Increased our truck’s power
    • Improved our gas mileage
    • Given us a readout for the transmission temperature.

    And it was an easy installation to boot.

    We also installed an optional companion product, the Edge EAS Exhaust Gas Temp sensor which gives us another piece of crucial temperature data when we are towing under heavy load. This is not a mandatory installation.

    We couldn’t be more pleased with these upgrades!

    Big Bend Texas Bound

    Our truck with our fifth wheel trailer attached.

    This is a long post, and you can skip down the page to the following sections:

    1. Why Install an Engine Tuner?
    2. Edge Evolution CS Tuner – Tested and Validated
    3. Installing the Edge Tuner
    4. More POWER Driving in the Rocky Mountains
    5. More TEMP DATA Towing in the Rockies
    6. Better MPG – Fuel Efficiency Improvements, Towing and Not Towing
    7. Additional Exhaust Gas Temperature Sensor Installation
    8. Other features of the Edge Evolution CS tuner

    1. Why Install an Engine Tuner?

    We first became interested in the idea of installing the Edge Evolution CS tuner when Mark saw an article in the October 2014 issue of Diesel Power Magazine (“Tested, Proven, Validated — Edge’s DPF-On Tuner Walks the Walk”). This article discusses the improvements the tuner had made on our exact model truck (well, a 2009 rather than a 2007, but with everything else virtually the same, including the mileage!).

    The Edge Diesel Evolution Tuner works on Ford, GM/Chevy and Dodge RAM.

    Edge Evolution CS Tuner mounted on the dashboard of a Dodge RAM 3500 truck

    The Edge Tuner is mounted on the windshield, low enough not to restrict visibility but still easy to see.

    Why install a tuner? It lets the driver fine tune the engine performance and boost power when needed

    The beauty of the Edge programmer is that it doesn’t change anything in the engine permanently. It simply gives the driver the ability to fine tune the engine for its specific job at the moment, whether that is towing a big trailer, carrying a heavy load in the bed, racing off-road, or driving around town.

    Light duty diesel trucks (i.e., Ford 250/350, Chevy 2500/3500 and Dodge RAM 2500/3500) are built for many uses, from towing heavy horse and RV trailers, to off-road racing, to driving across town and across country carrying big loads.

    The on-board computer of every model truck is programmed at the factory to be able to do each of these things pretty well. However, it is impossible to program the computer to operate the engine at peak performance in all conditions. To make things worse, the truck manufacturers don’t provide the driver with a way to optimize the engine’s performance or to monitor some of the data the computer has already gathered.

    Much of the truck computer’s capabilities and data remain inaccessible to the driver.

    This is where the Edge tuner comes in, because it allows the driver to fine tune the engine for the immediate job at hand.

    The idea behind the Edge tuner is to put the programming power into the hands of the driver, and to provide gauges for monitoring much of the data that the engine’s sensors detect. The Edge tuner can program the truck’s computer to maximize towing power or maximize non-towing fuel efficiency, depending on the kind of driving you are doing that day. It can also set the truck’s computer back to the stock factory settings, which is important if the truck is going into the shop for repair.

    Because nothing mechanical is modified or tampered with, this means that nothing whatsoever is lost by installing the Edge tuner, but a whole lot is gained.

    Why install a tuner? It gives the driver more detailed engine & transmission temperature data

    We were intrigued by the Edge tuner because the installation appeared to be very easy, and the results were absolutely terrific. We tow our big fifth wheel trailer over huge, nasty mountain passes in the western states on a regular basis in the summertime, often tackling 10% and 15% grades on secondary roads. A little more towing power would be awesome!

    What’s more, the tuner displays temperature data that the truck’s computer already has but that the truck manufacturer doesn’t display on the dashboard gauges. All this data is readily available via the OBD-II port (“On Board Diagnostic”) under the dashboard, you just have to plug into it. This is what the Edge programmer does — it is totally “plug-and-play.”

    Edge Evolution CS Tuner programmer for diesel trucks

    In this image, the tuner is set up to display three different types of temperature data:
    Engine Coolant Temp (left), Exhaust Gas Temp (middle bar), Transmission Fluid Temp (right).
    From the factory, most trucks display ONLY the Engine Coolant Temperature.

    So, the Edge tuner would allow us to monitor the transmission temperature as we drove over mountain passes. This is vital data that is not accessible with our standard engine temp gauges.

    Installing a companion product, the Edge Products EAS Exhaust Gas Temp sensor would let us monitor the exhaust gas temperature as well. Data from this optional sensor is shown in the middle gauge in the above image.

    Having this extra information would allow us take action if something other than the engine coolant temperature overheated. It would also keep us better in touch with what was going on in the engine, in the event that the engine coolant temp was within an acceptable range but some other part of the truck’s propulsion were overheating. That scenario doesn’t seem possible, but read on…

    You see, the factory installed engine coolant temp gauge in the truck cab tells only part of the story!

    Why install a tuner? It improves the truck’s Fuel Efficiency (MPG)

    We’ve always wished for a little better fuel mileage, both towing and when we are driving around town without our house attached. The tuner’s Level 2 programming mode promised improved fuel efficiency in non-towing conditions.

    As it turned out, the tuner has increased our truck’s fuel efficiency in all situations.

    What about the truck’s warranty?

    A tuner (or “programmer”) does not permanently modify the truck’s computer or engine. There are “chips” on the market that make a permanent modification, but tuners and programmers don’t fall into that category.

    We have called a few Dodge dealerships, and they have all assured us that if we had a truck that was in warranty (ours is not), they would service the truck even if it had an Edge tuner installed in it. Their recommendation to us was to reset the Edge tuner to “Stock” and then unplug it from the OBD-II port under the dashboard before bringing it in for service so they could properly analyze the engine (they use OBD-II port for their diagnostics).

    The dealerships did say that if they found service was needed because of the presence of the Edge tuner (for instance, the tuner failed and shorted something out), they wouldn’t warranty that work, but they said the Edge tuner itself would not void any warranties.

     

     

    2. Edge Diesel Evolution Tuner – Tested and Validated!

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    It’s easy enough for manufacturers to offer a bunch of sales hype and fake claims about a product like this, but the aspect of the magazine article that really got our attention was that the folks at Diesel Power did a controlled experiment to measure both the horsepower and torque that this tuner generates. First, they put a stock 2009 Dodge RAM 3500 on a dynamometer and took horsepower and torque measurements. Then they installed the Edge tuner on the same truck, put it back on the dynomometer, and did the measurements a second time.

    With the Edge tuner set to its lowest setting (Evolution Level 1), the results were:

    Stock (no tuner) With Edge Tuner
    Horsepower: 321 @ 2,900 rpm 362 @ 2,900 rpm
    Torque: 605 ft-lb @ 2,350 rpm 711 ft-lb @ 2,300 rpm
    Peak Exhaust Gas Temp: 1,266 degrees 1,200 degrees

    So, they saw a jump of 41 hp, 106 ft-lb torque and a drop in peak exhaust gas temperatures. Wow!!

    The Edge Tuner suddenly became a “must have” for us.

    3. Installing the Edge Evolution CS Tuner

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    The installation took a total of 90 minutes, from opening the box, to sitting down and reading the manual, to getting the unit installed in the truck. Very easy. In fact, it was so darned quick that Mark had completely finished the installation before I got my camera out to get pics of the unit going in.

    Edge Products Diesel Evolution Programmer Package Contents

    Edge Diesel Evolution Tuner Package Contents

    The package contents include:

    • The user manual
    • The display unit
    • A windshield mounting bracket
    • Two wire/plug assemblies
    • Tie wraps

    You just mount the display unit on the windshield with the suction cup mounting bracket, plug the unit to the OBD-II port, use the tie wraps to dress it all up, and you’re done. So I guess I didn’t miss much!

     

    4. More POWER!! Driving in the Rocky Mountains

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    15 mph grade in the Colorado Rocky Mountains

    The switchbacks are 180 degree
    hairpin turns

    When we installed the Edge tuner on our truck, we just happened to be staying at the base of one of the biggest mountain passes we have ever traversed with our truck and trailer, the Million Dollar Highway that runs through the Colorado Rocky Mountains between Ouray, Silverton and Durango, on US Route 550.

    This hair-raising, 70 mile stretch of road winds through dozens of 10 mph, 15 mph and 20 mph hairpin turns, going up and down grades that the Colorado Department of Transportation rates at “7% or more,” with some folks claiming a few are in the 9% range.

    To add a little excitement to the drive, this is a fairly narrow two lane road with steep, unprotected drop-offs.

    The views are divine, but it can be a white knuckle ride. The drive begins in Ouray at an altitude of 7,800′ and then climbs and descends over three major passes:

    After finishing the Edge tuner installation, we took the truck up and down the first part of this road between Ouray and Red Mountain Pass about a dozen times. Mark set the tuner to Evolution Level 1, and he felt the difference in performance immediately.

    He hit the gas pedal on a steep incline and his eyebrows shot up as he said to me, “This feels like a race truck!”

    Steep 10 mph switchback on Red Mountain Pass on Route 550 the Million Dollar Highway between Ouray and Silverton Colorado

    Steep 10 mph grades climbing Red Mountain Pass

     

    5. More TEMP DATA!! Towing in the Rockies

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    Once he was comfortably familiar with the road and the mountain passes, and once we were ready to leave Ouray, we hitched the trailer to the truck and drove the entire Million Dollar Highway — Route 550 — over those three mountain passes from Ouray through Silverton to Durango.

    20 mph grade on the Million Dollar Highway in Colorado's Rock Mountains

    20 mph switchback ahead.

    Mark was impressed that the truck had plenty of power at all times and made it up and over the passes without straining. He kept the engine torque in its power band of 2,200 to 2,600 rpm, and he never had to depress the gas pedal all the way to the floor to maintain a safe speed.

    You can set up the Edge tuner display to show whatever data interests you most.

    On the CS model (which we installed), there are two large analog displays with accompanying digital readouts and a smaller digital display in between them.

    The CTS model (which is slightly more expensive) has three analog displays with accompanying digital readouts.

    Mark had set up our tuner to show the Engine Coolant Temp (ECT) and the Transmission Fluid Temp (TFT) on the two large semi-circular analog gauges to the left and right.

    The ECT is a measure of the antifreeze temperature in the radiator, and is the “engine temperature” reading that is given in an analog gauge on the truck’s dashboard. It is also the temperature that most manufacturer’s use to indicate that the engine has overheated, usually displaying a big red light on the dash.

    Fifth wheel trailer in the Colorado Rocky mountains_

    Despite the hairpin turns and sheer drop-offs, semi-tractor trailers and RVs traverse this highway all the time.

    The TFT is a measure of the transmission fluid temp, and it is not a value that is tied into any of the dashboard instrumentation on most trucks.

    In general, both the ECT and TFT temps should be kept below 225 degrees, although newer trucks can run slightly hotter than older trucks.

    The digital readouts on the Edge tuner display unit are big numbers that are easy for both the driver (and passenger) to read.

    Getting into the Red Zone

    What a shock it was to begin our first big ascent on Red Mountain Pass and to see that while the Engine Coolant Temp was in the normal range, according to both the factory-installed in-dash gauge and the Edge tuner (which showed 215 degrees), the Transmission Fluid Temp went into the red zone, climbing past the safe zone of 225 degrees up to 237 degrees.

    The ascent was almost over when we hit this max, and both temps quickly dropped back down as we descended towards Silverton. The ECT cooled down to 198 degrees and the TFT cooled way down to 163 degrees.

    On the next ascent, Molas Pass, (10,970′), the Engine Coolant Temp climbed back up to 215 degrees (still in the safe zone) while the Transmission Fluid Temp topped out at 244 degrees.

    Edge Diesel Evolution CS Tuner showing high transmission fluid temperature

    The truck’s temp gauge (and Edge ECT data) said we were not overheating, but
    that’s just the antifreeze. The transmission fluid temp (right) was 19 degrees too high.

    In the next valley, the temps dropped back down again, and on the last ascent, Coal Bank Pass (10,640′), the temps climbed again, but this time the Transmission Fluid Temp stayed below 235 degrees.

    Insights

    We were both amazed that the truck never overheated, according to the dashboard Engine Temp gauge, but in fact, the transmission had exceeded its limits by as much as 19 degrees, or 8%. We never would have known that without the Edge tuner, and it made us wonder just how hot the transmission fluid would be in the event that the engine coolant temp actually went into red alert.

    If the transmission stays over 225 degrees for too many minutes, the transmission fluid breaks down permanently, and the transmission can be irreparably damaged.

    10 mph grade on steep Red Mountain Pass switchback on Route 550 the Million Dollar Highway in Colorado

    Steep grade ahead — prepare for a 10 mph turn

    You can set up alerts in the Edge tuner display so that buzzers sound and/or the display flashes when any of the data being monitored exceeds its maximum. However, by default, the alert system is turned off. This makes sense, as it could be annoying to have a buzzer going when you are already nervously looking for a way to safely pull over to let the engine cool.

    For anyone installing the Edge tuner, just keep the magic number 225 in mind, and you will easily see when you have exceeded that value on the tuner’s display, as the numbers are nice and large. There is also a “red zone” on the analog display, but we found it was so faint that we did not notice it until we studied our photos of the gauge afterwards!

     

    6. Better MPG – Fuel Efficiency Improvements

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    When we tow, we set the Edge tuner to Level 1.
    When we are not towing, we set the Edge tuner to Level 2.

    Increased MPG – Towing – Improves by 2 MPG!

    Before we installed the Edge tuner, we typically got somewhere between 9.7 and 10.5 mpg while towing for long distances, according to the electronic gauge in the truck. This gauge has its limitations, because it is somehow averaging the most recent miles driven, but I have not been able to find exactly how the average is calculated or how many miles back it goes — is it the most recent 100 miles? 500? 1,000?

    Measuring the MPG from one full tank of diesel to the next is a more accurate method, but it is still fallible because one tank may be filled slightly more than another, and if the tank of gas includes both towing and non-towing miles, then the numbers are thrown off.

    So, I can’t offer scientifically collected numbers here, but I can say that after we installed the Edge tuner, the gauge in our truck now typically shows numbers between 11.7 and 12.5 when we are towing consistently for distances of 250 miles or more.

    In essence, the truck is saving 2 miles per gallon while producing more power. Very impressive!

    Increased MPG – Not Towing – Improves by 3 MPG!

    Our truck always used to get somewhere in the 16-18 MPG range when we weren’t towing, better on highways and less in town.

    Now, if we travel 100 miles or more without the trailer, we see an MPG in the 19-21 range. That is an improvement of 3 MPG!

    What a shock it was the first time we drove 130 highway miles at 65 mph and saw 21.6 MPG on our truck’s mileage gauge!!

    Return on Investment

    If this fuel savings alone were used to justify the cost of a new Edge Evolution tuner, how many miles would we have to drive for the unit to pay for itself?

    If we assume the tuner costs ~$450 and diesel costs ~$3/gallon (both rough but reasonable estimates given prices in the last year), and we assume a conservative savings of 2 MPG, whether towing or not, and we tow for half the total miles driven, we will have saved approximately $450 in fuel once we have driven about 15,500 miles.

    Of course, the tuner does a lot more than save a little fuel…

     

    7. Additional Exhaust Gas Temperature Sensor Installation

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    A month after installing the Edge Evolution CS tuner, Mark installed a companion product, the Expandable Accessory System (EAS – product #98603) Exhaust Gas Temperature sensor. This product measures the temperature of the exhaust gases in the exhaust manifold, giving the driver yet more insight — beyond just the antifreeze temp and the transmission fluid temp — into how hot the engine is running.

    This was an optional installation, but after seeing the value of knowing the transmission fluid temperature, we wanted to be able to monitor our exhaust gas temperature readings as well.

    This installation was quite a bit more complicated than the Edge programmer, as the probe had to be inserted into the exhaust manifold. This required drilling a hole in the exhaust manifold, tapping the hole, screwing the probe into the newly tapped hole, and running the wires through the engine firewall back to the Edge Evolution tuner where they plugged into the back of the display unit.

    The hardest part of this installation was drilling and tapping the hole, in part because the exhaust manifold is not super easy access to with a large drill, and in part because the metal of the exhuast manifold is very thick and hard.

    The instructions in the manual called for:

    The most important thing is that the tap handle be big and solid to give you lots of leverage, because the solid cast iron on the exhaust manifold is very thick and very hard. This will make the difference between an easy installation and a miserably hard one.

    As always, Mark got the project underway before I got my camera going, so I don’t have a “before” photo. However, the “after” photo below shows what you’re gunning for and what stands in the way between you and the exhaust manifold.

    Edge Products Evolution Programmer Installed on a 2007 Dodge RAM 3500 truck

    Completed installation with only the braided stainless cable for the probe showing.

    First, unscrew the bolt holding the two black tubes in place so they can be pushed aside.

    Remove the bracket for access to the exhaust manifold

    Remove the bolt to free up the tubes that are blocking the exhaust manifold

    The probe will be inserted here.

    Location for inserting the Edge Products EAS Exhaust gas temperature probe in the exhaust manifold

    Location for the Edge Products EAS Exhaust gas temp probe in the exhaust manifold

    Space is tight, so a 90 degree right angle drill is necessary. Drill a pilot hole first. Then drill the real hole for the probe.

    In order to avoid getting metal filings in the wrong places, grease the drill bit first. Drill a little, then wipe the drill bit down, re-grease it, and drill a little further. Do this for both the pilot hole and the real hole.

    Use a 90 degree right angle drill

    Use a 90 degree right angle drill

    Hole drilled in the exhaust manifold

    Hole drilled in exhaust manifold

    Now the hole is ready to be tapped. Grease or oil the tapping tool well, and work it in and out a quarter turn at a time. As before, after a few turns, back it all the way out and wipe off the metal filings, and re-grease it.

    As mentioned above, a small tap handle will not give you enough leverage for the thick, hard cast iron of the exhaust manifold.

    Preparing to tap the hole in the exhaust manifold

    An undersized tap handle will make the job very difficult. Get a big, sturdy one!

    Once the hole is drilled and tapped, the probe can be screwed in. Grease the probe’s threads with <strong>Permatex Anti-Seize Lubricant first. Then, a cable connecting the probe to the Edge tuner is run from the exhaust manifold back through the engine firewall between the engine and the cab, and on up to the tuner.

    Edge Products EAS exhaust temperature probe screwed into the exhaust manifold

    Edge Products EAS exhaust temperature probe screws into the exhaust manifold

    Wires run through the engine firewall between the engine compartment and the truck cab

    Wires run through the engine firewall between the engine compartment and the truck cab

     

    Mark opted to put the display for the exhaust gas temperatures in the middle display area between the Engine Coolant Temp and the Transmission Fluid Temp. Of course, you can choose to display any data in any of the three display areas, and Mark experimented a little before settling on ECT on the left, EGT in the middle and TFT on the right.

    Edge Evolution CS Tuner programmer for diesel trucks

    Engine Coolant (left), Exhaust Gas (middle bar), Transmission Fluid (right)

    The more expensive Edge Evolution CTS tuner has three large displays with both analog and digital readouts rather than the two large displays and one small one on the Edge Evolution CS tuner.

    Results

    We installed the Exhaust Gas Temperature probe after we had done all of our mountain driving for the season, so we have yet to test it in the mountains. The “overtemp” magic number for the EGT is 1350. Typical temps we have seen driving around town are in the mid-900’s, and climbing a long 5% grade while towing our fifth wheel, we’ve seen the mid-1100’s. However, these have just been the long, gradual grades of Arizona and not the steep switchbacks typical of Rocky Mountain passes.

    We will report our findings about the exhaust gas temperature readings once we have taken our RV over a big mountain pass!

     

    8. Other Features of the Edge Tuner

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    The Edge tuner has a ton of other things it can do, because it essentially opens up the truck’s computer so the driver can access the data and temporarily modify the input parameters for the current driving conditions. (Obviosuly, you must be parked to mess with the menus on the tuner.)

    Our only interest in the tuner has been the improved power while towing, improved fuel economy while not towing and the additional temperature data that is made available when towing over big mountain passes.

    Maintenance and Diagnostic Trouble Codes

    There is a Maintenance Manager mode where you can establish a reminder system for standard maintenance items like changing the transmission fluid, checking the trans case fluid level, inspecting the brake pads, lubing the tie rod ends and rotating the tires. Simply get it started with your current odometer reading, and the reminders will alert you at your chosen intervals.

    If you are really concerned about fuel economy, there is a Mileage Coach that can show you how to vary your foot’s pressure on the gas pedal to maximize fuel economy as you drive. You can also find out the fuel cost per mile of a particular trip if you enter the price of the fuel you buy!

    In addition, the Edge tuner can reveal the Diagnostic Trouble Codes that are present when the truck’s Check Engine light goes on. Most codes can be looked up on the internet, so this might save some head scratching before heading off to a mechanic to get the problem looked at.

    For racers

    We have used only Levels 1 and 2 (for towing and around town driving), however there are two more levels beyond that for increased power performance, if you find your truck on the starting line of a racecourse. These modes adjust the fuel injection and timing to be more aggressive. In addition, the CTS model can be interfaced to a backup camera and it can also monitor the pitch, roll and G-forces!! For those with racing in mind who find themselves at a drag strip, there are also 0 to 60 mph performance tests and quarter mile tests, and the record highest values of these tests are maintained.

    Studying the Data

    You can also connect the Edge tuner to a computer using the USB port. You can retrieve all the data from the Edge programmer into an Excel-readable .csv file. using the downloadable Windows software called MyStyle (instructions given in the manual).

    For us, however, we are content with just the basics!

    Product info:

    For fun:

    After 20,000 very happy miles with this engine tuner, we replaced our ’07 Dodge Ram 3500 with a 2016 Ram 3500 dually. A detailed description of our buying process and options on the new truck can be found here: Which Are the BEST Ram 3500 Options for Towing a 14K lb. 5th Wheel Trailer? A fun story is that rocker Alice Cooper Sold Us Our Truck! For those that are curious, we put a fabulous “puck” based B&W Fifth Wheel Hitch in the bed of our new truck, and we’re getting another Edge tuner!

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    RV Heater – How to Install a Vent-Free Propane Heater in Your RV

    Installing a vent-free propane heater is one of the best upgrades you can do for your RV if you plan to be spending a lot of time in chilly places. This page reviews how ventless propane heaters operate in comparison to traditional RV furnaces, it discusses the different technologies used in the design of various types of vent-free gas heaters on the market today — including catalytic heaters, ceramic brick and plaque heaters, and blue flame heaters — and it presents a step-by-step guide for installing a vent-free propane heater in your RV or camper.

    You can jump to the various sections of this page here:

     

    This post was first written in January, 2009, but was completely overhauled and rewritten in October, 2014.

    INTRODUCTION

     

    Warming my hands over a vent-free blue flame propane heater in my 5th wheel camper RV

    Happiness is… a vent-free propane heater!

    We froze in our trailer during our first winter in Arizona. Morning temperatures in the kitchen were often 40+ degrees F, and although daytime temps could get as high as 70, as soon as evening came, the temps in our trailer dropped into the the 50’s.

    Brrr! It’s hard to sit around in the evening in those kinds of temperatures. All modern motorhomes and campers (ours included) come equipped with a propane furnace. However, these loud, inefficient beasts use a lot of electricity, and can drain the batteries in one night.

    During that first winter (2007-08) in our 27′ Fleetwood Travel Trailer, we discovered that the more experienced winter desert boondockers (both snowbird RVers and those living the full-time RV lifestyle) installed vent-free propane heaters in their rigs. These are wonderful little appliances that use far less propane than a furnace and no electricity at all. When we upgraded to our 36′ Hitchhiker 34.5 RLTG fifth wheel in May, 2008, we decided we would install one. All summer long we thought about the project, but never found ourselves in a town where there was a good selection of heaters to look at or anyone knowledgeable about installing them in RVs. So we dawdled.

    As the nights got colder in late November, 2008, and we relied more and more on our trailer’s electricity-eating furnace, we found ourselves in the warm company of our good friends Bob and Donna Lea Jensen and their vent-free, electricity-free propane heater. Bob has installed quite a few of these little devils over the years, and he gave us some hints and loaned us two critical tools for the project: a pipe cutter and a flaring tool. We learned a lot through this process, and I thought it might be helpful, along with our other RV tips and tricks pages to include some notes here about our project.

    There are several types of vent-free heaters on the market, and each has its pros and cons. In the end, we opted to buy a 20,000 BTU thermostatically controlled blue flame heater made by Vanguard. The night before the installation we laughed as we bundled ourselves into our recliners wearing multiple layers, buried under blankets for the last time. Mark’s face peaked out from under his hood as he read. The night after the installation, in shorts and t-shirt, I had to poke my nose out the window to get some cool air. In our excitement, we had inadvertently heated the bedroom to 85 degrees.

    We have used and loved this heater year-round ever since, running it near sea-level in the southern states in the winter months and using in the cool mountains during the summer months!

     

    COMPARISON OF RV FURNACES AND VENT-FREE HEATERS

    RV PROPANE FURNACES

    Propane uses oxygen as it burns and gives off moisture as a by-product. Therefore it has the potential to use up all the oxygen in an enclosed space and kill any living, breathing occupants while creating a layer of condensation on the insides of windows. Yikes! To accommodate these unpleasant aspects of propane heating, conventional RV propane furnaces use a large blower system to bring in outside, oxygen-rich air. In turn, they vent the moist, oxygen-depleted air from inside the rig to the outside. Circulating the air this way keeps the oxygen level in the air fairly constant and significantly reduces the build-up of condensation on the insides of the windows, as the moisture gets blown outside along with the exhausted air.

    Atwood RV furnace
    However, by blowing all this warm air outside, the furnace is effectively heating the outdoors. If you stand outside an RV next to the furnace vent on a really cold day, you can warm your hands and body quite nicely. Also, this blower requires electricity to run. RV furnaces are DC, so they do not require an inverter or generator in order to operate. However, the amount of power they use is astronomical (our 40,000 BTU furnace uses 11 amps DC). If you are boondocking, or dry camping in the desert as many winter Snowbird RVers do, you are then faced with a choice of either keeping the RV unacceptably cold, or using a generator to keep the batteries charged (even our big solar power installation on the Hitchhiker 5th wheel was not enough to keep up with the furnace blower during the winter).

    Besides heating the outside air and running the batteries down, a major disadvantage of a standard RV propane furnaces is that the blower is really loud. There is nothing like being deeply absorbed in a really great movie and listening to some very profound dialog being exchanged in whispers, and having the furnace suddenly roar to life and drown out everything being said. Our furnace blower often woke us up out of a sound sleep too.

    VENT-FREE PROPANE HEATERS

    In contrast, vent-free propane heaters are silent and provide heat without using any battery power. This is because they rely on you to give them fresh air: you have to crack open a window while they run. All US-made vent-free heaters are built with an internal oxygen sensor that shuts off the heater if the oxygen level in the room becomes too depleted. In addition, most RVs come equipped with an LP gas detector that will sound alarms if the oxygen in the air drops too low or if an LP gas leak is detected. You may also need (or choose) to run a small fan to circulate the air. This will use some battery power, but you can decide how much or how little to use the fan.

    Living without heat in an RV

    Brrr… This was what life was like before we installed our vent-free propane heater!

    So, in essence, when using a vent-free heater, you must find a happy balance between several variables. Determine which kind of heater will best suit your needs (see descriptions below), figure out where to place it in the RV, which window(s) to crack open, and how often to run a fan (if at all), and if so, which kind of fan to use (a little DC fan, like one used in a computer, a large AC ceiling fan that will require an inverter or generator to run, or an optional blower fan that can be purchased with the heater).

    Heat rises, so in 5th wheel campers the heat tends to gather in the bedroom. Simply close the door to the bedroom, or crack it slightly open to control the movement of the warm air into that space. Likewise, if you use a ceiling fan, you can experiment with running it forward or backward, either to draw air up and move it out along the ceiling or to push the warm air down towards the floor.

    Propane has a fixed capacity for providing heat. One gallon of propane contains 92,000 BTUs of potential heat, which means a 40,000 BTU RV furnace running full blast will burn through nearly a gallon of propane every two hours or so. During the coldest periods, it is a real pain in the neck to keep having to refill the propane tanks as you fly through propane trying to heat your rig.

    Our Lynx travel trailer came with a 30,000 BTU furnace, and our Hitchhiker 5th wheel came with a 40,000 BTU furnace, both installed at the factory. These were sized appropriately for the square footage of each camper. However, we have found we can easily heat our big fifth wheel to higher temperatures in less time using our 20,000 BTU vent-free propane heater instead of the factory-installed 40k BTU RV furnace. So, a smaller vent-free heater that burns less propane per hour can effectively heat a given space more quickly than a traditional RV furnace that is twice its size.

    Because of the inefficiency of RV furnaces in terms of propane use and battery power consumption, when we use the RV furnace alone for heat in 30+ degree F overnight temps and 40+ degree daytime temps, we find we have to keep our trailer at 50 degrees while sleeping at night and at just 60+ degrees during the day. Cold as that sounds, this uses up almost a gallon of propane a day and we can barely keep the batteries topped off using our 490 watts of solar panels alone. Worst of all, living like this is really uncomfortable.

    Using our vent-free blue flame heater in the same conditions and burning the same one gallon of propane per day in those conditions, we can easily keep the 5th wheel at 76 degrees all day long. And we use almost no electricity.

    To clarify, we have two 30 lb (7 gallon) propane tanks, and when outside highs are in the 50’s and lows are in the 20’s, we go through a tank of propane each week. When outside highs drop below freezing 24/7, we can go through a tank in 3 days.

     

    WHICH IS THE BEST TYPE OF VENT-FREE HEATER?

     

    When choosing a vent-free propane heater, there are a lot of products on the market. Catalytic and ceramic heaters produce infrared radiant heat which heats objects situated nearby much the same way the sun does. They create a warm, baking sensation on your skin, but if you move away (like moving into the shade outdoors), that sensation goes away. The air in the room warms up over time as the objects in the room warm up.

    In contrast, blue flame heaters heat the air, rather than the objects in the room, providing a more even, uniform warmth. Gradually, the objects in the room heat up as the overall temperature of the air in the room rises.

    All of these heaters come in different sizes, ranging from 5,000 to 30,000 BTUs, which are good for heating 100 square feet up to 1,000 square feet. Small ones can be hung on the wall, out of the way, while big ones that appear modest-sized in the show room suddenly become monster heat sources that dominate the floor space when you get them home to your RV.

     

    CATALYTIC INFRARED RADIANT HEATERS

    Olympian Wave-8 Catalytic infrared radiant heater for use in an RV
    Catalytic heaters were the original vent-free heaters. The major brand is the Olympian Wave, manufactured by Camco, and their primary models are the Wave-3, Wave-6 and Wave-8 heaters. These provide 3,000, 6,000 and 8,000 BTUs of heat respectively.

    Catalytic heaters provide infrared radiant heat by way of a large pad on the surface of the heater. A chemical reaction in the pad causes heat to radiate off the entire pad. If you stand in front of a catalytic heater, your skin will feel a nice baking warmth on it. The closer you sit, the more you will bake. This is a great feeling when you are chilled.

    These heaters have been in use for years, and have an enthusiastic following. They are also quite expensive ($300-$430), often as much as double the cost per BTU as the other types of vent-free heaters. They do not have thermostats, just a “high” setting and a “low” setting, so you must manually turn them on and off or to high or low to regulate the temperature in the RV.

    If the pad on these heaters becomes dirty, it is possible to replace it for about $100. A friend of ours tried to clean his by vacuuming it, and inadvertently ended up destroying the pad. Because the pads had changed slightly since he bought his unit five years earlier, he could not replace the pad and had to replace the entire heater instead.

    You will need a brass elbow fitting from Camco for the installation. You may also want leg stands so the heater can stand on its own two feet and a dust cover to protect the catalytic pads when it is not in use.

     

    CERAMIC (BRICK or PLAQUE) INFRARED RADIANT HEATERS

    Mr. Heater Ceramic infrared radiant heater for use in an RV
    Ceramic infrared heaters are a slightly newer technology that has been warming RVs for quite a few years. The most popular brand on the market is Mr. Heater. Other brands include Kozy World, Empire and ProCom. These are generally offered in one, two, three and five brick configurations providing 5,000, 10,000, 15,000/20,000 and 25,000/30,000 BTUs of heat.

    Ceramic heaters provide the same infrared radiant heat as catalytic heaters. Across the front of the heater there are small ceramic “bricks” or “plaques” that heat up to a glowing orange/red color. Like a catalytic heater, standing in front of a brick (or plaque) ceramic heater will toast your toes to your thighs on the front of your legs. The heat from the bricks interacts with your skin and you will feel a wonderful tingly warmth.

    These are extremely popular units and can be quite inexpensive ($130-$350). Most can be purchased with or without a thermostat. One big disadvantage is that the area directly in front of the bricks gets hot enough to burn things. Any flammable items that come too close to the bricks could catch on fire. If a cat or dog wanders past and flicks its tail against the bricks, it might get singed. If a toddler sticks its fingers in there, a trip to the hospital might ensue.

     

    BLUE FLAME HEATERS

    Mr. Heater Blue Flame vent-free propane heater for use in an RV
    Blue flame heaters are the newest technology and provide a different kind of heat than the catalytic and ceramic heaters. Rather than radiating heat, blue flame heaters operate via convection (the principal that heat rises), drawing cool air in through vents at the bottom of the heater and emitting warm air out the vents in the top. This is a heating method that is much like central heating in a house. Once the air temperature has risen sufficiently, the objects warm up as well. If you keep your RV at a warm temperature all the time (especially at night), the objects in the room will never get cold.

    Blue flame heaters draw cool air in from floor level through a row of vents at the bottom, heat it up, and emit the warm air out of vents at the top, relying on convection (the fact that heat rises) to move this air instead of using a blower. You can warm your hands and body by standing in front of one, but it is more of a warming sensation than a baking one. The area in front of the blue flame is covered by fireproof glass (it’s actually a ceramic material) and it is not burning hot. So, there is no risk of items immediately in front of the heater catching fire. Blue flame heaters are a good idea for people with pets or children.

    The most popular brand is Mr. Heater. A few others include Empire Heating Systems and ProCom, the same makers of the ceramic brick heaters. These manufacturers produce both blue flame and brick heaters in the same chassis, so other than the appearance of the bricks or the flame, the unit itself has the same look whether it is the brick or blue flame version. The typical BTU range on these heaters is 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 and 30,000.

    Blue flame heaters are as popular as the brick ceramic heaters, and are in the same price range of about $130-$350. They can also be purchased with or without a thermostat.

    BLUE FLAME FIREPLACES !!

    Pleasant Hearth Vent-Free Propane Fireplace 35 inch

    .

    There are some wonderful blue flame heaters that are designed to look like fireplaces, complete with logs, trim and beautiful wooden mantels. Manufacturers include Pleasant Hearth and ProCom.

    These cost about $200-$300 more than the regular blue flame heaters, but what a beautiful addition to your RV. You can sit and watch the yellow flames dancing around the logs and warm your bones at the same time. I saw one of these units in an old travel trailer and was enchanted. The owner had built his own mantel out of an old coffee table, and it was lovely. I wanted one of those units so badly!!

    The only place for a unit like that in our rig was along the backside of the “L” in the kitchen counter, which is just a few inches from the wall of the entertainment slide-out when it comes in. If we had the carpentry skills, we probably could have slipped a fireplace in there, recessed under the counter.

    The only downside would have been that it might have gotten a little hot under the counter, and we would have had to be extra careful that the heater was fully cooled whenever we brought the slide-out in, or we would have cooked the gelcoat on the outer wall of the slide. Also, as it turned out, that particular location for the heater would not have provided the same warmth when we sat in our recliners as the heater does in its current spot in the kitchen in front of the oven (even though it would have been closer). It’s just the way the air flow circulates in our particular trailer.

    PORTABLE HEATERS

    Mr. Heater Buddy portable propane heater for your RV
    If you don’t want to hassle with installing a dedicated gas line for a vent-free propane heater in your RV, you can opt to get a portable unit instead. The portable ventless heaters are all infrared radiant heaters with bricks (plaques) that have air intake vents in the bottom for convection as well. They have built-in blowers that run on a 6 volt a/c adapter (sold separately) or on 4D batteries. They are very popular.

    They are manufactured by Mr. Heater (with the brand name “Big Buddy”), and they come in sizes from 4,000 to 18,000 BTU. They run on the small Coleman style portable propane canisters but can also be connected to a larger BBQ style propane tank.

    If you plan to run the heater from a large propane tank instead of the little propane canisters, Mr. Heater sells a companion flexible gas hose with a regulator and quick release connector on it for just that purpose. Mr. Heater make nice carrying cases for these heaters as well.

     

    OPTIONAL EQUIPMENT for VENT-FREE PROPANE HEATERS

    Thermostat

    Usually this option is just $30-$50, and it is well worth the cost if you plan to be in your RV for extended periods of time. A manually controlled heater will have several heat settings (usually three), but you will need to monitor the heat in the room and adjust the settings as you get warmer or cooler. A thermostatically controlled heater will cycle on and off as its sensor detects changes in temperature. Ours typically cycles on and off in 5-10 minute increments, keeping the temperature within 2 degrees.

    On our unit, the thermostat has a simple analog dial that can spin from “1” to “5.” These are arbitrary numbers rather than fixed fahrenheit degree markers. However, once you figure out how “1 1/4” or “2 1/2” relates to temperature, you can keep the temperature in the room tightly controlled by turning the dial to the setting you want. This is especially nice if you plan to keep the heater on all night, as the temperature in the RV will remain constant while the outside temperature drops.

    Feet

    Most units are designed to be hung on a wall, however most also have an optional stand so they can be placed on the floor. Most smaller units include the feet as an option (about $25) while most larger units come with the feet at no extra charge. The great advantage to hanging a unit on the wall is that it is always there, ready for use. If you use your RV during all four seasons, it is nice to know that if you suddenly find yourself in a chilly spot, you can simply flip the switch and have your heater working for you, rather than digging it out of the back of the closet (a lesson we learned after the fact!).

    The advantage of having the unit standing on its own two feet is that you can move it around the rig. This is especially true if you don’t use a fan of some kind to move the warm air around the rig. If you go this route, make sure you have plenty of flexible gas hose so you get maximum range for placing the heater in different spots in the rig.

    Blower

    Most ventless gas heaters can be purchased with an optional blower. As soon as you start blowing the air around the RV, you are signing up to use the batteries to keep the rig warm, something the vent-free solution was aiming to avoid. However, the power consumption should be less overall than a furnace. Some blowers are thermostatically controlled, allowing them to cycle on and off as needed. This is efficient, as the blower and batteries won’t be in use all the time the heater is on. Rather than a built-in blower, many people opt to install a small DC fan which uses very little power. If your rig has a ceiling fan, that can also be an option, although it will require the inverter or generator to be turned on. In our case, our inverter is turned on from the moment we wake up until we go to bed, so running the ceiling fan when the heater is on during the day is no big deal.

     

    HEATER PLACEMENT

    When we installed our ventless propane heater, we tried placing it in several locations. We also tried turning our ceiling fan both on and off and running the fan both forwards and backwards (blowing towards the floor and towards the ceiling) before we settled on a final arrangement.

    Kozy World Vent-Free Propane Heater connected to flexible gas hose

    This ceramic heater has a flexible gas hose that allows it
    to be moved around the RV.

    We found that the best setup was to place the heater directly below our ceiling fan (in front of the oven at the base of the stairs in the kitchen) and to set the fan to blow towards the ceiling, drawing the warm air up and distributing it outwards throughout the RV. It was astonishing to find what a difference it made as we moved the heater to various places in the trailer and tried each placement with or without the ceiling fan, and blowing up versus blowing down.

    Our RV is a “rear lounge” fifth wheel
    , and we found that the area around the recliners was a significant cold air pocket. Doesn’t it figure! That’s where we like to be on cold evenings!! There are large windows surrounding the recliners, which make that area cold, while the warm air in the rig congregates high up on the ceiling just in front of the stairs leading to the bedroom (that is, if the bedroom door is closed. Otherwise the warm air settles in the bedroom itself).

    We assumed that facing the heater towards the recliners just 5 feet in front of them would warm up this cold pocket. Wrong! No matter how high we set the thermostat, and no matter what we did with the ceiling fan (which is located 10 feet away right in front of the stairs leading to the bedroom), the recliners were still cold.

    When we moved the heater to the base of the stairs leading to the bedroom, and turned the ceiling fan on “high” and set it to blow towards the ceiling, we could immediately feel the warm air encircling us as we sat in the recliners. Who woulda thunk??!!

    Heater Sizes and Capacities

    Most manufacturers state the square footage their various heaters are designed to heat. We decided that we’d rather buy a slightly larger unit (that is, one rated for a larger space than the interior of our fifth wheel), and simply keep the heater on a lower setting than to find ourselves unable to heat the buggy adequately. Our rig is 360 square feet, which put us somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 BTUs. We ended up buying a 20,000 BTU heater, and we typically keep it set to 50% of maximum during the evenings/mornings and 25% of maximum at night when temps outside are in the 20’s and 30’s. If we had purchased a 10,000 BTU unit instead, I think it would have been cranking at max volume most of the time during the mornings and evenings and on stormy days. As a rough guide:

    Vent-free heater BTU ratings and square footage
    6,000 Up to 200 sf
    10,000 Up to 300 sf
    20,000 Up to 700 sf
    30,000 Up to 1,000 sf

    There are legal ratings for the sizes of vent-free heaters and the rooms they can be operated in. Less than 6,000 BTUs is okay for a bathroom, and less than 10,000 BTUs is okay for a bedroom. These are the ratings that are being referenced when you see a sticker on a larger unit saying “not designed to be used in a bedroom.” The idea is that a large unit operated at max volume in too small a space will use up too much oxygen in the room too quickly. Of course, such a scenario would have the occupants of the room running out the door because it would be way too hot for comfort.

     

    SAFETY OF VENTLESS PROPANE HEATERS

    Some people may worry that these kinds of ventless propane heaters aren’t safe, fearing that it might blow up the RV or suffocate them. These heaters are extraordinarily well regulated by various governing bodies, and designers have to meet stringent guidelines and submit their heaters to a battery of very challenging tests before they can be brought to market. Vent Free is the industry organization for all the vent-free gas heater manufacturers. Their website spells out all the testing, guidelines, state by state requirements, laws and safety record for these heaters. Through September 1, 2005, they claim that there had not been a documented death due to a vent-free propane heater (see that claim here). Visit their website at ventfree.org.

    In addition, at the factory, RV manufacturers install a LP Gas Detector Alarm system (various brands are used) to detect LP gas leaks in the RV and alert anyone inside. These are installed because many RVs come equipped with propane-based appliances, including things like the stove, oven, hot water heater, refrigerator and RV furnace. All RV owners should be aware of where their LP gas detector is located. It is usually installed near the floor, as LP is a heavy gas that settles down low. Propane is found in highest concentrations near the floor.

    Some RVers run their vent-free propane heater overnight as they sleep. We don’t do that. If the overnight low temps will be well below freezing (i.e., 25 degrees F or below), we run our RV furnace, set to 50 degrees, all night long to keep the plumbing from freezing, because the furnace is ducted throughout the basement.

     

    OPERATION AT HIGH ELEVATION

    Most of these heaters are sold with an official limit for operating altitude. The problem at higher altitudes is that there is not enough oxygen for the propane to burn properly. Some units are rated for use up to only 3,500 feet, while other manufacturers have a stated limit of as much as 5,000 feet.

    Our blue flame vent-free propane heater is rated for use up to 4,500 feet, but we have used it extensively at altitudes up to 8,500 feet and have used three times for two week periods at 10,000 feet.

    The key to operation at altitude is the Oxygen Detection Safety-pilot (ODS) sensor which has been standard equipment on all US-made vent-free heaters since the 1980’s. This sensor shuts off the gas to the heater when it detects the oxygen level has dropped to 18% (normal sea-level air is 21% oxygen). We find that whenever the ODS shuts our heater off, our stove and oven continue to run without a hitch. So, in reality, the stove and oven are actually more dangerous, as they do not have built-in ODS units to shut them off when the oxygen in the room gets too low.

    5th wheel camper rv in the snow

    A surprise autumn snowstorm at 10,000 feet elevation in Colorado during a two week stay taught us a lot
    about how vent-free heaters function at high altitudes.

    We use our heater all summer long as we travel through the western mountain states. We find that it works very well at 6,000 to 9,000 feet, taking the chill off cold mornings and raising the temperature inside the RV from a brisk low to mid-40’s to 75 degrees within an hour.

    We have spent months at these altitudes. On occasion, if we have been running the stove and oven as well as the heater, the heater will unceremoniously turn itself off. This is no problem. We simply open the RV door to let some oxygen-rich air into the rig.

    We have also spent several periods of 10 days to two or three weeks at 10,000 feet. Here we had more difficulty with our vent-free heater when the outdoor temps dropped into the high 20’s overnight (and we got two inches of snow on our roof!) and daytime highs were in the 40’s. The heater needed some coaxing to make it work. We tried two methods of combining the RV furnace and the ventless propane heater at this altitude. Neither was ideal, but this will give you a sense of what to expect and what to try:

    1. Run the RV furnace all night long to keep the rig at 50 degrees overnight, and then use the RV furnace to raise the temp to about 60 in the morning. We found that this method used gobs of electricity and propane and didn’t make us very warm. What’s worse, when we tried to use the vent-free blue flame heater after running the furnace, the furnace would not have sufficiently replaced the interior air with exterior oxygenated air, so the vent-free heater could not run very long before it shut off due to having insufficient oxygen around it. So, in essence, using the RV furnace meant we couldn’t use the vent-free heater. We found we could run the RV furnace all day long but the temps in the rig would never exceed 61-62 degrees (the high temps outside were in the 40’s, lows in the mid-20’s).

    2. Leave the furnace off overnight and run the ventless propane heater in the morning to warm up the rig. The temps inside our bedroom typically stay about 10 degrees above the outside temps if we don’t heat the RV overnight, so we woke up on some mornings to interior temps in the high 30’s. (We close our bedroom door at night to help keep the bedroom warm). The vent-free heater miraculously heated our indoor RV temps to 70 degrees within an hour of turning it on. At this point, around 70+ degrees, the heater would shut off. We could coax it to run a little more by opening the RV door and fanning the outside air into the rig, but it would shut off again after another 10 minutes or so. So then we would turn on the RV furnace.

    Any sensible person would have gone and gotten electric hookups at a campground and run an electric ceramic heater, but we aren’t always very sensible. Camping at 10,000 feet in snowy weather is rather extreme. Most of the boondocking spots we stay at in the summer months are down around 6,000 to 9,000 feet, as I mentioned above, and the heater works beautiful at those altitudes. During the winter months we are typically at elevations of under 1,500 feet and the heater works like a champ without missing a beat.

    Note: Since publishing this article, we have enjoyed yet another year of toasty warm heat from our blue flame vent-free heater in the mountains from spring through fall and at low desert elevations in the winter. We were also caught in another even bigger snowstorm on a mountaintop at 10,000 altitude once again and tried a different heating strategy that kept us warmer and dryer. Our article about that experience is here:

    How to Heat an RV in Cold Weather and Winter Snowstorms

     

    WHERE CAN YOU BUY A VENT-FREE PROPANE HEATER?

    We had the worst time trying to find places to look at these heaters and find people knowledgeable about installing and using them in RVs. In some states it is illegal to sell these kinds of heaters (here’s a link to the state-by-state regulations for vent-free gas heaters from ventfree.org), and in mountain towns they are scarce because of their issues with operating at high altitudes. In four months of summer travel when we were looking to buy, we found just two propane gas companies selling vent-free heaters, one in Jackson, MS and one in Kanab, UT. We ended up learning the most from fellow desert boondockers in Arizona, Nevada and California during the winter months and from salespeople in mom-and-pop hardware and RV parts stores in Yuma and Quartzsite, Arizona.

    If you know what you want, you can get a much better deal buying online, and Amazon sells all the major brands and accessories. We paid $290 plus $25 tax for our heater, a Vanguard 20,000 BTU blue flame with a thermostat and no blower (it came with feet). After buying, we found the same unit online with free shipping and no sales tax for $175 (Vanguard heaters are no longer made). Ace Hardware told us they could order a similar unit for us, shipped to their store in a week, for $215. So we paid a premium for our unit, but we did talk to a lot of sales people in the process and we saw a lot of the units (and warmed our hands over them), and knew exactly what we were buying.

    Cost of installing a vent-free heater

    Our entire project cost $385. The heater was $315 (including tax), and parts totaled $70. We were able to borrow the tools, but found they cost only about $15 to buy. We were quoted between $60 and $100 for the labor for the installation. As stated above, we also could have saved about $140 on the heater if we had purchased it online.

     

    INSTALLATION OF A VENT-FREE PROPANE HEATER IN AN RV

    Following is a pictorial step-by-step guide showing how we installed our vent-free propane heater in our RV.

    Installing fIttings on the vent-free propane heater

    The installation begins with work on the heater itself…

    Working under the kitchen cabinets to install the new gas line for the heater

    …however, the bulk of the installation involves tapping into an existing copper gas line to connect a new flexible gas line that goes to the heater.

    The first step is to do a little work on the heater itself…

    Installing the feet on our ventless blue flame propane heater

    Attach the plastic feet so the unit can be freestanding and be moved around the trailer easily.

    Installing the gas valve on the blue flame heater

    Attach a brass elbow fitting at the base of the heater.
    A flexible gas hose will eventually connect to this elbow.

    Installing the thermometer on our ventless blue flame propane heater

    Attach a thermistor (an electrical resistor type of thermometer) for the internal thermostat. This went on the lower back corner of the heater.

     

    Our heater came with feet so it could be freestanding, and it also came with a thermistor, or resistor based thermometer, for the thermostat. These were attached before beginning the actual installation of the new gas line in our trailer.

    The brass elbow did not come with our unit, but we found one with the right pitch, thread and diameter at the gas and electric supply store where we bought the other fittings for our project.

    Second Step — Turn off the gas and tap into an existing copper gas line

    The gas hose for the heater will tap into an existing copper line in a kitchen cabinet

    The new flexible gas line for the heater will connect into the existing copper line.

    We decided to tap into the copper gas pipe that runs between the refrigerator and the stove at the back of one of our lower kitchen cabinets. Mark measured the pipe and found it was 3/8″.

    The goal was to cut the existing pipe and insert a series of fittings that would allow us to attach a flexible gas hose at that point, effectively creating a new leg of flexible gas line. This hose would then run out through a hole drilled at the base of the cabinet and attach to the heater. All of this is low-pressure pipe and fixtures.

    Layout of all the gas fittings for installing the vent-free blue flame propane heater in our fifth wheel trailer RV

    To create a new leg of flexible hose gas line requires a T-connector (to rejoin the severed pipe), F-F gender changer, On/Off valve and flexible gas hose with a stopper at the other end.

    At a gas and electric supply store we picked up a male-male T-connector that would be inserted into the cut copper pipe.

    The base of the T would connect to a female-female gender changing connector, and then to an on-off valve (which has male fittings at either end), and finally to a female connector on the end of the flexible gas hose.

    Most of the year the heater would not be in use, so we bought a stopper for the end of the hose that goes to the heater.

    pipe cutter for cutting gas pipe

    Specialty tool #1: Pipe cutter

    When the heater is disconnected, this stopper would be screwed into the end of the hose and the heater would be put in a closet.

    However, we later discovered we wanted easy access to our heater during all four seasons, so the stopper never gets used!

     

    The existing gas line is cut

    The existing gas line is cut.

    A universal gas appliance hookup kit manufactured by Mr. Heater includes all these parts except the T-connector!

    Flaring tool showing both parts

    Specialty tool #2: Flaring Tool.

    The first step, after turning off the gas, was to cut the pipe. This requires a pipe-cutter, a small, inexpensive tool.

    Once the pipe was cut, the next step was to connect the T-connector between the two severed ends of the copper pipe.

    practice flare on scrap piece of copper pipe

    Practice flare.

    This would be done by first sliding a female connector onto each of the two pipe ends and then flaring the ends of the pipe with a flaring tool so the connectors couldn’t slide back off again.

    The female connector is slid onto the pipe before the flare is done

    The flare prevents the female connector from coming off the pipe.

    The male-male T-connector would be screwed into this (and its companion) female fitting on either end of the pipe, rejoining the pipe and making a new connection available for the gas hose to go out to the heater.

    flaring tool for flaring the end of a gas pipe

    Flaring tool with scrap practice pipe in it.

    Mark had never used a flaring tool to flare a pipe before, so he wanted to practice it first on a scrap piece of pipe.

    Flaring the real pipe under the kitchen cabinet

    Flaring the real pipe inside the cabinet.

    He made the practice flare by inserting the scrap pipe into the appropriately sized hole in the tool and then screwing down both ends of the tool to snug the pipe into it — as if it were a bad guy in the old days having his head and hands put in the stocks in the town square!

    One flare finished second flare beginning

    One flare done, now do the other.

    Then he inserted the pointed end of the flaring tool into the end of the pipe and twisted the crank, slowly flaring the end of the pipe as the point pressed further into it.

    Two wrenches tighten T-connector in place

    Tightening the T-connector with two wrenches

    He slid the female connector onto a short piece of pipe and felt a snug fit between the pipe and the connector. The flare was just right. Now confident that he could flare a pipe properly, he contorted himself to get the flaring tool set up on the real copper pipe at the back of the cabinet.

    T-connector with F-F gender changer

    T-connector with F-F gender changer ready for the shut-off valve to be attached.

    He began by sliding a female connector onto one end of the severed pipe under the cabinet and flaring the pipe’s end. Then he did the same thing to the other piece of the severed pipe. Then he screwed the male-male T-connector into the two female ends of the pipe to rejoin them, and he tightened the T-connector using two wrenches.

    He attached a female-female connector to the base of the T, making it possible to screw the male-male valve into place. This valve would allow the gas to the heater to be turned on and off. After the valve, he attached the female end of the gas hose.

    Connecting the flexible gas hose to the shut-off valve

    The new flexible gas line connects to the shut-off valve.

    Finally, he drilled a hole in the front base of the kitchen cabinet and ran the gas hose through the hole. The other end of the gas hose was attached to the elbow connector he had placed on the bottom of the heater.

    Tightening all the connections with wrenches, and turning the gas to the trailer back on, the heater was now ready to be used.

    Hole at base of the cabinet for the gas hose

    The new flexible gas line will come through this hole and connect to the heater.

    Mark checked for gas leaks using a tiny spritzer bottle filled with a few drops of Dawn dish soap and water. Spraying this mixture on each connection, he looked for bubbles to form which would indicate a gas leak.

    To give us flexibility in moving the heater around the rig, we originally used two lengths of gas hose: a 3′ length for under the cabinet and a second 12′ length that attached to it with an inline male-male connector.

    Vent-free blue flame propane heater installed in a 5th wheel trailer

    What a great little heater!!

    The idea was that the 12′ gas hose would give us lots of flexibility for moving the heater around the trailer. However, we found that it was too long and too bulky and the best position for the heater was close to the stove anyway. So we replaced the 12′ hose with a shorter 4′ one.

    After the installation was finished, it didn’t seem like such a big project after all, and what a thrill it was to toast ourselves in our warm buggy. Our timing was perfect: the next week brought a big cold front, multiple days of rain, lows in the 30’s and highs in the fifties. We were snug as bugs in a rug while the winds howled outside.

     

    There are tons of choices for installing a vent-free propane heater, but these four are among the most popular. If you buy a heater from Amazon, make sure it is PROPANE and not NATURAL GAS, as the pictures look the same. We receive a 4-6% commission for purchases made through any of our Amazon links (at no cost to you) which helps us maintain this site — thank you!

    Good luck with your project, and stay warm!

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    Disclaimer: This blog post describes our vent-free propane heater installation. We are not responsible for any installation other than the one in our own rig.

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