RV Exterior Features

For lack of a better descriptor, RV Exterior Features includes both the items attached to the skin of the motorhome (such as aawnings) but also includes "outside" features such as hydraulic levelers and generators—just about everything that is not part of the interior living spaces of an RV.

Driver Door (do you really need it?). Many motorhomes either come with a driver door or offer the option for a driver door. To have a door or not is kind of like starting the argument over Ford vs. Chevy—strong opinions on both sides. However, if you are on a limited budget (as I was), think carefully about the usefulness of a driver door. However, many of the newer motorhomes come from the factory with a standard driver door, whether you want it or not.

Driver doors are often “noisy” because of the wind noise that whistles through the cracks around the door. Also, most driver doors on the newer, higher, coaches are rather high off the ground, and you “climb” into the coach much like a trucker gets into his cab. For those of you, like me, who are getting on in years and are not as physically agile as we once were, getting in and out of the coach via the regular door and steps is much easier than trying to climb in through a driver door. But, as always, the choice is yours.

I did not have a driver door on my previous motorhome, and I didn't miss it. It is just as easy to get up and go out the side door. I chose to spend the $875 on other goodies that I really wanted. My lady’s former motorhome had a side door, but the only time we ever used it was to change fuses in the fuse box.

Unfortunately, for us, when we ordered our new motorhome, a driver door was standard equipment —and we did not have the choice to delete it.

Slide-Outs. The quality and quantity of slide-outs has come a long way since the late 1990s. There are some motorhomes that come with four slide-outs, and even several Class C units that come with more than one. However, you need to be very aware that there is a tradeoff between roominess/convenience and weight. The slide-out hardware and extra structural requirements add weight to an RV. What good does it do you to have four slide-outs but a Net Carrying Capacity of only about 400 lbs.? Yes, folks, manufacturers actually do such things. You do need to be familiar with the various weight ratings for any motorhome that you are contemplating on purchasing.

Some slide-outs provide a generous amount of additional space, some extending as far as 30" or 36". Other slide-outs, however, seem to be more for the look than the space—some extending only about 12" outward. However, some of the "shorter" slides are due to them being galley slides, and there is concern about longer gas, water, and sewer hoses getting kinked or taking up too much space when the slide is retracted.

The early slide-outs had the floor of the slideout sticking up about an inch or more above the main floor of the RV, sometimes causing a person to trip if they didn't pick up their feet when they slid into the dinette or moved to sit on the coach.

Now, however, most of the slide-out units built in the past few years have what are often called flat-floor slide-outs—where the slide-out mechanism is engineered to make the slide-out floor at the same level as the main RV floor when the slideout is extended outward. Obviously, however, when the slideout is retracted, its floor extends above the main RV floor.

The slide-out mechanisms are either hydraulic or electric. The hydraulic units are far more complex, whereas the electric-motor driven units are far simpler, mechanically.

The hydraulic slide-out mechanisms are better suited to the larger, heavier slide-out units, because they have a tremendous amount of power (and can easily crush things that get in the way).

The slide-out mechanisms that use electric motors are better suited to the smaller, lighter weight units. Electric slide-outs are the preferred mechanism for most 5ers and travel trailers.

Awnings Over Slide-Outs. Now that slide-outs are almost common place on most of the newer RVs, many people are adding small awnings over their slide-outs (if not already included) that are attached to the slide-out and are extended when the slide-out is extended. Some RV manufacturers are including these small awnings as part of the slide-out package for their RVs, but many do not. These small awnings are often referred to as "slide toppers."

Some people may consider this an unneeded option, but I have seen two instances which made me take notice. One instance was the night after a five-inch snow in Espanola, NM. The RVer, without slide-out awnings, found that the accumulated snow had frozen—and he was unable to retract his slide-out. Another instance was when I was camped in a park that was full of lovely conifers—lovely to look at, but they shed like a long-haired dog in the heat of summer. Before the RVer closed up his rig, he climbed on the roof and carefully swept off all the tree droppings so that they would not end up inside his RV.

Levelers (Hydraulic) – Automatic or Manual. Hydraulic levelers are light years ahead of stacking 2x6’s on the ground and driving your motorhome up on them, only to find that you still aren’t level. However, for those on a severely limited budget or have found the deal of the century on an older motorhome without them, you can get along just fine without them—if you are willing to spend a little extra time getting your motorhome level.

However, for us laid back (aka lazy) types, hydraulic levelers are the way to go. Hydraulic levelers come in several different styles, but most are manually operated by a joystick, by pushing different leveling buttons on a small control panel, or at the touch of a single button (if the system is fully automatic).

Some motorhome manufacturers use only three levelers—two in the rear and only one in the front. But most manufacturers use four levelers—two in the front and two in the rear. The joystick is easy to use and is less expensive than the fully automatic leveling systems. Pushing the joystick toward the front of the coach raises the front of the coach, pushing the joystick to the rear, raises the rear of the coach. And pushing the joystick to either the left or the right raises that side of the coach.

(When I was contemplating the purchase of my first motorhome, I adjusted my “would like” and “gotta have” lists and added levelers to my “gotta have” list. I have not been sorry for a moment, since it is so simple to arrive at a camp site and easily get the coach leveled out even before I step foot outside.)

Newer motorhomes have a better "manual" system. There are buttons on the control panel to allow you to raise the front, the rear, and adjust level from side-to-side. As long as you are pushing a button, the appropriate leveler is extending or retracting. Small yellow lights show you which parts of the motorhome are not level. When the motorhome is level, these yellow lights disappear. When it is time to get ready for departure, hitting one button stows the levelers, and little red lights stay on until each leveler is fully retracted—sometimes taking several minutes if you have a "lazy" leveler return spring.

Air Conditioners. Air conditioners have also become one of the must-have items on an RV. Smaller motorhomes, fifth wheel trailers, travel trailers, and even tent trailers seem to sprout an air conditioner from their roofs. For motorhomes longer than 30 feet, two air conditioners seem to be the standard. For the really large motorhomes over 38 feet or so, many of them (especially the higher end coaches) have three roof air conditioners.

Older motorhomes and trailers usually had less efficient air conditioners, and you could only run one air conditioner at a time off a 30A circuit. It is becoming more and more common today to find motorhomes with two high-efficiency air conditioners that can be run safely at the same time off a 30A circuit.

The older air conditioners were not ducted, and the air blew out of the bottom of the unit, wherever it was located. Most newer motorhomes now have ducted air—where the air conditioner directs its cool output air into ducts that allow the cool air to come out in many places throughout the coach, through round ceiling outlets that can be rotated to put the air flow where it is wanted.

My previous motorhome had two air conditioners, each with ducted air. Each air conditioner’s output was directed to both the front and the back of the coach. How nice it was to lie down for a rest in the bedroom while the front air was doing the work (much less noise in the bedroom).

Some of the newer motorhomes now have what is called “basement air”, where the air conditioning units are mounted in the basement area of the coach. This style of air conditioner is really a heat pump, and the unit also can be used to heat your RV when the temperature is above about 40 degrees. The basement air conditioners also enhance the looks of the RV, since there are no unsightly bumps on the roof (ready to catch any low-hanging branches) and also helps to lower the center-of-gravity of the RV. However, one disadvantage of this style of air conditioner is that it takes up valuable basement storage space—something that may not be in your favor.

Backup Camera and Monitor. To many people, a backup camera system seems to be an extravagance rather than a necessity. A backup camera system has a small camera mounted high on the rear of the motorhome and its focus is aimed to the rear of the coach and very close to the rear bumper. There is a small TV monitor that is mounted somewhere on the dashboard or under the overhead TV between the driver and the passenger seats. Most of these systems also have a small microphone in the camera case at the rear, so the driver can hear his navigator “telling him what to do” or what he just did that he shouldn’t have done!

Although backup camera systems can be added to an older coach, the esthetics of the installation look much better in a new coach where all of the wires are hidden.

Yes, backup cameras are great for seeing where you are backing, and after a little experimentation, you can very accurately back your coach into a spot and stop right where you need to. However, for many people, the main advantage of a backup camera system is for use as a rear view mirror when towing a toad. When you are towing a vehicle behind your motorhome, you cannot see it unless you are going around a fairly sharp corner. The backup camera, when left on all the time while towing a toad, gives you peace of mind that your toad is still there and is tracking properly behind the motorhome.

For me, however, the biggest advantage of a backup camera system is that it works wonderfully as a calibrated rear view mirror. When passing trucks and other vehicles in your motorhome with a toad behind, it is difficult to accurately estimate the distance between the vehicle you just passed and the rear of your toad (since you can’t see your toad in your mirrors). Far too many RVers don’t gauge this distance correctly, and, in effect, frequently cut off the driver that they just passed.

I have found that when I pass another vehicle, when it disappears from the screen of my backup camera then I can safely pull back over without cutting off the other driver. Looking at the backup monitor is a lot easier than trying to estimate your distance when you can’t see your toad in your mirrors.

Several of the newer coaches now have the option of adding side-view cameras to the basic backup camera. Side-view cameras are small cameras mounted on each side of the motorhome to see the lane on either side of the motorhome. When you activate your right-turn signal, the right-side camera comes on and replaces the normal "rear" image on your monitor. When you cancel the right-turn signal, the camera delays about two seconds and then returns to the normal "rear" view. The same works for the left-turn signal, with the left-turn camera showing the lane to the left of the driver.

We have these side-view cameras on our current motorhome, and we like them—but they did take some getting used to, especially the delay after cancelling the turn signal. (I am so used to looking at the monitor and seeing my toad obediently tail-gating us down the road. On more than one occasion, I have been more than a little startled to look at the monitor and find that our toad wasn't there! Sometimes it takes several seconds to recover from shock—only to discover that that the turn signal was still on.)

A back up camera is a relatively inexpensive way to buy a large dose of confidence!

30-Amp or 50-Amp Electrical Power Capability. Many motorhomes are manufactured with a 30A electrical power capability, some are manufactured with a 50 A power capability, and some can be ordered either way. So which is best? Do you really need to spend the extra money for the 50A capability? Let’s take a quick look at what each can do.

An RV with a 30A shore power capability can handle the microwave, small appliances like the TVs, and VCR, and one air conditioner at the same time.

(My previous motorhome had a 30A service with two air conditioners, and it had a separate switch for me to select whether I wanted to run the front or rear air when I was plugged into shore power. When running on generator power, I could run both air conditioners at the same time—since the generator was a 5,500 watt unit, just about what a 50A shore power service would provide.)

A motorhome with a 50A service can run both air conditioners at the same time while connected to shore power, even if the microwave is running.

You should also know that some of the newer coaches with energy/power management systems can run both air conditioners on a 30A source, but will shut off the second air conditioner if the microwave is turned on.

Two more thoughts that come to mind about 50A shore power:

But, please, if you decide on 50A service, as many people do, don’t let my personal opinions sway your choice.

Generator. Most motorhomes, with the exception of some of the smaller Class C units, have provisions for a generator. Some motorhomes even come with a generator as part of the standard equipment, but most of the time a generator is an option.

The most common generators in motorhomes produce 4,000 to 5,500 watts of 120 volt AC (alternating current) power—just like you have at home. Some of the larger units in diesel motorhomes produce 6,500 to 10,00 watts of 120 volt and 240 volt AC power. Smaller stand-alone units often used in trailers and fifth wheels can produce from 1,000 to 4,000 watts of 120-volt AC power.

Generators come in three flavors—gasoline powered, LP powered, and diesel powered. Gasoline powered generators are the norm in all gasoline powered motorhomes. These generators tap off of the regular gasoline tank to supply gas to the generator. In round figures, a generator will use up to one gallon of gas (at full load) per hour of use, but can use less at lower loads. Gasoline generators can be obtained in various generating capacities from 4,000 to about 5,500 watts. The two brands of generators found on most motorhomes are Onan and Generac—and, yes, owners sometimes have strong reasons why theirs is the best. Standalone generators for trailers and 5ers can be obtained in units as small as 1,000 watts.

LP generators are found on some diesel powered motorhomes. LP generators are less expensive than diesel powered generators. However, in my opinion, LP generators have a major drawback. Remember that most motorhomes have a 28-gallon LP tank, which usually means that they only have about 20 gallons of usable fuel in them. If you have an LP generator, you can run out of LP in as little as one day if the weather is hot!

I have a good friend who has an LP generator in his diesel motorhome. At one RV convention a few years back, the weather was ungodly hot, and he had to keep his generator running to keep the coach cool for his two dogs. He was using almost a full tank of LP every day. The rules at this particular convention prohibited on-site LP trucks, so my friend had to take his rig out to the local LP dealer every day to fill up his LP tank.

Diesel generators are the norm in all but the entry series of diesel motorhomes. Diesel generators are more expensive than the other types, but they consume less fuel and are quieter than the other types. Diesel generators are also generally more powerful than the gasoline types—and can be obtained with power generating capacities of 6,500 to 10,500 watts.

Both the gasoline and diesel powered generators get their fuel from a tap on the main fuel tank of the RV. The tap is located at about the 1/4-tank level—the generator will stop when you still have about 1/4 of a tank of fuel, so you can't be stranded in a boondock area.

Propane Tank.—An LP tank is standard equipment on all motorhomes, and is located behind an outside bay door. The LP tank compartment is easily spotted, since the compartment door will NOT have a lock on it—so that the shut-off valve can be quickly reached in an emergency.

Most Class A motorhomes come equipped with a 28-gallon LP tank, allowing about 20 gallons of LP to be added. LP tanks are fitted with a special fill valve that only allows the tank to be filled to about 80% capacity—leaving enough room in the tank for the liquid gas to vaporize and then flow to your LP appliances.

Class B motorhomes and some of the smaller Class C motorhomes have smaller LP tanks.

Main Awning, Side-Mounted (Manual or Electric). Almost all fifth wheel trailers and motorhomes seem to be equipped with a large awning on the curb side of the unit. (Even some tent trailers have awnings.) Awnings come in different lengths depending on the length of the unit on which it is attached. Awnings provide wonderful shade when you are out in the desert or wherever you need shelter from the sun (and sometimes even a light rain).

Most RV awnings are the manual type, where you have to use a long hook to unroll them from the side of the RV. However, there are some newer styles of awnings that are entirely electrically operated—you just push a button and the awning and arms extend from the side of the RV (stoppable in just about any position that you might wish). Many of these electric awnings also have a rain and/or wind sensor to retract the awning if the wind speed gets above a certain level.

An awning seems to be a must-have item on almost all RVs. The only thing to be careful about is how you set up your manual awning—there definitely is a right way and a wrong way, and I will talk about setting up an awning later on in this seminar.

Dual-Pane Windows. Just like most newer homes, newer RVs either come standard with dual-pane windows or offer them as an option, instead of single-pane windows. Dual-pane windows cut down on heat transfer through the windows and can also cut down, a little bit, on the sound transfer through the windows. Many of the newer motorhomes come from the factory with dual-pane windows as a standard feature.

Built-In Tank Flushing System. One of the least enjoyed, and often unpleasant, tasks of owning and living in a motorhome or fifth wheel is dumping and flushing the waste tanks. A built-in flushing system has jets or nozzles installed in the Black and, sometimes, the Gray waste tanks, and usually come with a quick-disconnect fitting somewhere in the utility bay of the RV. When the sewer hose is connected, and the waste valve is open, attaching a water hose to the RV quick-connect flush connector flushes the tanks with high-pressure and wide-dispersion nozzles to flush the “gunk” from the walls and bottom of the waste water tanks. Many people find this procedure to be much less of a strain than putting a swizzle stick down the toilet opening to clean out the waste water tanks.

Many of the higher-end motorhomes come from the factory with built-in tank flushing systems. However, adding such a system to an existing older motorhome is not too difficult, and there are several systems that can be added to your RV. Interestingly, they are not too expensive, but do require a moderate amount of labor to install—sometimes raising the cost beyond what some people are able to comfortably pay.

Roof-Mounted Satellite Antenna. Now-a-days, you see more and more motorhomes and 5ers with satellite antennas on the roof. Of course, like almost everything else in the RV world, satellite antennas come in different configurations—with each new option getting more and more expensive.

The basic satellite antenna, (also commonly known as a dish) mounted on the roof of the RV, is manually erected by turning a crank (just like the regular TV antenna), is elevated to the proper elevation by turning a crank, and set to the required azimuth by rotating the ceiling control. These antennas have a single LNB feed—making DirecTV reception quite easy, but a bit more difficult for Dish Network users, since you can only aim the dish at one satellite at a time (usually 119 where most of the TV channels reside).

For those RVers who are died-in-the-wool TV addicts, the next step up in satellite antennas is one that will automatically erect itself and “find” the proper satellite—just by the user pushing a button. Of course, these satellite-seeking antennas are more expensive than the manually operated versions. However, you need to be aware that these antennas are meant to be used only when the motorhome is parked—and not under shade trees that are between the dish and the satellite.

Next up the ladder is the fanciest of all satellite antennas, and also the most expensive. For those of you where money is not a problem (oh, lucky you), you can have a fully automatic dish antenna installed inside a fiberglass dome that will not only find the satellite by itself, but will stay locked onto the satellite while you are driving down the road—great if the Mrs. has to watch the afternoon soap operas in the bedroom while you keep the rig between the white lines in a stiff crosswind.

Keep in mind, though, that the front TV in your motorhome, if visible from the driver's position, contains an electrical interlock, so that the TV will not turn on when the ignition is on.

Window Awnings. Almost all RVs come with a large patio awning on the side of the RV, but it seems that only the more expensive RVs have small awnings over some of the windows, especially the bedroom windows and the living room window behind the couch. These small window awnings are really not that expensive and can be purchased at and installed by your favorite RV supply store. The main advantage of window awnings is that they cut out much of the solar heat gain from the afternoon sun, keeping your RV much cooler.

Adequate Basement Storage Space. One of the biggest drawbacks to many motorhomes is that they are not designed with very much usable basement storage space. Some motorhomes have one or more pass-through storage spaces where the storage space goes all the way through from one side of the coach to the other—a great place to store a 6-foot (and sometimes an 8-foot) ladder, brooms, and fishing poles. Some of the older motorhomes have several little storage spaces, but are so chopped up that the storage space cannot hold much of anything.

When you are thinking about a new (or newer) motorhome, be cognizant of the usability of the basement and how all your “stuff” will fit into the new coach. For example, my previous 32-foot motorhome actually had more usable basement storage space in it than similar 34 or 35-foot models—and, just as important, my coach had the Net Carrying Capacity to be able to use it.

Remember, all the storage space in the world is of no use if your motorhome has an NCC of only 400 lbs.!

CB Prep Package. Many motorhome manufacturers provide an option for pre-installing a CB antenna on the roof of the coach and also providing 12-volt power and ground wires under the dash for your CB. This setup makes it a cinch to install a CB (Citizen’s Band) radio in your coach. I like this idea, since the manufacturer is punching a hole in the roof and sealing it against the weather. Also, these installations, usually look much better, esthetically (at least to me), than a bracket that is screwed to the side of the coach near the driver.

Vent Covers.  Lastly, let talk about vent covers. Vent covers are usually not provided as standard equipment for all but the most expensive RVs. However, this item is one of the most popular add-on items for motorhomes, 5ers, and travel trailers. Vent covers fit over the roof vents found in most kitchens and bathrooms of RVs. Vent covers are plastic hoods that fit over the roof vents in your RV. Some RVs have two vents and some have three vents. Vent covers allow the vents to be left open, even in rainy weather, a feature that is enjoyed by almost all RVers.

Vent covers are very inexpensive to buy at your favorite RV supply store, and most do-it-yourselfers can easily install them in just a few minutes. It is a rare sight these days to find an RV that does not have vent covers on the roof.

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