New to RV Living? Start Here: RV Beginner Guide
- What is the best type of RV?
- RV Electric Systems
- RV Batteries
- AC vs DC power
- Charging RV batteries
- Generator Power
- Installing solar on your RV
- RV Water Tanks
- RV water heaters
- Keeping track of water tank levels
- Where to find RV dump stations
- How to dump your black and grey water tanks
- How to winterize an RV
- How does an RV toilet work?
- How does an RV refrigerator work?
- How to level your RV
- Filling your RV propane tanks
- Forced air furnaces
- Circuit boards
- RV Safety
Buying & Living in an RV or Travel Trailer
What is the best type of RV?
RVs are broken up into two main categories: motorized and towable.
Motorized RVs and motorhomes have an engine built-in.
- Class A: The largest and most spacious RVs. They have full amenities and plenty of extras, but they are also the most expensive.
- Class B: A compact camper van design that typically comes with wet bath (portable toilet/shower combo) and mini kitchen.
- Class C: These RVs have a sleeping area built over the cab and essential amenities like a toilet, shower and kitchen. Some come with slide outs to expand the space.
- Conversion van: These can range from spacious DIY Sprinter vans to custom budget builds in smaller vehicles. They may or may not have amenities like toilets and showers. Custom conversion vans are popular in the van life movement, you should head over to our van life guide if you’re interested in these.
Towable RVs require you to have a tow vehicle to lead it. With a towable RV you can hitch and unhitch at a campsite to ‘claim your spot’ then drive your tow vehicle around separately.
- Travel Trailers: These are similar to a Class A motorhome. You can expect space for a big family, full-sized refrigerators, stoves and microwaves. They also come equipped with a full bathroom – toilet and shower included. They connect to your tow vehicle with a ball and coupler hitch.
- 5th Wheels: Similar to a travel trailer, the biggest difference with a 5th wheel is that they attach to a truck bed with a jaw hitch rather than a ball and coupler. That means it’s easier to maneuver than a travel trailer and simpler to set up at the campsite.
- Toy Haulers: A mix between living areas and storage space is the toy hauler. These have a wide base and full amenities. Most of the interior furniture is collapsible so you can fold it up and make room for storing ATVs, jet skis, or motorcycles during the drive. They connect to your tow vehicle with a ball hitch and are meant to carry a lot of weight.
- Popup Campers and A Frame Campers: Are low profile and lightweight making them easy to park. A popup camper collapses during the drive and must be set up at the campsite. It has softer sides and requires more time to put together. Popup campers typically come with a bed, seating area and kitchen. You may or may not find a restroom in these campers. They are not meant as a long-term living solution.
- Lightweight Trailers or Teardrop Trailers: Lightweight trailers are some of the easiest towables to travel with. They have the least amount of storage but tend to come with small kitchens and sleeping areas. They may or may not come with restroom facilities and are meant for short trips.
Motorized vs towable RV: Which is better?
While there are no hard and fast rules for which type of RV to get, asking yourself a few questions may help you get a better understanding of the best motorhome for your lifestyle.
|Motor built-in||Need tow vehicle|
|More expensive||Less expensive|
|Depreciates faster||Holds value longer|
|Easier set up process||Longer set up process|
|Easier for single drivers||Harder for single drivers|
|Carries toys better||Less space for large accessories|
- What kind of vehicle do you already own? If you currently have a car or truck capable of towing a trailer, it could make sense to stick with a towable motorhome.
- What is your emphasis on resale value? Towable RVs often hold their value better than motorized motorhomes.
- What is your budget? Towable trailers tend to be less expensive than motorized RVs. Of course, you need to factor the cost of your tow vehicle in this equation.
- How frequently are you moving? If you change locations every few days, a motorized RV may be more suitable. Towable RVs take longer to set up and take down. Plus they require you to exit the vehicle during this process.
- Are you driving with a partner? Towable trailers are more difficult to set up as a single passenger. While this shouldn’t deter single riders from purchasing a towable – it is something to be aware of.
- Do you want to travel with large toys and accessories? With a motorized RV, it is generally easier to travel with a boat, car, ATV, jet ski, motorcycle or other large toys.
Travel Trailers vs 5th Wheels: What is the difference?
- Travel trailer: connects to the tow vehicle via ball and coupler hitch
- 5th wheel: connects to the tow vehicle via jaw hitch
|5th Wheel||Travel Trailer|
|Larger, taller, longer||Smaller, shorter|
|More slide outs||Lightweight|
|More basement storage||Less expensive|
|Luxury amenities||Better gas mileage|
|Easier to hitch||Variety of tow vehicles|
|Easier to drive||Smaller hitch|
|Weighs more||Not as luxurious|
|More expensive||Less storage|
|Pickup truck required||Harder to hitch|
|Worse gas mileage||More sway|
You do not need a pickup truck to tow a travel trailer. They can hitch to any vehicle capable of towing the trailer’s weight capacity. Travel trailers are more difficult for a single person to hitch than a 5th wheel. The are also more difficult to maneuver because they sit further back from the tow vehicle. They tend to be less expensive and more customizable than 5th wheels.
- Read our post: 5th wheel campers vs travel trailer pros and cons
5th wheel trailers must be towed with a pickup truck. You can tow a 5th wheel with a short bed truck – it will just require a sliding jaw hitch. They are easier to hitch and drive, but they are more difficult to back up. They will also take up all the space in the bed of your truck making that storage area unusable.
How big of a tow vehicle do you need for a travel trailer?
It’s important to know how much your travel trailer or 5th wheel weighs before attempting to tow it. You should do this at a certified weigh station.
The max cargo carrying capacity (CCC) of a travel trailer or 5th wheel is often found on a sticker located on the left, front (street side) of the vehicle. The CCC indicates the dry weight of the trailer before any of your gear, liquids or passengers have been added.
Also listed on this sticker is the gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR). That’s the max capacity that your trailer can carry including all gear, liquids and passengers.
The GVWR is the max amount your vehicle should tow
On your tow vehicle, you can find the tow rating by in the owner’s manual or in an online VIN search. It is important to know what your specific vehicle is rated for because many models of vehicles vary with what tow package they were equipped with from the factory.
These are some general vehicle tow ratings:
- Small SUVs and cars: 1,500lbs
- Mid-sized SUVs: 3,500-5,000lbs
- Large SUVs and small trucks: 5,000-8,000lbs
- Trucks: 9,000+lbs
Small and mid-sized vehicles can usually tow ultra-light or teardrop style campers. You’ll need a mid-sized SUV for popup campers and a large SUV or truck for travel trailers and 5th wheels.
The stickers can give you a rough estimate, but you should always have your trailer weighed before a trip!
- Camping World has a towing capacity calculator to help you find the GVWR of your vehicle!
How big of an RV should you get?
In our opinion, you should purchase the smallest RV that gives you all of the comforts you need. Some travelers have larger families and need bigger RVs. Some people need large beds, extra space in the kitchen, or larger showers.
Smaller RVs are generally easier to maneuver and less expensive to live with. In some campsites (especially on the east coast USA) you will be greatly limited if you have a motorhome longer than 30 feet. We recommend purchasing an RV under 30 feet long unless you intend to camp in one spot for months at a time or have specific reasons to use a larger RV.
What type of RV should you buy?
When purchasing an RV for long-term travel, the best advice is to rent a few different models before you purchase one of your own. Motorhomes are a big expense, and if you’re buying a new vehicle they will drop in value the second you drive them off the lot.
Rentals are an inexpensive way to test out a variety of vehicles before you commit to a purchase.
Do you need a special license to drive an RV?
Laws vary by state, but in general you do not need a special license to drive an RV if it is shorter than 40ft and weighs under 10,000 lbs.
RV Electric Systems
Many travelers choose to use a combination of some or all of these. Shore power is most commonly used at established campgrounds while generators and solar are great solutions for boondocking and dispersed camping.
Solar power is becoming more popular as the technology becomes more efficient and the pricing continues to fall. That said, most RVs (especially large ones) require too much power to run all of their electronics exclusively off solar power. Solar panels are typically used as a supplementary power source to help charge batteries while off-grid.
30A vs 50A RV
When parking at established campgrounds, you’re most likely to use shore power to sustain your rig. Motorhomes are sold as either 30amp or 50amp, and there is a big difference between the two:
- A 30 amp RV has one 30 amp, 120 volt electric circuit.
- It can handle a max of 3,600 Watts.
- A 50 amp RV has two separate 50 amp, 120 volt electric circuits.
- It can handle a max of 12,000 Watts.
A 30 amp RV should have enough power to sustain a single air conditioner, refrigerator, microwave, TV, and a number of smaller electronics like laptops, coffee makers and cell phones. In the RV world, these are considered small electrical load requirements.
A 50 amp RV has significantly more power than a 30 amp RV. With this much electricity you can power two or more air conditioners, a washer and dryer, residential style refrigerator, dishwasher, entertainment center, and so on.
Powering your RV with shore power is as simple as plugging a power cord from the RV power outlet to the power pedestal at a campground. It’s recommended that you have either a 30A or 50A extension cord with you in case the pedestal is further away (we recommend 25ft.)
Not all campgrounds will be equipped with both 30 amp and 50 amp power pedestals. For that reason, it’s also good idea to have an adapter with you to utilize the shore power available.
Secondary batteries (also called house batteries or auxiliary batteries) are the standard way to power your RV when shore power is not available.
Batteries only store power, they do not generate it. This means that they can only provide power off grid for a little while until they get charged again, either with shore power, generator power, or solar power.
There is a switch on the AC control panel inside the motorhome where you can choose to power your vehicle with either shore power or battery power.
Battery power is used by default when shore power is not available.
Most RVs come with either 6V or 12V deep-cycle batteries combined to make a larger battery bank. Lithium-ion batteries are also becoming more common. The best batteries for an RV are deep-cycle.
Batteries do require some maintenance to stay healthy. Overuse or undercharging can significantly shorten their lifespan. You can keep track of battery levels with a digital voltmeter. Oftentimes, a version of this will come pre-installed on the AC control panel of your RV.
Some batteries are more finicky than others. Flooded led-acid batteries for example, have to be refilled with distilled water on a frequent basis.
Batteries are a big topic. You need to choose the right type and take care of them to get the longest lifespan possible. Use these links to learn more about RV batteries:
AC Power vs DC Power
There are two power types to be aware of: AC power (alternating current), and DC power (direct current).
AC power is what your normal 3-prong household wall outlets produce. You plug common electronics like laptops, coffee pots or blenders into an AC wall socket. This is also the type of power that comes out of the power pedestal at a campground. In North America this is a 120V circuit, in many other parts of the world it’s 240V, but the concept is the same.
DC power is what’s stored in your battery bank. It’s often a more efficient energy source and powers things in your RV like lights, water pumps, TV antennas, 12V appliances and anything that uses a USB cord.
- To get AC power into your 12v DC battery bank, you need to use a converter
- To get DC batteries to power AC devices off grid, you need to use an inverter
|AC Power||DC Power|
|120v Household electronics||12v Battery bank|
|Hairdryer||12v Portable refrigerator|
|120v Household refrigerator||Cell phone|
Charging RV Batteries
Your RV comes with a converter charger factory pre-installed. It takes 120V AC electricity and converts it to 12V DC power that charges your batteries.
The converter will automatically charge up your batteries while the rig is plugged into shore power or when using a generator.
Converters that come with most RVs are single-stage. That means they charge the batteries at one speed the whole time. Single-stage converters are slow to charge and throw away a lot of excess energy as it ‘tops off’ the batteries. Overall, they aren’t great for long-term battery health because usually they don’t charge the batteries all the way.
Single-stage converters are cheap and inefficient. They are ok for travelers who spend the majority of their time plugged into campsites and don’t rely on battery power. But if you plan to do a lot of wilderness camping, it’s worthwhile to replace them with a smart converter charger after buying an RV.
- Read our article to learn the difference between converters, inverters & inverter/chargers
Smart Converter Chargers (multi-stage)
Smart converter chargers are the fastest and most efficient way to power your house batteries. They are a big upgrade from a standard converter charger. Aside from speed, smart chargers are also better for your battery health. Your batteries will last longer and require less maintenance over time.
Smart converter chargers are also known as multi-stage converter chargers or 3-way converter chargers.
Luckily, replacing a single stage converter with smart converter is one of the easiest upgrades to make. Converters are normally located near the floor of the RV near the AC breaker panel.
Our recommended smart converters:
If you plan to upgrade your battery bank with lithium batteries, it’s important to know that you’ll need to upgrade your converter as well because most standard converters are not compatible with lithium. We recommend:
Charging Batteries with Solar
Converter chargers are used to charge up your battery bank with either shore power or generator power. But what about solar?
If you want to charge your batteries with solar, you need some solar panels and a charge controller. A charge controller simply takes solar panel energy and moves it into your battery bank to be used later.
Charge controllers are inexpensive and the size you need is based on how many solar panels you’re using. You’ll want about 10 amps for every 100W of solar. You can read more about adding solar to your RV here:
Using AC power off-grid
Your lights, fans, refrigerator and water pumps are all powered by DC battery power once you head off into the wilderness. But what happens when you want to plug in your coffee pot or laptop into the wall?
Household outlets are supplied by 120V AC power so they don’t work off-grid. That means you need an inverter – or better yet and inverter charger – when you’re boondocking.
- We explain this more in our article: Everything you need to know to go RV boondocking
An inverter charger does two tasks: it acts as a smart converter charger and as an inverter.
This is the best of both worlds when boondocking. It allows you to charge your batteries and also power your household outlets all from one device.
If you want to use all of your electric outlets off-grid you should replace your RV converter with an inverter charger.
Our recommended inverter chargers and brands:
- AIMS Power Inverter Charger
- GoPower Inverter Charger
- Xantrex Inverter Charger
- Victron Multi-Plus Inverter Charger
For a less expensive upgrade, you can just add an inverter onto your existing battery bank. The inverter can take electricity from your battery bank and charge up your AC wall sockets. But, it cannot charge your batteries. You would be relying on the existing converter to handle battery charging.
- Learn more about upgrading to an inverter/charger
On-board generators serve two purposes: they can charge your batteries, or double as shore power when it’s unavailable. Generators produce AC power.
An AC transfer switch is often found on the AC breaker panel inside the RV. This allows you to choose whether generator or shore power is being used. Most AC transfer switches are automatic, and they’ll default to generator power if it’s turned on.
Not all motorhomes come with an on-board generator but you can easily travel with a one of your own. Portable generators have an AC power outlet built into them so you can simply plug your RV power cord directly into the generator and power everything as you would with shore power.
Here are the cliff notes:
What size generator do you need for an RV?
That depends on how many electronics you plan on running. You’ll need to add up the approximate wattage of all the large items you plan to power in your camper: air conditioner, refrigerator, television, coffee pot, hot water heater and others. We’ve built a calculator to help you do this.
Every traveler’s needs are going to differ, so you should add up the numbers for yourself. We discuss this more in our article about RV generators.
- Smaller RVs with basic amenities can get away with about 2000 Watts.
- Larger RVs with heavy electronics loads like an air conditioner will need 3000 Watts or more!
Generators and Inverter Chargers
Generators produce AC power so they are indistinguishable from shore power. You can plug household electronics directly into a portable generator.
That said, inverter/chargers also pair well with generators because they can supply AC power to the RV and charge up the batteries.
Many inverter chargers come with an automatic start feature. If the batteries drop too low, the inverter sends a start signal to the generator and runs it until they are charged up again. It’s a hands-off approach to powering you RV.
- Read our post on post on upgrading to an RV inverter/charger
One of the main drawbacks to a generator is they are loud; and require you to carry extra fuel which gets cumbersome. It’s also important to regularly check oil levels, keep the filters clean, and regularly inspect the exhaust system of the generator.
Most importantly, generators release carbon monoxide gas. Even though they are placed in an external compartment, you should still be aware of having windows open near the generator or parking too closely to other travelers that are using generators. Always have a carbon monoxide detector on-board.
Installing solar on your RV
Solar panels are a quiet and clean energy source. They work anywhere with direct sunlight and are a great way to charge up your batteries from any location.
Unfortunately, motorhomes require a lot of power. And while it’s feasible to run your rig off solar alone – it’s not practical. A solar powered RV would require thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment and you would need to be constantly camping in sunny locations.
Van lifers can get away with solar power alone because they don’t have the heavy electrical load requirements like air conditioners, hot water heaters, microwaves and other kitchen equipment commonly found in an RV.
Nonetheless, don’t let solar limitations discourage you from adding a few panels to your rig.
Adding solar is easier than you would think. All it takes is a few panels and a charge controller connected to the batteries. Many companies sell solar panel kits which come with all of the parts you need for your RV.
Solar panels work to charge up your batteries any time they’re exposed to direct sunlight. That can save you a lot of power in the long run, especially if you spend a large amount of time boondocking.
Once solar is set up, it doesn’t require much maintenance aside from keeping the panels clean. The panels themselves can last up to 10 years. The biggest benefit to supplementary solar power is you can stay off grid longer.
- We discuss off-grid power in detail here: Everything you need to know to go RV boondocking
Because solar panels produce DC battery power it is necessary to have either an inverter or an inverter charger to use your 120V outlets. Some people can get away with only using DC power off grid.
How much solar do you need to power an RV?
Chances are, you won’t be able to add enough solar panels to power the entire motorhome. But, you can easily charge small electronics like cell phones, laptops, televisions and cell signal boosters with solar power. Take a look at these links to learn more:
RV Water Tanks: Fresh water vs grey water vs black water tank
Motorhomes have three water tanks: fresh water, grey water and black water.
- A fresh water tank holds potable water that comes out of your sink faucets and showerheads
- A gray water tank holds used water that goes down the drain of your sink or shower
- A black water tank holds waste water from the toilet
How to fill your fresh water tank
On the outside of your RV there is a fresh water fill tank. You can simply unscrew, and connect your potable water hose. Fresh water can be found at RV parks, campgrounds and many dump stations – just make sure you’re using the potable water connection!
To make the process easier, you should always travel with a food-safe potable water hose. Do not use a regular hose! Food-safe hoses are lead and BPA free. We recommend traveling with one or more hoses with one being at least 25ft.
Water pressure regulators
Often city water is highly pressurized. RV plumbing systems are only designed to handle a max water pressure of 50PSI. For this reason, you should also have a water pressure regulator with you.
Water pressure regulators cost just a few dollars and will help save your plumbing system from leaks or long-term damage. A water pressure regulator connects directly to your hose and the city water faucet. The connection will look like this:
- City water > Water pressure regulator > Potable water hose > Fresh water tank
Water filters are not necessary, but they can improve the taste and quality of your drinking water. Inline water filters come with either disposable or reusable water cartridges. They screw directly into your potable water hose.
Every once in a while you’ll come across a campground with a water pump that does not fit your potable water hose. That’s when it’s nice to have a water bandit with you. A water bandit is a rubbery connection that screws onto your potable water hose and slips over a city water faucet with no threads.
How to sanitize your fresh water system
You should sanitize your RV water system any time the rig has been sitting unused for weeks at a time or after winterizing it. The steps are simple:
- Fill an empty gallon jug with ¼ cup of bleach for every 15 gallons of fresh water tank capacity
- Fill whatever is left of the jug with fresh water
- Pour the bleach solution into your fresh water tank
- Turn on your water pump and open every faucet in the rig (including all sinks and showers)
- Continue to run the faucets until all of the remaining air sputters out and you begin to smell bleach
- Run the hot water heater until it’s been filled
- Turn off all the faucets and let the bleach solution stand for at least 3 hours
- Drain and flush the tank system with fresh water
How to use your fresh water system when boondocking
When you stay at an undeveloped campsite that does not have a fresh water connection near your RV, a 12 volt pump delivers water to your faucets.
In order for your pump to work, you should have the fresh water tanks already filled. Once you find your parking spot, it’s time to prime the water pump. Open one of the faucets and turn on the water pump. Let the water continue to flow until the air is out of your plumbing system. Then turn the faucet off.
The pump will automatically turn off and start up again each time you turn on a faucet until you run out of potable water.
RV Water Heaters
RV water heaters use propane to warm up the water in your shower or sinks. There are two types: direct spark ignition (DSI) and pilot light heaters.
DSI heaters have a remote switch inside the rig so you can turn them on. Pilot light heaters have to be turned on and lit manually from the outside.
Alternatively, you can convert your propane hot water heater to an electric one with a lightning rod connector. They are easy to install and allows you to heat water without using propane.
The hot water heater needs to be filled with water before you turn it on, otherwise you could damage the equipment. To do this, turn on the hot water faucet first then turn on the heater.
Tankless Water Heaters
Tankless water heaters can be retro-fitted to your current tanked system. These can give you unlimited hot water at the campground with no recovery time. They are great for camping with large families who quickly run through all of the hot water.
Tankless water heaters do use more propane, so they’re not great for boondocking.
- We discuss tankless RV water heaters in detail here
Keeping track of water tank levels
It’s a good idea to keep an eye on your water tank levels. For one, you don’t want to run out of fresh water. But also because having proper waste water levels makes it less messy to dump. Gray water tanks can be dumped at any level, but black water tanks should be at least 1/3 full before you dump them.
The control panel on the inside of your RV should have a tank monitoring system installed so you can always see the levels of your fresh water, grey water and black water tanks.
If you don’t have a tank monitoring system – or if your current monitor is inaccurate, you can easily install one yourself. Newer tank monitoring systems like SeeLevel use foil strips with sensors in them that stick onto the outside of your water tanks and monitor levels. These sticker systems are often more accurate than factory installed monitors because they don’t get worn out on the inside of the tanks over years of use.
Where to find RV dump stations
Dumping RV tanks may sound unpleasant, but the process is cleaner and easier than you would expect. The first step is to find a dump station. Not all campgrounds have RV dump stations, but many do. Oftentimes you can pay a small fee to use a campground dump station even if you don’t plan to spend the night there.
Here are a few other places you may be able to find a dump station:
- Some gas stations – like Flying J and Pilot
- Marine and RV retailers
- Cabela’s and other large outdoor stores
- Some visitor centers or rest areas
- Many National Parks
This website has a list of RV dump stations by state that you may find helpful.
How to dump your black water and gray water tanks
Once you find a dump station, pull up alongside it. You’ll need an RV Sewer hose. We recommend both a 10ft. and 20ft. hose with fittings to connect them. Remember, for the cleanest results your black water tank should be at least 1/3 full before dumping.
- Park your RV next to the dump station
- Place one end of the sewer hose into the sewer connection on the ground
- Connect the other end of the hose to the dump fitting on your RV
- Open the black water dump tank valve
- Let the tank empty then rinse the sewer hose with clean water
- You can do this by flushing your toilet or running a sink sprayer into the toilet.
- Close the black water valve and open the gray water valve
- Again, let the tank drain then follow up by rinsing the hose with clean water from your sink
- Shut both valves and lift the hose so any remaining liquid drains into the sewer
- Wash out the sewer hose with clean water – do not use your potable water hose!
- Put the caps back on and store the hose
Black water expansion tanks
Depending on the size of your black water tank – and how many people are using it, you can get up to 1-2 weeks of use before having to dump it. But what if you want to go longer?
They come in a variety of sizes and work as your own mini-dump station. You simply empty your black water tank into a Blue Boy, screw it shut, and haul it around until you can find an RV dump station later. A portable waste container can vastly extend your trips between cities.
How to Winterize an RV
Whenever you choose to store your rig for the winter months, you should go through the process of winterizing your RV. That involves turning off all electronics and draining your RV plumbing system and tanks so they don’t freeze when the weather gets cold. There are two ways to winterize your RV: with anti-freeze, and with an air compressor.
Winterize an RV with anti-freeze
- Start by draining your fresh water tank, gray water tank and black water tanks
- Drain your hot water heater
- Turn on all faucets, showerheads and toilet pumps to get any remaining water out of the plumbing system
- Get a few bottles of RV anti-freeze (not automotive anti-freeze)
- If your RV has a hot water bypass you will need 1-3 gallons. If not, you can expect to use 6-10 gallons of anti-freeze depending on the size of your water heater
- Close the hot water bypass if you have one
- Open the inlet side of your water pump and use either a valve or short hose to pump anti-freeze into your plumbing system
- Open all water fixtures (sinks, showers, toilet pump) until you see pure anti-freeze running throughout
- Close your water fixtures and turn off the pump
Winterize an RV with compressed air
To winterize with compressed air you’ll need an air compressor, a fitting that will connect the compressor to your fresh water inlet, and an adjustable air pressure regulator. You should never go above 45PSI when blowing out RV plumbing systems.
- Start by draining your fresh water tank, gray water tank and black water tanks
- Drain your hot water heater
- Open all faucets, showerheads and toilet pumps to get any remaining water out of the plumbing system
- Attach the air compressor to the fresh water inlet
- Blow up to 45PSI compressed air into the inlet
- Continue to blow air until there is no remaining air coming out of your faucets, shower or other water fixtures.
- Pour a small amount of anti-freeze down each drain including the shower and toilet
How does an RV toilet work?
Instead of a flush handle like your regular household toilet, RV toilets have either and foot pedal or a hand pump on top.
Pushing the pump forces fresh water into the toilet and opens a flap in the bowl so waste flows into the black water tank below.
Some RVs come equipped with a sprayer nozzle beside the toilet which you can use to help clean the bowl and get higher water pressure into the toilet. If your RV doesn’t come with a sprayer nozzle, you can add your own.
What type of toilet paper can you use in an RV?
RV toilet paper dissolves faster in water, keeping your plumbing system clean and avoiding clogs in the black water tank. You can purchase RV toilet paper online, at RV retailers and many big box stores like Walmart.
Regular toilet paper should not be used in an RV – but there’s a caveat. Some regular toilet paper brands do dissolve in water. Many brands of thinner, 2 ply toilet paper dissolve when shaken unlike 3-ply toilet paper. You can test this yourself by getting a jar of water and putting a few squares of toilet paper inside; then shake.
If the paper dissolves, you’re good to go. If it starts clumping and chunking together, you should not use that type of toilet paper in your RV.
RV Composting Toilets
Some travelers choose to swap out their flush toilet with a composting toilet. Not only is this cleaner for the environment (because it uses no chemicals), but with a composting toilet you can avoid the hassle of messing with black water tanks.
If you choose to install a composting toilet, you can turn your black water tank into a secondary gray water tank and greatly extend your travel time. This is a popular method for boondocking and people who want to travel off-grid for longer.
How does an RV refrigerator work?
RV refrigerators are powered with a combination of propane fuel and electricity. Put simply, the refrigerator will run off electricity when hooked into shore power or a generator and switch to propane when there’s none available. They also have a manual switch so you can adjust the power source yourself.
The fridge in your RV is most likely absorption cooled which means it uses a combination of ammonia, hydrogen gas and water to operate. It cools with a process of chemical evaporation and condensation.
RV refrigerators require a level surface to operate. You can damage your refrigerator if it runs at an angle. The chemicals inside need to stay level for proper absorption.
Compressor refrigerators, like the 12 volt refrigerators popular in van life and overlanding, can run at an angle. Some brands boast fridges that can work up to 30° of tilt. These refrigerators are cooled with a motor, not with a chemical process. They are quite efficient but not commonly installed in RVs.
How to level your RV
Aside from comfort, properly maintaining your refrigerator is one of the top reasons to level your RV. Luckily, it’s is an easy process. With an RV or motorhome, you can use RV leveling blocks beneath the wheels once you arrive at the campsite. Wheel chocks are also a good way to keep your tires from rolling.
Make sure your tires are completely on the leveling blocks. Sitting halfway on a block can damage your tires.
High-end RVs come with automatic levelers that will raise and lower your RV at the push of a button. Some units come with an RV level indicator attached to the outside. Those are the little bubbles that help you visualize how graduated your angle is. If your RV doesn’t have a level indicator, you can add your own for just a few dollars.
Leveling and Stabilizing Basic Terms:
- Trailer jacks: help you lift and lower the front of your trailer so it can be easily hitched to a tow vehicle.
- Leveling blocks and risers: create a level surface to park your camper on uneven terrain
- Wheel chocks: prevent your RV or trailer from rolling away on steep inclines
- Stabilizers: prevent bouncing and sway as you walk around the interior of a camper
How to level a 5th wheel or travel trailer
When you want to park and level a 5th wheel trailer, you should use a tripod stabilizer. These are jacks that extend from the ground to your trailer hitch and hold it in place.
Filling your RV propane tanks
Propane is used throughout your RV to heat your water, cool the refrigerator, and operate your stove top or other kitchen gadgets.
Motorhomes have an on-board RV propane tank that can be filled at propane stations. Towable RVs often have 1-2 smaller portable propane tanks that are stored in the exterior compartment of the vehicle. A changeover switch allows you to switch from one tank to the other when the first gets empty.
Your RV control panel should have a propane regulator to keep track of the tank levels. If it doesn’t, you can easily add one of your own. Modern propane gauges even have WiFi capabilities to check levels right from your phone.
Where to buy propane
You can fill your RV propane tank at a number of gas stations and RV parks throughout the country. There are also filling stations at some U-Haul, Ace Hardware, and Tractor supply company locations.
This map also lists propane fill and tank exchange systems by location.
Tips to fill your propane tanks
Make sure all appliances are off when rolling up to a fuel station. That includes your refrigerator, water heater, and any appliances inside the vehicle. Also make sure that your main propane supply valve is off!
You might be surprised to find that not all propane stations have long cables that accommodate RVs. You should have an extend-a-stay propane cable with you that can reach from the supply tank to your RV tank.
A propane tank should never be filled more than 80% capacity. Some dealers charge by the tank so you should arrive with an empty one to get the most bang for your buck.
If you have portable tanks, always carry them upright. You can purchase composite propane tanks which are significantly lighter than the standard steel ones.
Propane regulators drop the pressure from your propane tanks down to a safe level for use in the RV. These come pre-installed in your RV and sit between the propane tank and the propane lines. RVs that come with dual-tank systems have propane regulators with an automatic changeover switch.
If your propane tanks stop working, you should check that the propane regulator does not have any leaks and that no animals have built nests inside the regulator.
Forced Air Furnaces
Motorhomes are heated with a forced air furnace. The blower runs on 12V DC power and the heat comes from the propane tanks. When you turn on the furnace there is a small delay before the motor starts and another as the control board senses electricity and sparks the burner.
If you’ve waited a few minutes and the furnace isn’t running, you may need to ignite it yourself. The furnace is located in an external compartment of the RV.
Like refrigerators, furnaces will heat the RV until the interior reaches a set temperature than turn off and re-light again once it gets cold inside. Forced-air furnaces are not that efficient. Some people choose to replace them with a vent-free propane heater, ceramic heater, or catalytic heater.
Circuit boards are in charge of sensing 12V power and propane usage in appliances your furnace, refrigerator and hot water tank. Oftentimes when an RV appliance ‘fails’ it’s the result of a bad circuit board. Replacing a circuit board is significantly less expensive than replacing an entire appliance.
Dinosaur Electronics is one of the leading circuit board manufacturers. They sell replacement boards for most of the major brands and electronics.
There are a few pieces of safety equipment and monitors that are absolutely necessary when traveling in an RV. You should check these monitors at least once a year or after long periods of inactivity.
- Fire extinguishers (more than one!)
- Smoke detector
- Carbon monoxide detector (CO detector)
- Propane detector (LP detector)
You should keep multiple fire extinguishers in your RV, both at the front and back of the vehicle and in your kitchen. Be sure to use Class A-B-C extinguishers for home use.
Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors can be placed near the ceiling. Propane is heavier than air so LP detectors should be placed near the floor. It’s important to be aware that aerosols like hair spray, Febreze and some cooking sprays can set off a propane detector.
Tire pressure monitoring
Monitoring your tire pressure is an important step in ensuring a safe RV trip. You should visually inspect your tires before any journey.
Installing a tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) can save you hundreds of dollars and prevent blow outs; they cost less than the price of one tire.
Tire blow outs happen when high heat builds up in the tires. This is most often from underinflation because the sidewalls flex and heat up at highway speeds. The monitoring system will alert you when heat builds up or when pressure is out of range and tell you which tire is overheating so you can pull over and let it rest before you run into a problem. Over inflation is more rare but can happen with drastic changes in altitude.
There are three types of tire monitoring systems:
- Cap sensors are the least expensive and work with any valve stem. They just screw onto the valve and send warnings to a monitor that can be mounted on the dashboard.
- Flow-thru sensors only work on metal valve stems. They also screw onto the valve but they also allow you to fill your tires with air without removing them.
- Internal sensors are less common because you need to break down the tire to install them. The sensor is banded inside the wheel.
Tire pressure monitoring systems should always be used on a 5th wheel or travel trailer because otherwise you may not be aware that you’re tire has blown out and end up with more damage!
In cars and regular vehicles, TPMS systems have been mandated to be factory installed since 2007. Motorhomes don’t have this requirement so many do not come with TPMS systems. That’s why you should install one yourself.
If you’re towing an RV or 5th wheel, it’s important to have brake controllers installed. These send a signal to your towable when your vehicle starts braking so the trailer will start braking as well. There are three types:
- Time delay controllers are the least expensive, it senses when the brake lights of the tow vehicle comes on and ramps up braking power in the trailer. The brake power is delayed on a timer so they are not the best for large trailers.
- Proportional brake controllers sense how much braking power is being applied to the tow vehicle and applies a proportional amount of braking power to the trailer brakes. These are the most common brake controllers.
- Advanced brake controllers communicate with the tow vehicle chassis computer and applies trailer braking proportionally. These are the most expensive.
When it comes to personal safety, trusting your instincts is the most important thing you can do. Be aware of your surroundings and read reviews of the area when finding somewhere to park.
RV alarm systems and security cameras can also give you peace of mind when traveling. Dogs are a great travel companion and also the perfect deterrent when on a road trip.
How to live in an RV
Where can you park your RV?
You can park your RV overnight at a paid RV or trailer park. Often these will provide a power supply, water hookups, a dump station and other amenities such as cable TV, WiFi and showers. There are a number of apps and websites available to help find an RV park near you:
- Campendium (website & app)
- Allstays (app)
Free RV Parking
Free camping is often referred to as boondocking. There are boondocking locations in nearly every state in the US. One of the caveats to boondocking is you will not have electric hookups, dump stations or potable water nearby.
When boondocking in an RV, you’ll need to rely on a generator for power and potentially supplement with solar. Potable water and dump stations can often be found at truck stops, paid campsites (for a small fee) and in National and some state parks.
Can you get discounts for staying at campsites frequently?
Yes! There are a number or RV clubs you can join that give big discounts on RV campsites across the US. To join an RV club, you pay a yearly fee (typically $70-$100) and receive 25-50% off participating RV parks.
Often discount RV clubs will pay off in less than a week of travel. That makes them worth it for most RV travelers. Some clubs also offer health insurance packages, mail services, travel assistance and more.
How to get internet in an RV
Many paid campsites have WiFi. But if you are boondocking, or you want to get your own internet the most popular option is using your cell phone as a mobile hot spot. We recommend picking an unlimited data plan and tethering to your laptop or tablet.
A cell phone signal booster can help you get better cell reception by boosting your signal strength up to 10x.
How to get television in an RV
The main ways to watch TV in a motorhome are: satellite, a TV antenna, or cable. Some of the more established RV parks have cable TV hookups right at the campsites.
There are also satellite TV plans that you purchase on month-to-month contracts for the length of your travels. The most reliable way of course, is simply watching DVDs.
How to stay cool in the summer
Summer can be a tough time to stay cool for RV travelers. It takes a lot of power to run an air conditioning unit. Fortunately the technology gets more advanced each year and there are other ways to stay cool during the awkward spring and fall months.
Full Timers and Long-term RV Travelers
Insurance, mail, establishing domicile and finding a community of long-term travelers is certainly a daunting task. The Escapees RV club is a network of RV travelers that can help you navigate the complicated world of full time RV living.
We highly recommend visiting their website and joining the club to take advantage of group health share plans, insurance discounts and community meetups.
RV accessories and upgrades
There are a few products we recommend RV travelers take along to make their journey more comfortable. Check out a few of the items below or read our post on 100+ RV accessories to add to your packing list.
What to look for when buying an RV
The first step in choosing an RV figuring out which type is right for you. Motorhome? 5th wheeler? Travel trailer? Each one comes with huge advantages and disadvantages. As we’ve stated before, we highly recommend renting an RV – or multiple RVs – before you decide to buy one.
Our recommended outdoor rental company is Outdoorsy because you can talk to the RV owners themselves and ask all the questions you need about each specific rig.
- Use Outdoorsy Coupon code: parkedinparadise at checkout for up to $40 off your rental price
After getting an idea of what type of RV you want, there are a few other things to keep in mind:
Avoid getting a rig over 30 feet long: this rule won’t apply to every situation, but know that a motorhome longer than 30 feet will limit you from parking at some campgrounds. That is especially true on the east coast where the roads are narrower and campsites are smaller. Longer RVs are also more difficult to maneuver.
Questions to ask when buying a used RV
- How many owners has the RV had in the past?
- Did any animals live in the RV?
- Were any smokers living in the RV?
- How many miles and how often was it driven?
- Are there maintenance records?
- When were the tires last replaced and how many miles are on them?
- Was it always winterized?
- Check for any water damage, mold or leaks
- Look for any rust
- Check the roof for cracks or bubbles
- Make sure all screws, flooring and trim is in place
You should always have a 3rd party mechanic inspect the motorhome. The extra cost will be worth it when it comes time to buy.
Buy an RV checklist
No matter what type of RV you’re looking to buy – new or used, you should go through this checklist before purchase:
- Test drive it!
- Turn on all faucets, sinks, showers and flush the toilets. Look for any leaks.
- Turn on the water pumps – both hot and cold to make sure they’re working
- Look at the gage panels to see that the tank monitoring system is working
- Plug in the rig and test all of the outlets
- Test lights, fans, air conditioners and furnace
- Switch the refrigerator between propane and electricity mode
- Turn on the microwave, oven, stovetop and TV
- Raise and lower the television antenna
- Test smoke detectors, propane and CO detectors
- If there are solar panels or other equipment installed ask how to use them
- Look at all the cabinets, doors and closets for working latches
- Open and close the windows
- Test any sliders
- Look at exterior lighting
- Climb to the roof and make sure everything is intact
- Open all external compartments
- Check the tires and brakes