So, you’ve never been camping in an RV before but you’re ready to get started, right? Woah… slow down! The first thing I would suggest is to read this post on all the different types of RVs to purchase before you go shopping. Once you’ve done that, come on back and continue reading!
This is going to be a long read, so grab a cup of coffee or a beer and a pen and paper and kick back!
NOTE: All links in this article will open in new tabs for your convenience. Simply close the tab and you will be right where you left off!
Know your RV!
The biggest mistake newbee campers make is buying the wrong type of RV. Since you already read the post linked above, we’ll move on the the second biggest mistake; not knowing your systems!
Most campers, no matter what type, are going to have all the owner’s manuals hidden away somewhere in a cabinet. Find them and read all of them, five times! Walk around your camper and get familiar with everything in the manuals! So many people never even crack open a manual and that is a camping crime! There are many systems on an RV and information is your friend! So with that said, let’s cover some of them!
Terms used in this article
V – Volts
A – Amps
Shore Power – Plugged into a power outlet at a campground
Boondocking / Dry Camping – Camping in the wilderness or with no electric or water hook up.
Boondocking means wilderness camping out in the “boondocks.” Usually, camping on public lands (state and national forests, BLM lands, etc.), is free or very low cost. Most boondocking opportunities are away from cities, blacktop, and civilization in general. In many boondocking areas, you just find a place and park. How Does Dry-Camping Differ? Dry-camping means no water, electricity, or sewer hookups and may be free or paid. You might dry-camp in a city park, a state or federal campground, a private RV park, or a parking lot. Overnight stops at Wal-Mart and Flying J’s are examples of dry camping.
CO/LP – Carbon Monoxide / Liquid Propane
Genset / Genny – Generator
Potable – Safe to drink
PTI – Pre Trip Inspection
Basic Electrical – Part 1
Excluding Solar, there are three types of electrical systems on your RV from the manufacturer, 12/12/120V:
- 12V DC Vehicle
This is the 12V system on your RV that runs off the engine. This is typically everything in the drivers compartment and the outside lights. This system is just like the electric in your car. Once you’re parked and set up for camping, this system is not used.
- 12V DC Coach system
The 12V coach system is usually powered by deep cycle batteries hidden somewhere in the coach. Motorhomes are usually under the entry steps and trailers are usually at the front in a plastic case. This system is generally used for all of the interior lighting, roof fans, CO/LP alarm, general systems and system monitors. This system is maintained by a trickle charger when plugged into shore power or running on generator.
NOTE: When storing your RV, or at the beginning and end of each season, it is important to check the water in the batteries if so equipped. If you do boondock, it is very important not to discharge your deep cycle batteries to more than 50% or below 12.1V. Your control panel will have an indicator in either volts or percentage. If it’s percentage, a very cheap mod is adding a volt meter. Volt meters are very accurate, percentage meters are not.
- 120V AC System
The 120V has two sources of power: shore power (plugging into an actual outlet) and generator power. When you plug into a campsite pedestal, you’ll have immediate 120V power. When starting the generator, you’ll usually have to wait between 30 and 90 seconds for the power.
NOTE: When boondocking (dry camping without hook ups), if you don’t have a genset, you will not have any 120V power unless you have an inverter, and even then, you would have to be very conservative on battery usage unless you have solar. You will have to to have a generator to use things like the wall outlets, or microwave. Most Newbie campers will want the comforts of home, so I highly recommend buying a coach with a generator.
NOTE II: The most common problem when plugged in and your 120V outlets don’t work is a tripped GFI. Find your outlet with the red and black buttons and reset it.
There are also three types of shore power (see image below):
- 50A service: 50A power will generally power all of your needs in an RV. Most motorhomes and large trailers will have 50A, service.
- 30A service: 30A service is usually found in smaller trailers and Class C motorhomes. If you have 30A, it will generally be sufficient to run the stock camper as designed.
- 20A service: 20A is what you’ll find at home, a standard wall outlet. This service is common in many Class B coaches and pop-up style campers.
NOTE: The 30A cord will have a TWIST lock at the trailer attachment point. Push in and turn to lock.
Almost all motorhomes will have power cords permanently attached to the coach in a storage compartment on the driver’s side, in front of the rear wheels. Smaller motorhomes and trailers will usually use extension cords pictured above.
This is what the shore power hookup might look like in the campsite:
At the campsite, the first step is TURNING OFF THE BREAKERS at the pedestal. Next, plug in your surge protector (see picture above, description below). The third step is turning on the breaker to the surge protector and checking for GREEN lights. If the lights are all green, turn the breaker OFF again. The last step is plugging in your RV extension cord to the surge protector and turning the breaker back on. You will now have 120V power inside your camper. The breakers will be; 50A on the left, 30A in the middle and 20A on the right. Only turn on the breaker you are going to use.
A good surge protector is absolutely necessary when camping! There are constant drains and spikes in the power and it is possible for a spike to damage sensitive electrical equipment in your camper! A lightning strike to a nearby tree can ruin the entire system, costing you thousands in repairs! Here are links to Amazon with the best prices I have found for the most popular unit:
Progressive Industries Smart Surge Protector- 240V/50A, – $100.62
If you have 30AMP, click this link, $77.77
Tripp Lite Isobar 20A 2 Outlet – $29.99
Almost all motorhomes are equipped with a generator for dry camping. Many 5th wheels also have them and a lot of TTs and other campers add them either as built in or remote power. They can be found in many different places as you can see below.
Generator power is not a replacement for shore power, it is an alternative for boondocking, but in most cases, it will work well for most needs. You just have to know your limits on amps. For instance, I can run both AC units, the refrigerator and a couple of other small items with no problem on my 5500 Onan (46A), but plug in a toaster oven or hair dryer and the breaker might blow. I have a chart in my owner’s manual that details amperage draw that’s a good reference point – I copied some of it below for your reference. Every genset will be different.
Most built in gensets will have a start procedure. On my Onan, it is, press the start button to the off position and hold until the red light flashes, about three seconds. Then press the switch to the start position and hold until it starts or five seconds have elapsed. Mine starts every time the first time. But if yours doesn’t, wait 30 seconds between tries. Check the owner’s manual for your specific starting procedure. Remember to always check your oil level before attempting to start the genset!
Average Amperage Draw Reference
Air Conditioner, 15,000 – Startup: 14-16A, running: 12A
Coffee Pot, Electric- 9 Amps
Crock Pot– 1 to 2 AMps
Food Processor– 8 to 10 Amps
Frying Pan (Electric)- 8 to 10 Amps
Hair Dryer– 10 to 15 Amps
Iron– 10 Amps
Oven, Microwave– 10 Amps
Refrigerator (2-door medium)- 2 to 4 Amps
Toaster– 8 to 10 Amps
TV, Digital- 1 to 2 Amps
Vacuum (Dirt Devil Hand Unit)- 2 Amps
Water Heater, Electric (6-Gallon)- 8 to 12 Amps
Figure on spending the cost of 3/4 gallon of gasoline or diesel per hour for the built in units. All of the built in gensets draw from your coach fuel tank, and the pickup line usually terminates at the 1/4 tank fuel level. This is a safety feature so you don’t use all your fuel when boondocking and can’t get to a gas station. If your genset will not start, check the fuel level in your coach and make sure it’s well above 1/4 tank. If it still won’t start, check your oil level. Most RV gensets have a low oil shutdown safety feature.
No matter what the owner’s manual says, I always service my genset every 150 run hours or annually. Service includes; oil change, plug change, fuel filter and fuel line change, and general cleaning to remove road dirt, dust and grime. I currently have a gas motorhome with a Cummings, Onan Marquis Gold, 5500 genset. Total time, 30 minutes; total cost, $18.00.
When in storage, if not using fuel stabilizer in your coach tank, it is extremely important to exercise your genset! Exercise your genset monthly! I use Stabil in my coach and still exercise it!
- Prime and start the generator – let run for three minutes with no load
- Turn on your largest AC unit and set it to the lowest temperature
(If you have two or more AC units, switch between them to exercise all of them as well)
- Let the generator run for 45 minutes to an hour under the load
- Turn off the AC
- Wait five minutes and shut down the generator
A well exercised, well maintained genset will give you many years of good service. Ignore it, and you’ll be in the shop every year!
In the camping world, it is generally understood that a generator should only be used between the hours of 8:00 AM and 10:00 PM. Nighttime is considered quiet time almost everywhere, even if boondocking without neighbors. You never know who might pull up in your wilderness, and sound generally travels much further at night when there is no other white noise.
Basic Plumbing – Part 2
RVs have very basic plumbing, just like your home. With that said, they can appear to be very complicated and even intimidating to the new user! So let’s cover some of them!
Fresh water / Gray water / Black water
Fresh Water, AKA Potable Water
Fresh water is the city water hookup on your RV. The fresh water can be confusing by all the different configurations, but remember this: It is just one fitting marked “City Water” that you connect a potable water hose to at the campground, that’s it!
Many RVs will also have storage tanks to store fresh water for boondocking. Some will only have one water supply connection and valves that you have to turn to “Tank Fill” or “City Pressure” to start the flow. In this case, they all have a diagram showing the proper positions of the valves. The pictures below will show you the city water hook up circled in red, and an example of the valves on some campers. On campers without valves, there will be two inlets for the city water. One is specifically for the fresh water storage tank, and the other is for daily use. They will be marked “Tank Fill” and “City Water” as seen on the left and center.
When filling your tank, connect to or turn your valves to tank fill and turn on the water. Fill the tank to the desired amount or until you see water spilling on the ground under the RV from the overflow, and then turn your valves to City/Pump or turn off the water supply for direct fill trailers.
NOTE: You should only fill the tank with enough water needed for your trip when traveling! Just a few gallons when on the road. If you’re going boondocking, wait until you are near the location and find a truck stop or campground to fill the tanks up. A 100 gal tank weighs well over 800lbs when full, and you don’t want to be hitting bumps in the road with a full tank, especially since most tanks are plastic!
If this is your first time using the camper, whether new or used, it is recommended to sanitize the fresh water storage tank and plumbing lines in your RV. This is an absolute must in my opinion! Sanitizing the tank is an annual service at least. I usually sanitize my RV tank two to three times a year. Here is a step by step guide, click here, on how to sanitize your fresh water. Close the tab when you’re done to return to your place here…
Now that you’ve learned about the fresh water and how to use it, let’s talk about water pressure and filters. These are two items you need to address before heading out. Here is an article that goes into great detail about the water pressure regulator and why you might want to use one. The link will open a new tab so you can read it and then close the tab to keep your place in this article.
If your rig is not equipped with a water filter AT the supply, I highly recommend purchasing one! You can get one from Lowe’s or the Home Depot, or from Amazon like I do, cheaper. This is the one I use: Camco 40043 TastePURE Water Filter – $25.52. But THROW AWAY the flexible hose! It is total garbage and WILL leak on you within a few uses! Use this instead: Green Thumb FX1GT Kink Protector and Faucet Extension – $7.99
Now most people, if not all I have seen will hook up their water filter to the RV. I absolutely do not recommend doing this! Once filled with water, the filter is quite heavy and causes unnecessary stress on the house fitting! Not to mention a safety hazard due to it protruding from the RV.
The solution is simple!
Attach the above Hose Kink protector to the water faucet supply at the RV Park. Attach the water filter to the kink protector, and then a Potable Drinking Water Hose (Link $9.97) from the water supply at the campground to a 90 Degree Hose Elbow – Lead Free (Link $8.97) on your RV!
It is extremely important to make sure you use a Potable Drinking Water Hose (Link $9.97) for your fresh water supply! Standard garden hoses WILL give you a bad taste and smell no matter how much filtering you do!
When you’re finished camping, it is important to dump your fresh water tank. Dumping the tank can take some time, so because I have a motorhome and will use water along the trip home, I wait until I get home to dump mine, though I do dump most of it before I leave. I only leave enough onboard for the toilet and washroom. Fresh water drain valves can be easy or hard to find! They put them in all different locations, but usually you’ll find them under the RV. Below are a few different styles. If you have a drain with no cap or valve on it, chances are it is located inside the coach behind a false cabinet or door.
Gray & Black Water
Gray water is any water that is used by either the sinks or the shower. Black water is human waste flushed down the toilet. In some motorhomes, the bathroom sink will also drain to the black water tank to keep it hydrated. Your RV will usually come equipped with gray and black water tanks unless it’s a park model or FEMA trailer. Park models and FEMA trailers are designed for permanent hookups and may or may not have holding tanks.
So let’s flip an RV over and take a look!
Most RVs will have a 2-3″ black tank line and a 1 1/2″ gray tank line. This is the easiest way to identify them, by their size. The tanks are nestled away between the frame members out of sight, and on some RVs you can’t find them because they are covered by insulation from a winter package.
Both of these tanks are notorious for causing foul smells inside the camper simply due to their nature. Both tanks are vented through the roof of your RV via a 1 1/2″ PVC stack, however, this doesn’t always solve the smell problem!
Worry not my friends! Yes, I have written an article on how to get rid of the foul smells from your tanks! Here’s a link to the article!
Waste Disposal 101, How to use the tanks
So now you’ve gotten to the campground and you’re getting all hooked up! Great, you got your electric hooked up, water turned on and your sewer hose connected! Time to open the tank valves so they can flow into the sewer, right? WRONG! If you’re just staying for a day or two, don’t open either valve!
You’re going to want to FILL both your tanks with waste before opening the valves! If you’re staying put for more than three days, you may open the gray water valve (smaller one), but do NOT open the black water!
If you open the black water valve and the tank drains, there will be no liquid in the tank to hydrate the poop pyramid that will build up and in some cases harden! The black tank must have fluids in it to operate properly! This is a major newbie mistake and can cost a lot of money to fix!
If you do open the gray water, make sure you close it 36-48 hours before you’re ready to leave! You’re going to need that water to flush your hose!
So how does one empty the tanks? Good question! This is what you’ll typically find somewhere inside a compartment or under the RV on the driver’s side.
Remember, the larger valve is always the black tank. And we’re now assuming that you have already hooked up your sewer line from the center opening to the campground sewer or dump station!
It is always a good idea to have gloves on when working with human waste. I use Disposable Dump Gloves – 50 Pairs (Link $7.43) whenever I hook up or unhook.
Now the first step is to make sure the sewer hose is completely twisted onto the four prongs of the discharge and properly attached to the sewer! Next, pull the handle out to open the black tank valve first. The waste will rush out through the hose for a minute or so and then slow to a trickle. If you’re at a campsite, take your time and let it empty all the way. Once you hear no more waste flowing, push the valve back in to close the black tank. Now pull the handle on the gray tank to flush the line and empty the waste water. Once all the water is emptied, you can close the gray tank valve. At this point, you can remove the sewer hose and use a garden hose to flush it out, pack it up and you’re almost done! Do not use the white potable water hose to flush the hose! Use a regular garden hose to avoid contamination.
NOTE: Some RVs will come equipped with an onboard tank flush. Consult your manual for instruction.
The last step in the process is to add fresh water back to the BLACK tank only. Go inside your RV to the toilet. Fill the toilet with water several times and flush it. You want to add between three and five gallons of fresh water to keep any solids that may have stayed behind hydrated, and so the natural enzymes in the waste tank can do their job to keep it clean!
TIP: On some motorhomes, the sink in the head drains to the black tank. If you have one of these configurations, simply run the sink water.
I wrote yet another article on a tank flush modification that you might want to read. It’s a five minute mod and does a great job flushing the tank! If you really want a clean tank, click here to read it!
IMPORTANT NOTE: Get a plastic bin to store your waste hose in if you don’t have rear bumper stowage. Drill a few vent holes in the top for air circulation and keep it covered and away from your camping gear!
Water Heater Maintenance – Part 3
The two major brands of RV water heaters are Atwood and Suburban. Both of them are basically the same with only one difference. Suburban comes with a steel tank and has a sacrificial anode rod, and the Atwood has an aluminum tank with a no anode rod. Rather than take up four more pages in text, here is an excellent video by RV Geeks detailing how to clean your water heater tank. The only thing I do different is skip the vinegar. I have flushed the tank my way and then immediately after used the vinegar method and it yielded no results. So in my opinion, skip the vinegar…
Winterizing and De-Winterizing – Part 4
Here’s a good video by Sierra RV:
Trip Prep, PTI – Part 5
I am going to say this is probably the most important thing you’ll read about RVing! Preparing for your trip is easy. Doing a PTI takes practice and dedication!
There is a simple trick for newbie RVers, and the trick is, take two or three days to camp IN YOUR DRIVEWAY! If you cannot fit in your driveway, go to the nearest RV park you can find. In this two or three days, you’ll be surprised at how many trips to the house or store you’ll have to make! Keep a record! Write everything down and eventually make a checklist! There are hundreds of checklists on the Internet, but none that will satisfy you — this one will!
This is the most important thing you’ll ever read about RVing! Everything else you’ve read so far, either here or somewhere else how to RV. The PTI is different! It ensures you’ll travel as safely as possible, and I can tell you from experience that probably 90% of the RVs on the road have NOT done a proper PTI! Before you hit the open road, no matter how long you’ve been stopped, whether a day or a month, do your PTI!
Here is a link to the basics of a PTI that I wrote. It is essential that you learn and understand this!
OVER 90% OF ACCIDENTS AND BREAKDOWNS OF RVS ARE DUE TO A MISSED OR IMPROPER PTI!
So now you have a basic understanding of your RV! Congratulations on joining us on the road!
PLEASE ASK ANY QUESTIONS OR MAKE A COMMENT! I LOOK FORWARD TO HEARING FROM YOU!
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