Troubleshooting RV Problems

We pulled into our campground a bit earlier than expected - too early to check in. The gate attendant offered the overflow lot while we waited for our site to be vacated and cleaned.

As we headed for the overflow lot the RV dash lit up like a Christmas tree. We navigated to a parking space, turned off the engine and then restarted it hoping the problem would clear itself. No such luck - still lots of lights on the dash. 

Neither Jim nor I are mechanics and we recognize that modern engines, with all their electronic gadgetry, are best serviced by professionals. We looked up the nearest Mercedes dealer and took the unit in.

They were very helpful and within minutes diagnosed the problem as a bad wheel sensor. They made the replacement and we were on our way. 

As new RVers we have had our share of mishaps. Some, like the wheel sensor, are caused by a faulty part. Other problems are caused by operator error, lack of proper maintenance, or the carelessness of installers and repair technicians. 

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On the maintenance side, we had the coach door lock jam and then the automatic steps wouldn't retract. These two parts are actually linked by a sensor in the door jamb that alerts the steps to retract.

When the door lock was loose, not only could we not close the door properly but the steps wouldn't work. Simply tightening the screws resolved both issues. Needless to say, we added checking the door lock screws to our monthly maintenance checklist!

A faulty installation of our new stereo system left an airbag wire severed - which triggered that dash light Christmas tree again. We had it repaired at a local mechanic shop.

Unfortunately, they didn't properly secure the wires either and we ended up at Mercedes with a gear shift that wouldn't shift - because the wires had dropped into the gear shift area! 

Operator error haunted us for several trips as we learned about the RV. From figuring out why our electricity wouldn't work (a tripped breaker on the inverter), to remembering to uncap the macerator hose when dumping the tanks, the RV learning curve was steep for us.

It would have been helpful to spend more time learning about our RV's systems and operation before we hit the road (which is why I wrote "Small-RV Ninja")

Troubleshooting on the road isn't much fun, but you'll experience less downtime if you can figure out if the problem is a simple fix or if you'll need to call for professional help. 

I often have to resolve software and computer issues in my work so I follow an escalating scale of problem-solving. Starting with the most simplistic fix and then, step-by-step, escalating to more complex fixes.

This concept seems to work well for the RV too. So, here's a modified version to help you develop your own troubleshooting process based on your level of expertise.


Learn more about how your small-RV works and what you need to to to maintain it with our a Small-RV Ninja Guide Learn More…


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Think through the problem.

  • What happened just before you noticed it?

  • Has any work been done on that part or system? 

  • Is there any maintenance due on that part or system?

  • Has the operation been normal up until now or has it been declining?

Sometimes there are noises or operational issues before the warning lights come on. Take note of them so you can recreate the situation with your technician.

You might also notice problems with adjoining systems or parts at the same time you discover a problem. Give some thought as to how they may be related.  

An RV is an assembly of parts - many of which are connected in some way. By considering how things work, what other parts might be involved, and how parts might work together can go a long way in helping to troubleshoot a problem.  

If you are working with the electrical or plumbing system, reviewing the function of each component in the chain of parts is a good way to determine where the problem begins. If you are working with the engine, follow a similar component review if your expertise allows.

Is this a problem you are comfortable/qualified to repair? 

If you are handy with mechanical things you almost expect to be able to fix anything. But, an RV is quite a complex mix of parts and systems that run the gamut from diesel engines to plumbing. None of us is good at everything so don't be embarrassed to call for help if the repair is not in your normal "wheelhouse". 

For problems you think you can solve, use a consistent troubleshooting process.

Take the time to review any documentation you have on the part or system that is malfunctioning. If none is available, check online for user forums to see if others have encountered similar problems and what they discovered in their troubleshooting process. 

Use what you find from the manuals, other users' suggestions, and your own technical experience to outline a troubleshooting process. Begin with the simplest fixes first: check maintenance tasks, basic functions, and connections. You'd be surprised at how some of the most seemingly inconsequential things can lead to the solution. Then, follow your escalating troubleshooting steps until you either fix the problem or come to the end of your expertise. 

Know when to call for help.

If you have experience in the area of mechanics, plumbing, and electricity, most problems you run into with an RV will be resolved without outside help. Other RVers in a forum can also offer some support by sharing their own repair stories and providing additional information.

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But, if you don't have repair experience, then a good RV mechanic can be an invaluable partner. Give your mechanic information about the circumstances around the problem and any related issues you have discovered. This can help him troubleshoot more effectively, reducing the time the RV has to be in the shop.

The engine and chassis are the most specialized parts of the RV and, as long as your unit is under warranty, take it to a reputable dealer for repairs. Even when your unit is out of warranty, it may make sense to use the brand manufacturer as your preferred repair shop.

Though it may seem more expensive in the short term, their familiarity with their own product can make them more effective at troubleshooting and repairs. 

Here's hoping your travels are unencumbered by problems but if you encounter them, take heart in that there is help available.

You can find it through your roadside assistance program, the RV's manuals, user forums online, the RV manufacturer, a good RV mechanic, or, just maybe, at the end of your own arm!