Lucky Breaks

After four years and 75,000 miles of RV travel, it was inevitable that the odds would catch up with us. On a recent trip, we actually had to deal with some mechanical issues that required more than a toolbox, zip ties, and duct tape.

Our Navions have been remarkably trouble free, but just like a house and car, maintenance is required. Why is it that when you're home the smoke detector low battery chirp always wants to announce itself at three in the morning, and when you're on the road in your RV something breaks when you're two hundred miles from a dealer? I'm sure that somewhere physicists have created an equation that goes something like this: remoteness + off-hours = aggravation.

That's certainly the way I felt when we had dropped anchor in a Walmart parking lot for the evening in Fort Stockton, Texas and our refrigerator started blinking. A push of a button yielded an error code. Not good.

On a scale of one to ten I'd rate my mechanical skill around a seven. I'm not scared of tinkering, but more complex tasks can quickly escalate beyond my pay grade, so I know my limits. What I am really good at (and you don't have to be mechanical) is reading. So when things like "fridge blink" go wrong, I grab my iPad before my screwdriver.

Read the manual first, not last

Every Winnebago shipped from the factory comes with a huge binder or portfolio of documentation. While it's a very valuable collection of documents, it's rather cumbersome to use. Before we took delivery of our first Navion I got onto Winnebago's website and downloaded the electronic version and skimmed all the chapters. This actually made our dealer orientation much more effective as I had already gotten a sense of the coach's systems.

The Winnebago documentation includes custom written explanations, illustrations, and photos of the motorhome, but it also includes many manuals of the various components that are included in the rig -- but not all of them. And, over time, I've searched the Internet and added them to my electronic collection.

Now here's where it gets pretty cool. I use Dropbox (iCloud, Google Drive, or OneDrive are similar) to arrange and store all my electronic manuals. I group them into folders such as RV General, RV Electronics, and for non-RV devices like bikes, cars, and cameras. A couple of times, while out riding my e-bike, when I couldn't recall the specific way to change an electronic setting, out came the iPhone and up came the manual.

So when the "fridge blink" started happening, out came the iPad and I navigated to the Norcold manual. As I read through the e-version of the manual and cycled through the mode button on the fridge, the error codes changed as I went from gas, 12V, and 110 modes. "Ugh" (substituted for a less family-friendly expletive) I said to myself. "Sounds like we need to find a Norcold dealer."

Your problem may not be the real problem

Even though the error codes seemed to indicate the Norcold was failing completely, knowing that it runs on three kinds of power, it occurred to me to take things in a different direction. I tried to light one of our stove burners. Nothing. And, more importantly, no smell of gas. Okay, now I at least knew that we weren't getting gas. But why were there also errors on 12 volts and 110 AC?

I started the Navion's engine. Sure enough, the 12-volt error disappeared. That's when I learned that the fridge only operates in the 12-volt mode when the engine is running (as it would be a battery drain on house batteries otherwise) -- never knew that. Finally, I fired up the generator and switched to 110 AC. No error code! So these simple tests narrowed the problem to not getting LP gas.

Our AT&T Internet was getting a good data signal, so I popped open my MacBook and started searching on the Yahoo View/Navion forum for "no LP gas." While I could search the Yahoo forum on my iPad, I've found it runs better when looking at it through a computer. My search on the forum immediately had several hits and that's when I started learning about LP regulators.

My next search step was to jump onto Winnebago's product site and locate a dealer. I could have as easily looked for any RV dealer as this appeared to be a generic issue, but I liked the idea of having someone who knew about my specific rig. On our way to Fredericksburg, I saw we'd be going through Kerrville and that Ronnie Bock's Kerrville Winnebago was a dealer. It was now 7:30 PM and too late to call, but on the Ronnie Bock website there was a contact form. I filled out all the info, a description of the problem, my model and year, and hit send.

First thing in the morning when I checked my e-mail I had a reply from the GM, Todd Bock, who said it definitely sounded like an LP regulator problem and that they'd make sure to get me in when we hit Kerrville. About three hours later we rolled into the dealership, handed the technician our keys and (following a knowing recommendation from Todd) went over to a great nearby Tex-Mex restaurant for lunch. When we came back we were ready to go with a new regulator.

I was both amazed and happy how quickly and easily we got the problem taken care of. But, the tale doesn't end here.

After spending a great weekend at the RV Entrepreneur Summit we pulled in the slide and headed north back to Denver through the Texas hill country. We were half way between Brady and San Angelo when I heard the sound like a pop can under pressure open (did something freeze in the fridge and explode?). The display on our TPMS showed that the problem wasn't with a diet Pepsi, but a Continental tire. The inside right rear one, to be specific.

Our first flat

After all these miles, the law of averages had caught up to us. We were 50 miles from the closest "large" small towns. Pulled off on the side of the road we sorted through our options. One was to actually get under the coach, drop the spare, and replace it myself. Honestly, I just didn't feel that motivated or desperate.

I got out and took a look. The inside tire was quite flat, but the outside tire seemed to be holding the weight of the rear. When I got back inside the Navion Terry told me she was searching on her phone and found a tire repair shop seven miles up the road in the tiny town of Eden (one traffic light). Through a heavy Hispanic accent, Terry got the instructions on where to find the shop -- one block past the one traffic light on the left.

Gingerly I rolled back onto the two-lane and kept my speed to 45 MPH. As we slowly closed on Eden I kept thinking about a fascinating and horrifying video RV bloggers Jason and Nikki Wynn made a few years ago when they blew a dual on the lonesome crossing from the Yukon into Alaska where there was no road traffic and no cell service. I figured if they could make it to civilization on one rear dual, we could too.

Winnebago Navion parked outside a tire shop.

When we rolled into the E-Z tire Shop, the proprietor, Ezequiel "Zeke" Salazar, met me with a smile and warm handshake. Though the Navion tires aren't large, Zeke was carefully eyeballing the size of the RV and weight thinking about jacking options. That's when I thought about the "easy button."

One of the rear Winnebago Navion tires sitting next to the motorhome.

Though for safety and liability reasons, I was told that you shouldn't use hydraulic levelers to change a tire, this was one of those times I was comfortable in taking responsibility. With a push and hold of a button, I got the right rear up just high enough to get the tires barely off the ground. Within minutes Zeke found the problem and another lucky break. It was the valve stem and all he had to do was go to the local parts shop for a longer stem, and we'd be in good shape.

It took about an hour for the repair and time passed quickly, especially for Terry, as she was getting both the family and town story from Zeke's wife Gracie. We parted as if we had been long-time friends and as Terry and I compared notes about our parallel conversations, we realized how grateful we are for all these surprise intersections of life in our travels.

During national election campaigns, you always hear about flyover states. RV travel brings you out of the clouds and down to eye level where understanding and appreciation take root. While Zeke's and Gracie's tales of family, business, and community may at first seem small in scope, they loom large, both in our hearts and in the heart of the American story.

We'll be keeping our fingers crossed, looking for four leaf clovers, and rubbing rabbits' feet that we keep our repair stories at least 75,000 miles apart. But just in case, the electronic manuals, Internet data services, and our cell phones are probably the most valuable tools we have on board.

Learn More about the Winnebago View