We all know the frustration when a vehicle breaks down and we need to have it repaired.  You take it to the repair facility and they spend an hour on it and then you get charged $150.

Alternatively, the repair shop says it needs a new part — for an additional $300, of course, it’s not in stock anywhere and needs to be ordered from the manufacturer, it may arrive in three weeks.

Why do repairs seem to cost so much even if they don’t take long? Why does it seem that the part you need is never the one that is in stock?  There are several reasons for this which I will attempt to explain.

When people go to a doctor or lawyer, they’re paying for knowledge and experience; the same is true with a technician.  While technicians don’t wear suits and ties, the experience and knowledge they have acquired over the years is just as valuable to someone needing a repair as a lawyer is to someone needing legal help.

To illustrate, consider the story of a large manufacturer that used an intricate machine to produce their main product.  One day the machine quit running, management brought in several consultants and engineers who were unable to fix it, finally in desperation, they brought in an old engineer that had retired from the manufacturer years ago.  The old engineer walked around the machine and got a hammer out of his tool bag, he knelt down and tapped the machine once at a particular spot.  Immediately the machine came back to life and production started again.  The old engineer sent a bill for $10,000, when asked to explain the high cost of his bill for just hitting it with a hammer the explained that $100 was for the hammer tap and $9,000 was for knowing where and how hard to tap.

Anyone who has handed his vehicle over to a mechanic knows the lesson of this legend very well. A skilled technician can strike straight to the heart of that annoyingly problem the owner was baffled by. Ultimately, the solution may come down to a matter of tightening a bolt or screw, and thus seem to have not required all that much effort. But even as he winces over the bill, the owner is struck by the realization that if the problem had been left solely up to him, he’d never have solved it or even known where to begin.  Repairs may look simple, but often they’re not.

Experience and Familiarity

Modern RV’s are complex vehicles composed of multiple systems made by multiple manufacturers connected and working together as a whole unit.  When one component fails in that system it’s not often apparent which component failed or even where it is located.  It takes time and experience to isolate the problem down to a single component.  Add to that, each RV manufacturer does things a little differently even on the same model from year to year.  Each RV is a unique vehicle and as such, anything that is not a common problem can be time consuming to find and repair.  We had a customer complain about the 3-hour repair cost to fix a bad wire on his generator.  What he failed to consider is that his generator was not on a slide, it was bolted into the coach, it had to be completely disconnected, fuel, electrical and exhaust, and then removed from the coach with a forklift.  Once out, we could then remove the covers from the generator, find and fix the wire, test to ensure that the problem was fixed and then re-install the generator in the coach.  Replacing the wire was quick and simple, getting the generator out and the covers off to access the problem area was not.

Limited Working Space:

Room to work on an RV is almost nonexistent, manufacturers in their zeal to make every square inch of space usable have not considered the technician who will eventually need to repair something on it.  Chassis manufacturers don’t always consider that the chassis they build will have a full-size house placed on top of it, which severely limits access to the engine and other key components of the RV.  It is accessible but often it takes an acrobat or contortionist to make the repair, at the very least, the limited access takes more time than it would if the vehicle had been something other than an RV.  As an example, we swapped out a diesel engine in a coach, it was approximately a 40-hour job because the engine had to come out the back of the coach and the whole back end had to be disassembled and reassembled.  Plumbing and wiring are some of the most difficult systems to work on and some of the most common to have issues.  Plumbing and wiring are some of the first things placed when building an RV so they are some of the most inaccessible.  Ask anyone who didn’t winterize and had their plumbing freeze how costly it was to repair it.  That lack of access adds up to more time to get down to the problem and repair which increases the bill.

Lack of Documentation and Technical Support:

Coach manufacturers have gotten better with their documentation but there is still much to be desired.  Chassis manufacturers have done better with Freightliner and Spartan both offering 24-hour support lines and good documentation on the configuration of the unit.  Workhorse is out of production since 2012 and there is no technical support offered for it anymore.  Experienced mechanics can draw on their experience working on similar coaches and systems to diagnose many problems, but it is often necessary to go back to the manufacturer and get diagrams for a particular system.  The manufacturers sometimes make several different configurations of the same model so getting the correct diagram is sometimes challenging and takes time.  For example, we were troubleshooting an A/C problem on a Thor unit, we got 3 distinctly different A/C wiring diagrams from Thor and none of them matched the coach we had.  We were able to solve the problem but only due to the experience of the technician working the problem.

Cost and Availability of Parts:

The cost of parts has risen over the years along with everything else.  If you own a boat, motorcycle, jet ski or any other vehicle in the Recreational Vehicle class you already know that you pay a premium for parts for those units.  There are several reasons for this:

  1.   The demand for these parts is limited, they will usually only work in one application and are not generic, this means a limited sales cycle but with the same upfront design costs of other parts. One could consider these items specialty items and that usually always means a higher cost.  This means the manufacturer needs to charge more for the part to recover their costs and because they know people will pay the price to keep their unit running.
  2.   Manufacturers are getting ISO certified and must meet government regulations in the production of their products. With more and more regulations to conform to there are costs involved that will not be absorbed by the company, these are passed down to the consumer in the form of higher prices for parts and product.
  3.   Different manufacturers have different systems and responses for parts acquisition, we have good results with most of the chassis manufacturers, usually in a couple of days up to a week, Fleetwood and Rev RV can get us parts in a week usually, Winnebago can take a couple of weeks and Thor and Forest River usually takes about 4+ weeks to get us the parts we need. It helps to understand we do our best to get parts quickly, but we are often at the mercy of the manufacturer.
  4.   Since the advent of the computer age we are seeing more and more electronics in the systems on RV’s. It used to be the hot water heater, furnace, and refrigerator were a simple gas jet and a blower wheel with mechanical safeties in place to prevent a fire.  Now everything is on a board with logic to turn on the blower wheel only when the flame is lit and not light the flame unless the flue is clear etc.  More than not, now we replace the board rather than the igniter.  Since it’s a computer board it has a higher cost than an igniter and is not as simple to replace this takes more time for the repair.
  5.   There are such a large variety of parts on any RV that nobody can be expected to carry even a majority of them. We can’t order parts based on someone’s description of them as often time it turns out to be the wrong part and then we are required to pay a 20-50% restocking fee if we can even return the part.  The best we hope for is to be able to get the right part in the shortest possible time frame, we shoot for a day to a week but obviously we are limited by the vendor as to when they can get the part to us.

Cost of Business

There is a cost to do business.  Most people don’t think about the utilities of running the shop, equipment, office equipment, credit card charges, the cost for the lease and the specialized insurance that is required to protect the customer and the shop from accidents and damage.  Add to that the taxes the shop pays for employees, equipment, batteries sold and other things that the state and local governments can tax to get their revenue that adds to the total cost of repair.

RV’s offer a lot of fun and adventure, but they are expensive to purchase and maintain.  My hope is that after reading this you will have a better understanding of the factors to consider that go into the repair cost of your RV.