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WINTERIZING YOUR RV — A step-by-step time-proven system to get the job done right!
It is hard for me to believe that winter’s cold winds and freezing temperatures are just around the corner for those of us that live in Central Virginia. Golly, in some of our northern states freezing temperatures have already arrived!
OK – those of you in southern Florida, the southwest and other warmer climates can laugh, but a good part of the country is going to get cold.
This, of course, means winterizing your RV. Even if it is still relatively warm where you are, you should be planning and preparing to put your camper away for the winter.
The major issue with campers and freezing temperatures is the water system. Hundreds or even thousands of dollars in damage can result if freezing water expands in water lines, the pump, potty flush valve, faucets, water heater and drains.
I have winterized all of our campers each winter over the past three decades. So, I’ve had a lot of practice in what works, and what does not.
This is my step-by-step winterization process. Hopefully it will help readers new to the process complete winterization easily and efficiently. This can also make opening the camper back up in the spring much easier and less time consuming.
- Begin your winterization as you leave your last scheduled camping trip to drive home. Drain all of your holding tanks into the sewer dump at the campground. Flush your black water tank until the water coming out is clean. You can use a short clear plastic sewer hose extension installed at the dump valve so that you can see when the waste water is clean. Open your low point fresh water drains and all of the inside faucets. Leave the water heater drain alone for right now – the water in the tank is probably HOT and could burn you in the draining process. The up, down and rolling movement of the camper on the way home will help to complete the fresh water draining process – but it will not shake all of the remaining water out of the system.
- Remove all perishable and freezable items. While it may be obvious that you can’t leave milk in the refrigerator through the winter, many other items in your camper that can go bad or freeze are often overlooked. For example, be sure shaving cream, first-aid kits, lotions, insect repellents, sunscreen, tooth paste, spray cleaners, OTC medications, toilet chemicals, glues, liquid wax, dish detergent, etc. are boxed and moved inside for the winter. Your OTC medications like aspirin and antacid should be added to your home medicine cabinet and used – or disposed of safely. Letting them sit in a storage box until next spring and then putting them back into the camper will result in a less effective medication due to aging. Rotate caned goods through your pantry rather than storing them so that the “Use By:” dates are not exceeded.
- Clean the Refrigerator. Turn the refrigerator off and allow it to defrost. Remove all door shelves and inside racks. Wash the interior toughly with a good kitchen cleaner, one with a small amount of bleach works best. Wash the door racks in hot soapy water and dry. Wipe out the freezer section as you did the refrigerator part. Be careful of the sharp metal fins near the top of the refrigerator as they can cut your hand. When cleaning is complete, prop the door(s) open with rags or hand towels so air can circulate inside the fridge over the winter.
- Remove LCD TV Sets. LCD displays can be damaged by extremely low temperatures. If your area is subjected to extreme cold this one step could save you hundreds of dollars next spring. It also makes the camper less attractive to thieves, an important step if you are storing your camper away from home.
- Remove Tissue and Paper Towels. Field mice love to use tissue, napkins, toilet paper and paper towels as nesting materials. We all hope mice will not invade our campers while they are in storage, but it is not uncommon for these small furry creatures to take up residence inside a camper during the colder months. It is a good idea to leave the cabinet doors and drawers open so that dark nesting spaces are minimized. If mice are a concern, never leave any food behind and read my previous Mouse Attack! blogs.
- Drain Your Water Heater. Be sure the water is not HOT. There is a plug that must be removed with a socket wrench at the bottom of your tank. It is accessible from the outside after opening the water heater outer door. This plug may also contain your anode rod, which acts as a sacrificial metal to keep your aluminum tank from getting full of pin holes. If the rod is over 1/2 gone, you will need to replace the drain plug/anode rod with a new one before the spring opening.
- Pump RV Antifreeze Into Your Water Lines. I know some people do not like to use this stuff, but it is the only sure way to be sure there is no water left behind to freeze. The pink RV antifreeze is rated as non-toxic if used as directed. Do NOT dilute the pink antifreeze – use full strength. NEVER, NEVER use automotive cooling system antifreeze (green, yellow or red) in a RV water system. Automotive antifreeze is toxic and difficult if not impossible to flush out of a RV water system.First, close all of the camper’s faucets and low point drains. Hopefully, your water heater has a by-pass valve installed that should be operated according to your owner’s manual. If not, there are by-pass kits that can be purchased and installed.
There are several different methods for getting the antifreeze into your water lines. The proper thing to do is consult your RV’s manual to learn which of these methods is best for your RV. Some RV’s have a factory installed hose connected by a two-way valve going to the water pump so that you can just put the hose end into the antifreeze container and turn the valve to pump antifreeze into your water lines. Others advise to disconnect the intake hose to the water pump, attach a new temporary hose section to the pump then put the open end of the new hose into a container of antifreeze – then turn on the RV’s water pump. Lastly, antifreeze can be poured directly into the fresh water tank and then pumped through the RV water lines. This last method generally uses more antifreeze than the others. Depending on the size of your RV, you will need from 3 to 6 gallons of antifreeze. If you do not have a water heater bypass, it will take an additional 5 to 10 gallons. Thus, a water heater bypass valve system can save you a lot of money in antifreeze.
Start with all of your faucets closed, pump the pink antifreeze from a clean 3 to 5 gallon bucket or water jug into your water lines until your electric pump shuts off. Do not allow the antifreeze container to become empty during this entire process or your pump will pick up air and need to be re-primed.
Go to the faucet closest to the water pump and open the cold water side. Let it run until only pink liquid comes out. Close the cold water faucet and do the same for the hot side. Repeat this process for all of the remaining faucets, shower and the toilet until all you see is pink liquid. Do NOT forget to service an outside shower. Using an empty container, return to your outside low point drains and drain the pink liquid out of your water lines – there is no point leaving it in the lines since you have purged them of all freezable water.
Take some of the recovered antifreeze and pour it into your sink and shower drains so that the traps will not freeze if they should contain any water.
Wipe any pink antifreeze off of the shower walls, bathtub or sink bottoms as it will leave a stain.
Dump any pink liquid out of your toilet bowl; wipe the bowl dry and pour in one half of a cup of mineral or baby oil (do not use vegetable oil as it will spoil). This will keep your toilet bowl valve seal from drying out.
Lastly, remove any water line filters such as a drinking water filter in the kitchen or a whole house filter installed elsewhere. Discard these filters. Do not try to save them for next year.
The small amount of water left sitting in the bottom of your water heater tank should not cause any harm if it freezes.
Don’t forget to be sure your “white” fresh water supply hoses have been drained of all water and are stored with the ends screwed together.
OPEN your gray water holding tank dump valves and catch any water and antifreeze that comes out in a bucket for proper disposal in your home’s toilet. DO NOT open your black tank valve unless you are positive that the tank is clean and empty. If you did not clean and empty your black tank at your last camping or dump site, you have a big problem. You will need to add antifreeze to the tank via the toilet to prevent freezing and potential damage to the dump valve.
- Wash your RV outside, starting with the roof. Use recommend cleaners for the roof and camper sidewalls. Don’t forget the wheel wells where mud can collect. Clean all mildew from your awning with a detergent and bleach solution or commercial awning cleaner – rinse well and allow to dry. Pay particular attention to your tires and wheels and getting them clean. If possible, wash the inside sidewall of the tire too. Removing any road oil or other accumulated rubber damaging dirt is beneficial. When the tires are clean and dry, adjust air pressure to the maximum recommended on the sidewall (they will naturally loose air over the winter) and cover the tires so that they are not exposed to sunlight. Try to place the tread of the tires on a smooth hard surface rather than dirt or gravel. Some pressure treated wood boards or concrete patio blocks under the tires may be helpful.
- Clean the inside. Vacuum the carpets and furniture. Clean any hard surface floors. Clean the shower stall and tub along with sinks and the potty. Clean the oven and stove top. Do not leave any grease, dirt or residue behind that can turn into a permanent stain or attract insects – like that half eaten PB&J sandwich hiding behind the couch! Additionally, this makes the spring opening much easier!
- Check for rust. Anything that is showing signs of rust now will be worse in the spring. Light rust can be covered with paint from “rattle cans” without removing the rust. Heavy rust should be sanded or chemically treated before painting. Look carefully at your frame, tongue (on a TT), the carrier under your propane bottles, your battery tray. If you have a sewer hose bumper check for chips or nicks on the underside. The inside of the bumper may be uncoated and rusting. An old trick is to make a mop from foam or rags tied onto a long stick, dip into enamel paint and literally “mop” the inside of the hose bumper with paint.
- If the camper is a trailer that is going to be stored outside, cover the front tongue jack with a heavy plastic trash bag and tie the bottom with duct tape or rope.
Spray the the coupler with WD-40 or marine fogging oil and cover with a plastic bag or wrap with aluminum foil.
Spray the corner jacks (scissor jacks?) with WD-40 or marine fogging oil on the screw shaft and pivot points.
- Be sure all propane tanks are turned OFF. Better yet, remove them to a open shed or outbuilding with the plastic tank cover off. This will reduce the possibility of condensation that causes rusted tanks and holders.
- If your camper is where it can be plugged into electricity you may be able to leave your battery(s) installed. If you KNOW that your charger/converter has a float charge function you may leave it turned on. If you do not know if your charger has a float function turn it off, disconnect the batteries, and hook up an optional low current float charger. If you have a battery ON-OFF switch on your camper, remember that if it is turned OFF the camper’s converter/charger cannot maintain the battery(s) over the winter. If your batteries have removable caps, be sure the cells are full. Add distilled water if needed.
If you are in doubt about any of the above or electricity will not be hooked to your camper, remove your batteries and store them in a well ventilated area that is not subjected to freezing temperatures. A semi-heated garage is the best storage environment. Use a float charger in a well ventilated area during the winter or conduct a 2 hour charge with a 2-6 amp conventional battery charger once a month. Again, be sure to do this in a well ventilated area. Check water or electrolyte level and add distilled water if needed. Of course, you cannot do this on sealed batteries.
Batteries without a full charge can freeze and be ruined in cold weather. Batteries that just sit will naturally discharge and accumulate a white crust on the plates inside of the battery that will shorten their life span. Stored batteries will need “tending” as described above.
- If possible, cover the camper roof. The best covers are the waterproof yet breathable commercial covers. But, “blue tarps” can be used IF they are installed so that air can circulate under them. It is a BAD idea to lay a blue tarp directly onto the roof surface because they trap moisture underneath and do not allow easy drying of the protected surface. Many ingenious ideas using PVC pipe to make tent-like bows have worked for some campers willing to go this route. Gallon jugs or 2-Liter drink bottles filled with sand and tied to the tarp grommets may help to secure it so that the wind does not turn it into a sail.
If your roof vents are covered so that they will keep rain and snow out, it is a good idea to slightly open the vent to allow for air circulation inside the camper.
If your camper is stored on dirt it can be beneficial to use a ground cover as a vapor barrier under the camper. Again, plastic or blue tarps held in place with rocks or blocks will prevent ground moisture from causing additional frame rusting or moisture from collecting in the camper’s flooring.
- Elevate your front jacks so that one end of the camper is taller than the other. This will aid in water run-off and help to keep the rolled up awning drained of moisture.
- If you carry a portable electric generator, put the recommended amount of fuel stabilizer into the tank and fill it with fuel to prevent condensation from forming inside the tank. If possible, run the generator monthly during the winter to keep everything inside lubricated and gum free.
- Lastly, inspect the camper on a regular basis. Go inside throughout the storage seasons. Inspect for any signs of water leakage, vermin infestation (mice), and always be sure to pat “her” gently on the counter top or side and tell her that it will soon be spring again,
This is the longest, most comprehensive blog I have written to date. I know I’ve probably forgotten something – so check back to see if there are any edits or additions. Maybe readers will add additional beneficial comments? I’ll do another blog in March on my procedures for bringing a camper out of moth balls for the summer fun!
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