How many mechanics does it take to change a light bulb?

When we bought the new Alpha 1 we knew that it was going to need to go into the repair shop to fix a few things that we just can’t do ourselves. We also just wanted to have it looked over really well to be sure it was in good condition for our trip, and to give us time to address any problems that might come up.

You may remember that our last RV spent a good amount of time at the Ford dealership for engine repairs. In retrospect, getting that RV serviced was incredibly simple (though it didn’t seem so at the time). Our new RV is much larger. This means that we can’t take it to a regular car mechanic. It needs to go to a specialized truck shop, where they have the knowledge and equipment to work on larger vehicles like semi-trucks and box trucks. The new Alpha also has a very large engine, more similar to a semi-truck than a typical passenger vehicle. This led us to visit a specialized Cummins Diesel mechanic, who would know exactly how to work on our engine. But an RV is much more than just a motor and some tires, it’s an entire house complete with electrical and plumbing systems. Any work done on these systems has to be done at a shop specializing in RV systems repair. Finally, the RV also has an onboard generator (yet another specialized engine), but ours happens to also be made by Cummins so the diesel mechanics we worked with were happy to work on our generator motor in addition to the RV engine.

You can probably tell where this is going. In order to have a full inspection done (and any necessary repairs) we would need to go to multiple different repair shops. Luckily, we were able to find all of the shops we needed right here in Portland. I can imagine that this process would be very difficult if we were in a rural area or were in an area where RV camping is not as popular as it is in the Pacific NW. In the end, the RV would go to three different shops (most more than once) and would be out of commission for nearly two months. With our repair estimates in hand, we put away our camping gear for the time being and began the process of shuttling the RV between the different repair shops.

You may remember that we recently acquired everything necessary to tow the Jeep behind the RV. This is so that we can take a secondary vehicle on our adventure. The Jeep will be necessary for running quick errands while at camp, touring in cities where we cannot possibly drive or park the RV, and as an expedition vehicle for roads and trails too rough for the RV. Being able to tow the Jeep also made it much easier to deliver the RV to the various repair shops. Brandon was able to pick the RV up at storage, attach the Jeep to the back of the RV, drive to the shop, unhook the Jeep, and drive home. He would then just repeat the process when picking up the RV. It was great. I didn’t actually have to do anything!

Unfortunately, Brandon was in a fender bender that destroyed our tow bar (and our ability to tow the Jeep until we acquired a new one). Brandon and the Jeep were okay, which was the most important thing. We soon found a new tow bar on Craigslist but needed to drive out to Bend to pick it up. This is about a two hour drive so we set up a meeting with the seller on a Saturday. About an hour into the trip we stopped for gas and Brandon decided to check the oil. His mechanical intuition was spot on because the first thing he saw was a crack in the radiator. This was probably a complication from the fender bender that we did not notice initially and likely progressed over the past week. The engine was not overheating and the crack was small so we drove about a mile down the road to an auto parts store. While the radiator cooled down Brandon came up with a rather genius plan. He found some wet application JB Weld in the store and made a patch over the crack. My contribution was finding the adorable little cafe nearby and picking up breakfast burritos. Not as genius as the radiator patch, but very necessary for team morale.

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We didn’t trust the patch enough to continue into the mountains and on to Bend so we turned toward home. However, we found that it held up perfectly for the 50 mile drive home and probably would have even made it all the way to Bend and back. We decided not to test how far you can go on a patched radiator and Brandon replaced the whole thing the next morning before driving to Bend for our new tow bar.

The fender bender happened right before we were supposed to pick up the RV from the very last repair shop. We were still able to pick up the RV without the tow bar, but it required both of us as drivers because we can’t tow my car behind the RV. Once we finally had the RV back at the storage lot and the Jeep ready to tow again we felt much better. We have already become very attached to the Alpha 1 and genuinely miss it when it’s gone. It was also nice to know that the Alpha 1 had been looked over with a fine-tooth comb and was in great working order. We were feeling very confident in our choice of rig and in our trip preparations thus far.

Some of the repairs we had done were small, but some were major and necessary like the brakes and the A/C system. We have no intention of driving through Texas in a rig without air conditioning. On a very positive note, the mechanic that looked over all of our RV house systems (plumbing, electrical, etc.) did not find a single problem. That is incredible for a 20 year old RV!

We knew that this RV had been well cared for based on the careful notes and records from one of the previous owners. The couple we bought the RV from had purchased it from an older man named Lloyd. Lloyd kept every receipt and every manual for every single thing on the RV. He even kept a log of his gas milage, when and where he got a flat tire, and all maintenance items like filters and oil changes. That red box of papers was like a treasure chest for Brandon. He immediately began pouring through it to learn everything he could about the history of our rig. We even learned that the rig had been purchased in Texas from a used RV dealer and driven back to Oregon. Lloyd noted West Texas as the location of a blow-out flat tire and the RV’s worst ever gas milage. In his notes, Lloyd blamed the poor gas milage on a very strong head wind. Overall, the worst was 8.8 mpg and the best was 13 mpg. We have not done a long distance calculation yet, but hope to do better because we are towing a lighter vehicle. Lloyd towed a mini-van, which would have been much heavier than our Jeep.

Lloyd also left behind a pair of binoculars and this totally amazing captain’s hat. He passed them down when he sold the RV and the previous owners then passed them on to us. Brandon does not really wear the hat when driving. I made him do it for a photo, but the hat does live on the dashboard as a token of the Alpha 1’s history.

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In the end, the process of getting the RV repaired and inspected taught us a number of things. First, RV repair is complicated and can require specialized equipment and knowledge. Breaking down in a rural area could become a huge problem because the nearest shop could be very far away. Consequently, it is even more important to keep up with maintenance. It’s also a good idea to learn as much as we can about the various systems so that we can fix them ourselves and keep spare parts around to do so. Second, the experience with the JB Weld radiator patch led us to start a list of “Emergency Fixes” and begin gathering these items to keep in a tool box on the RV. This list includes things like plumber’s putty, electrical tape, wire, duct tape, wet set roof sealant, rope, a variety of glues, and more JB Weld. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what the repair actually looks like, you just need to get on down the road.

One thought on “How many mechanics does it take to change a light bulb?

  1. Brandon and Jenny,
    Great post. Love the progress on the unit. Perfect to own it and maintain it for several months before leaving on a passage across the United States. I’m off today to work on the refrigerator on the little boat. Wish Brandon were here. The hat looks great, probably best on the dashboard.
    Love,
    Dad

    Like

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