How To

    Motorhome Adventures: Preventing Transmission Problems

    Late Friday evening. Day one of vacation. Back country West Virginia.

    Blue smoke flowing from beneath the motorhome and the pungent odor of burning transmission oil told us everything we needed to know. We were in trouble. At best, our motorhome transmission’s front seal was blown. At worst, a new or rebuilt transmission would be necessary.

    A week later, our RV rolled out of the repair shop. Freed from a week of vacationing inside the repair garage, we couldn’t, in our wildest imaginations, conjure up what would happen next.

    One hundred and eighty miles from the repair shop – more acrid-smelling blue smoke. Doomsday sequel. The new tranny wasn’t new anymore. It was a goner.

    RV Transmissions are Expensive

    RV Transmission Repair

    When a motorhome transmission blows, reports getting back on the road can run between $1,800 and $3,500 (US) – in many cases it costs even more. In addition, although some transmissions perform for the life of the RV, some also fail after 30 – 40,000 miles as a result of lack of care and proper use.

    Don’t fork out hard-earned cash unnecessarily. Instead, learn about

    • RV transmissions
    • Towing capacity
    • Gross vehicle weight ratings (GVWR)
    • Transmission coolers
    • Accessory fans
    • Transmission temperature gauges, and
    • How to properly run the roads to prevent tranny problems

    Certified transmission mechanics, transmission and vehicle manufacturers,, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration offer a treasure trove of tips that can help RVers save thousands of dollars and a week or more at the mechanic’s shop.

    Understand Motorhome Engine and Transmission Capabilities

    Vehicle and combined weights are critical to transmission functionality and health. Heat causes transmission damage. Overweight vehicles are a primary source of overheating.

    • Understand Vehicle Weights and Towing Capacities — The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says manufacturers’ tow-vehicle ratings address tongue weight, as well as the individual, combined, and fully loaded weights at which a tow vehicle (RV) can safely tow a trailer/car.
    • Discuss Tow Hitch and Car Dolly Options — Investigate the different methods of towing a vehicle with a motorhome. Determine the best option for your RV and car.
    • Know the RV’s Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) — It’s the maximum allowable total mass of a road vehicle, including the weight of the vehicle plus fuel, passengers, cargo, and trailer tongue weight.
    • Determine the Motorhome’s Gross Combined Weight Rating (GCWR) — GCWR is the maximum allowable combined mass of a towing road vehicle, passengers and cargo in the tow vehicle, plus the mass of the trailer and cargo in the trailer. This is the total weight that the tow vehicle’s internal combustion engine needs to move.
    • Remember, Less is More in an RV — Resist the tendency to pack the RV with more than is necessary. Cull everything from clothing to cookware; and select items made of lightweight materials. Travel as light as possible.
    • Weigh the RV Fully Loaded — Don’t guess at load weights. Weigh the RV, with tow vehicle attached, to determine exact weight. Simply head to a public scale. The vast majority of truck stops have scales and charge a minimal fee for weighing vehicles.
    • Know the Safe Operating Temperature of a Transmission — Check with the manufacturer of the RV to identify the safe-operating temperature range. For instance, Ford states that the 40E-OD transmission coupled with the Ford 460 engine should operate at temperatures between 155 and 185 degrees.
    • Consider Adding Accessories — Transmission temperature gauges and external transmission cooler fans are just two accessories that can be helpful to RV travelers. A dash-mounted temperature gauge allows RV operators to identify transmission overheating before it becomes a problem. An external fan help push air across the transmission cooler, which is vitally important to cool an overheated transmission and help regulate transmission temperatures during slow travel or in stop-and-go situations.

    Prevent Motorhome Transmission Problems While on the Road

    • Don’t Run with Full Tanks — If possible, empty water/sewer tanks before travel. One gallon of water weighs 8.35 pounds. A standard fresh water tank of 75 gallons increases the travel load by 626 pounds. If the fresh water, gray water and holding tanks are full, the RV can be stressed by 1,500 pounds or more.
    • Travel When Temperatures are Lowest — Travel early in the morning or at night whenever possible
    • Select Alternate Routes — Severe uphill grades can cause a transmission to run hot. Add in warm, outdoor temperatures and overheating can become a real issue quickly. Rather than tax a transmission and take a chance of failure, consider less mountainous routes.
    • Check Transmission Fluid Level and Color Often — Low transmission fluid levels may indicate a leak. Additionally, fluid color can be an early indicator of a problem.
    • Stop, or Not, if the Transmission is Hot — With a temperature gauge, determining if the transmission is dangerously hot is easy. Without a gauge, smell may be the first clue of potential problems. But, simply pulling to the side of the road can be problematic. Turning off the engine also stops the beneficial flow of air across the transmission cooler. Discuss proper actions with the RV manufacturer’s technical experts.

    Trail to the Transmission Shop

    Deal with RV Transmission Failure

    • Consider RV Roadside Assistance Plans— Most automobile roadside plans, like AAA, do not cover towing of many RVs. Carefully consider plans specifically for RVs. They can be a godsend if the transmission fails in the boonies, which is where RVers travel most.
    • Plan for a Week of Downtime — Yes, the process of pulling and reinstalling a blown transmission can take time. To avoid a week at the garage, take preventive measures and plan for disasters.
    • Pay More and Go to the Manufacturer of the Transmission — Have the RV towed to a dealer/manufacturer or manufacturer certified shop for evaluation and repair. Although the costs are generally high, so too is the level of service and guarantees received.
    • Follow the Cooler Rule — Ford says a transmission cooler should be replaced anytime a transmission is serviced due to failure.
    • Take a Test Run — Before driving away from the repair shop based on the mechanic’s promise the transmission is fixed, take the RV for a test drive of at least 50 miles (out and back). Give the transmission time to heat up. After the test drive, have the mechanics check the transmission with a transmission temperature sensor.
    • Get a Guarantee in Writing — Finally, make sure the transmission work being completed is fully guaranteed for both parts and labor. And, get the guarantee in writing. Even new transmissions can go bad, quickly.

    An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Cliché? Absolutely. But it’s also gospel for RVers when it comes to circumventing transmission disasters.

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