Wednesday, August 31, 2016

An Onan Tale... In Two Part Harmony - Part 2

PART 2  - Part 1 two weeks ago in our last article...

We return to our tale where we left off - right after the oil in the generator was changed in June 2016 and the first run of the generator at home after that. (If you have not read Part 1 yet, please go to the article just preceding this one and read that first.)

So - we had a trip planned leading up to July Fourth. And during that trip we had a need to run the generator. We were at a large farmer's market and it was hot - July hot - outside and there were heavy storm warnings. We decided to buy sandwiches at a stand and go back to the RV to eat them, start the generator to run the A/C and cool off - and wait to see what was going to happen with the storm - which was coming very shortly. We were parked on grass between two gravel aisles and were on a slight incline - front of the van lower than the back. At this same farmer's market we have been parked in the RV in this very spot in the past as this is where one can find space to park an RV even as small as a Roadtrek on a crowded market day. We got into the van and I started the engine to give the RV batteries a little boost to provide the electricity needed to start the generator and then went right to the generator switch. I pushed the switch and it started - and a a minute or two later it stopped. Tried again - it cranked but did not start. I waited a few minutes and tried again. It cranked, then started - and then stopped. It had not done this since a year before when there was too much oil in the generator. I tried again - it cranked but would not start. Now the storm was coming up - not bad - but beginning. I wondered if the incline we were on was not helping getting the generator started. Looking down the field there were RVs parked on a much flatter area. I moved the RV to that area - but away from the other RVs. I tried to start the generator again - this time it cranked and started. I waited five minutes with it running and then started the A/C. While we ate the rain came down hard and wind gusted around us. At least the generator was running, it was cool inside with the air conditioner going, and we were dry. Not long after we finished the sandwiches - which were good, by the way - the storm passed. I shut down the air conditioner. Allowed the generator to keep running for several minutes to cool down - and we went out back to the market. A little unneeded excitement for what was otherwise a pleasant day.

We skip now to the last day of the trip - and another farmer's market. There we were parked on a very steep angle, this time with the back way down.  I just had a feeling that we should just not try to run the generator again - leaving well enough alone having finally gotten it to run several days before. Well, it was time for lunch - and it was again hot outside on July 5th - and Meryl suggested that we get sandwiches and go back to the RV to eat with the air conditioner running. I was not going to say anything - and we bought the sandwiches and went back to the RV. Same process to get the generator started - I pushed the start button and with relief the generator started right up. I let it run for five minutes and turned on the air conditioner switch. As soon as I pushed that switch the generator shut down. And this time, it was not starting again. It cranked and would not start. All my prior unspoken  feelings about not starting the generator again came to the surface with a few harsh words of frustration and anger - mostly at the generator. We took the sandwiches and found a picnic table under a net which did not give any real shade from the sun and ate - me, mostly silent. This was our last day of the trip and we would be heading home that night. I tried not to let this ruin the last day, but it was not easy.

Once home, I could not get the generator started. I went over to the service station with my friendly mechanics and told them what happened with the generator. The first reaction was why would you go there again to have the oil changed. I explained the rest of what I went to have done on the generator there and that I felt it was too much to ask them to do. They told me to bring it over the next week and he would check the oil level and the spark plug and see if he could see why it was not starting.  We made an appointment to bring it to him.

That weekend I decided to put some SeaFoam in the gasoline. SeaFoam is used to clean up deposits in engines - large and small, clear out the effects that ethanol in the gasoline have on the engine, and help carburetors run better. It is sold in a 16 ounce can and one ounce per gallon of gasoline is needed. There were about 26 gallons of gas in the van gas tank left and I bought two cans, a measuring cup and a funnel. Not cheap. This stuff is about $9 a can - at Walmart. It would be well worth the cost if it got the generator running - if I could get the generator running. I put it in. Drove the van up and down the driveway to mix it into the gasoline in the tank and then tried to start the generator. It started - I don't think because of the gas additive - not that fast - and I let it run on the driveway - with no load on it for two hours getting the additive into the generator's parts to do its thing.

The day before I was to bring the RV to the mechanic to check out the generator, the generator, once again, would not start. So much for the SeaFoam. I drove the RV to the service station that night so that he could have it to work on at the start of the day. When he had the generator the year before he had asked me for service manuals. I actually found them all on the Internet for free and printed them out - and it is a LOT of pages. I had all of that - plus several troubleshooting guides and the manual for the generator - for him to have when he worked on it.

I had not heard from him the next morning and went over there that afternoon. The generator was running. He told me it started right up. He said the spark plug was OK and the oil level was where it should be - BUT - he saw a drip of oil around the drain plug that was followed by several more. He told me he went under the van to see if the generator drain plug had not been screwed at the oil change securely - and then he said - "It just spins in the hole when I turned it with my fingers. It does not tighten. Either the plug or the threads in the hole are stripped." OH BOY! I looked under the van below the generator and could see the oil collecting under the generator on the cardboard that he had put down under it. It was running and he said that the oil level was fine for it to run - but there was an oil leak from the drain plug that needed to be fixed - and this was not something that he could do.

I really had no choice now. I had to call one of the two authorized Onan service centers here and have them fix this. I looked at the websites of both and the one that was closest had photos of a large service building with large RVs inside having their generators worked on. The other service center had no such photos and just mentioned that they work on RV generators. I choose the closest one - the one that I had called a year before that wanted $400 to diagnose the generator. I called for an appointment and explained the problem about the stripped drain plug or hole and that I needed that repaired. I was told it would cost $135 an hour plus parts. What was I going to do? I made the appointment.

When things are going wrong they always seem to double. We saw a sign while driving down the four lane avenue that we live on that Roadwork would be starting the week before we had our appointment for the generator. The large light up sign on a trailer said to "Expect Delays". Well, I now had something else to "expect". A few days later we received a notice in our mailbox from the County telling us personally that there would be road work in a few days - nice of them to give some notice - and to expect delays on the road, that the road would have lanes alternatively closed, BUT don't be concerned you will still be able to get out of your house and into the street - though you may have to ask one of the workmen to stop work to do this - and that it may take up to five minutes for that to happen. Wonderful!

I have written in articles before about what it takes to back the Roadtrek out of our driveway and into the avenue with traffic - which never seems to stop and around here, the speed limit is just a suggestion that no one seems to pay any attention to. The speed limit is 40 mph - the cars and trucks whiz by our house at 60, 90 (truly a blur as they zoom by). Try backing up a four ton van that is 22 feet long into that - with no clear vision to your rear side or behind you. We do this with Meryl in the street with a walkie talkie - telling me to "GO NOW! - NO! WAIT! A car is coming around the blind curve. STOP!" And we are going to do this now with road work and lanes closed. Less you think that the roadwork will slow the cars down - no, it has not.

So the work started a week before our appointment. We presume that the intent is to repave the road. But all they were doing is digging  two foot wide trenches through the asphalt for twenty feet with a crew following behind with hot asphalt filling the trenches back in and a steam roller (do they still call these "steam rollers" - well, that is what I was told they were when I was a kid) flattening it back out. They did nothing in the trenches that were dug. They did this up and down the road. Break, dig, and refill. Then they started breaking up curbs along various parts of the road - to just rebuild them with cement. By the end of the first week they had dug and refilled trenches and broke curbs - not replacing them. By the end of the second week - our appointment was not until the Monday of the third week which I had a fantasy in my head that it all would be finished by then - they continued as before - trenches, curbs - an then started breaking around all of the manhole covers to the sewer in the road and refilling around those - seemingly adding a ring to make the manhole cover higher. And they paved around those. Work would start on the road at 9 am and was to end each day at 5 pm - though every day they would be gone by 3:30 pm - not just stopping then to get the road ready to leave it for the night - but GONE. Our appointment was for 9 am. We would leave at least 45 minutes early for a trip that without traffic should take twenty minutes.

Meryl had the idea that we pull the Roadtrek out of the driveway at night - late at night when the traffic has mostly stopped - and turn it around, backing it into the driveway so that we could drive straight out into the street - at least not having to back out into traffic. Great idea!  We would do this the night before. Of course, that night there were "severe storms" coming. Of course, there were. I have not heard a weather report in the last two months when there would not just be rain or showers - but always "Severe Storms!" ("Expect damaging wind, possible hale, downed trees and power lines." - Oh yes - "Flood warnings".) The hourly weather report said the storm would arrive in our area after Midnight. I kept looking out the window at the cars going by and said to Meryl that we had to do this by 11 pm - before the "severe storm". I now had two concerns. Meryl in the street with the walkie talkie in the drenching rain and that when we backed the Roadtrek up the driveway we would now have the rear air conditioning vent pointing down - and if any rain when in, it could then find its way into the van - which I have been told will happen. I say this so often - with the RV there is never a dull moment! We went out - there seemed to be no cars. It had not started raining. I got into the RV and Meryl went out to the street. She was to direct me out and then in turning the back of the van toward the driveway, and then back in without hitting the curb with the back of the van. I slowly started to back down trying very hard not to hit our fence post which was just too close at the angle I was on. She kept telling me to move the back of the van to the passenger side and if I did that I would move right into the fence post. I got into a better position and started again down. She tells me that it is clear - go now. I do. And I get into the street and am not anywhere near where I need to be to get the back of the van lined up with the driveway. And then I see the cars coming. I got over to the side fast - and past our house. I will not go into the harrowing details of my fifteen minute drive to be able to get back to the house and to a position where I could get backed into the driveway - with cars that just did not stop - some of which would not move around me as I was stopped on the side of the street. I got it in. When we walked back into the house, the rain started.

I could stop here and make a Part 3 but I am just going to keep going. Stay with me, the best is yet to come. So, it is the next morning - the sun is shining and we head out. Pulling out forward into the street is not so bad. We took the Roadtrek and our car - I drove the car and Meryl drove the Roadtrek as she rarely gets the opportunity when we are traveling. We both had the directions to the service center - which we had driven to a week before to be sure we would know where to go. We also had a walkie talkie to communicate between vehicles if we had to. I got to the place first and as I was pulling in a big Class A RV (bus type) was pulling out. The service garage was not what I had expected. It was a large warehouse and they worked in the middle of the warehouse floor. There was a business RV inside being worked  on - a traveling dog groomer. Meryl arrived and waited in the RV outside in their lot. I went inside the warehouse and was directed to the office. It was about five to nine. I was told in the office that when they were ready for us they would call us in. OK. We waited outside.

Not long after the same Class A came back. A man got out - there was a boy in the front inside - and the man went in, talked to someone and came out waiting near us. The RV had California plates. At about 9:30 am - now I was supposed to be in there at 9:00 - and now he was here looking as if he was to go in also - he came over to me and asked when my appointment is. I told him. He told me that HIS was at 8:30 am and he had left because they told him that it would be awhile for him to get in because of the dog groomer - and he had left to get his kids breakfast. There was a family inside - two girls, the boy I saw (all with California blond hair) and his wife. His Class A was new. They were on a cross country trip and he had already been at this service center for his generator that past Wednesday - for six hours! He was not happy. We commiserated about the quality of RVs and both waited to be called. The dog groomer was finished and left - and he was called in. They told us to pull in right behind him. Yes, the shop was that big - much bigger as there were several trucks inside plus a lot of large generators scattered about. I went over to the service tech who would work on our generator and told him what the problem was with the drain plug. I also told him about all of the problems we had starting it. He told me he would check it all out. He was not happy that the generator is under the van requiring being on the floor to work on it. He told me to wait and he would first take a look at the oil drain - before he did anything else - "because if it has to come down off the van, I am going to work  on all of it standing over the work bench and not under the van."  He came and found me outside about twenty minutes later. "It has to come down. I have to order the parts for it - maybe we have them, I have to check." He told me that the oil drain hole is stripped and that a new oil pan with a new drain hole was needed along with a few other parts that went along with that. OK - dollar signs flashed in my head! It was an hour's labor to take it down off the van ($135) and another hour to put it back when it is finished ((+$135) plus the parts- plus whatever else he found that was preventing it from starting. He told me to leave, and when he had it down they would call me. We went home. Roadwork had begun - they were digging and refilling more trenches and the lane in front of our house was closed.

About an hour later we got a call to come back - we were to leave the generator and take the RV home. When I got there the service tech was on his computer looking up the parts. He said that they had no room there to keep the RV and when it was finished - in a couple of days - we would get a call to come back. I asked that while he had it to put a fuel filter in - the one the Roadtrek dealer/service could not put in. I told him that - he said, "Cowards!" and smiled. He said he would replace that and also the spark plug and that just looking he could see that the carburetor was way out of adjustment. Fine. We took the Roadtrek without the generator prepared to leave - hoping that he capped off the gas line really well. Inside the Roadtrek we found that to get to some connection he had to take apart one of the cabinets and the top of  the cabinet and the screws were on the floor. He had told us that he had not put somethings back together as he would need to get back into them when he put the generator back up. Left like this, they would fly around the inside as the RV was driven home. We picked everything up and put it all in the car. Meryl drove the RT home and I followed in the car. The road crew had closed two of the lanes in front of our house and we had to get into the driveway across the closed lanes. The worst part of returning home with the Roadtrek without having the job finished was having to get it out of the driveway again to bring it back to have the generator put back in.

The next day in the late afternoon we got a phone call. The generator was fixed and we needed to make an appointment to have it put back under the van. I took the soonest appointment which was Thursday (this was Tuesday) in the afternoon. Wednesday night we went outside at 1:00 am to back the Roadtrek out into the street, turn it around and back it into the driveway so that we could pull it out the next day in the early afternoon while the road construction was going on (which still had not progressed much). It was easier this time so late as the passing cars were fewer and more spread out - but there are always cars and trucks no matter time of the day or night.

Out Thursday for the ride back with the Roadtrek and the car following. The job would take at least an hour or more and we did not want to stand around waiting there in their shop. We arrived just before 1:30 - the time of the appointment and there was no one around in the shop. Obviously we arrived during lunch break. I could see our generator sitting on a work stand. About ten or fifteen minutes after one workers started to arrive. When the service tech arrived who was working on our generator I asked him if it was running good - and did it keep running when there was a load on it. Yes, he answered. He told me that it had been running all morning and did not shut down - and it ran with a load. Great! He told us to pull the Roadtrek into the shop but not straight in but in and around a corner to the side. This meant around all that was in there and it was close quarters. Meryl was behind the wheel and, with assurance that he would guide her in, she drove it in. She got out - and while I did not realize it, she handed me the keys and I put them in my pocket. We told the tech that we would go off in our car to have lunch and come back in about an hour. And we went off.

At the fast food restaurant I could not figure out why my pockets were so stuffed and I started emptying them onto the table - and then I saw that I had both sets of keys to the Roadtrek. If he needed to start it he was not going to be able to. We had an exchange about how did I end up with the keys and why they were not just left hanging in the ignition, resolved that - my absentminded fault - and Meryl volunteered to drive back to the place with the keys while I finished lunch. No, I told her that we will just finish and both go back together. We got back there. I pulled over and Meryl went in to hand the guy the keys. When she came back she said that the back of the Roadtrek was up in the air on the back of a forklift. I was not happy to hear that. We went off to waste some more time and came back about forty five minutes later.

When we got back the Roadtrek was up in the rear on jack stands. I watched from the garage door and did not go inside. I did not want to rush anyone. I wanted it all done right. I watched as the tech got into the fork lift and drove it behind the van, put the fork under the middle from the back and lifted it up off the jack stands. I really did not want to watch and walked away. There are somethings that you really don't want to see how they're done. When I went back to watch again, I could see the Roadtrek was off the stands and the tech was giving a check around the generator. He then went inside and I could hear it start. Brruummm. It was running! And then it stopped. It was started again and it ran! And then a few minutes later it stopped. I had it running longer at home before the work was done. He came out and got under the van. I could see him looking inside the generator access door, fiddling with something inside. He pushed the start switch on the unit and it started and died. He went back inside, started it, it started and shortly it died. I went out to talk to Meryl. I told her what was happening and that this was not good. We both decided that we should leave and not say anything. Let him work on it and let him fix it. We got in the car and drove off to the stores that were near by.

I had never asked when the generator shop closed for the day as I never figured we would be there that long into the day. It was almost 4:30 and we had not heard from anyone. Meryl called and spoke with the service manager who said that we could come back and get it but they had to speak with us. She did not ask why and we got back there quick. When we got there the Roadtrek was in the shop with the generator running. Good sign! We walked across the warehouse to the office door and went in to see the service manager. He told us what he needed to speak with us about. The reason that it was not starting earlier was that when the A/C was started the startup power for the A/C was too much and it overloaded the generator. The problem was the generator voltage regulator. The reason that it was running was that because they did not want to keep us without the RV any longer they put a new voltage regulator on the outside of the generator (it belongs inside) - as to install it where it belongs would require the generator to come back down off the van and then be put back up again - two hours were needed just for that plus the proper install of the voltage regulator. We could make an appointment to come back whenever to do this and use it as it was. No. That was not a good idea. With the construction going on and at some point it would get more complicated when they actually got around to putting asphalt down finally over the entire road, we needed to get this just finished and fixed and were not going to use the RV until it was fixed. We asked if they could just keep the Roadtrek in their shop overnight and do whatever was necessary to have it all correct and finished. They said yes and we went home without the Roadtrek in the car, hoping that the next day, Friday, it would be done and we would get a call to come and pick it up and be done with all of this.

It was around 2:30 the next day that we finally got the call. We had gone out with the car to do errands - all in the direction of the generator service shop. We finally were told that it was running and all was well. We got there in less than a half hour to find the Roadtrek in their lot running with the A/C going. We went inside and were handed the invoice. It was over $900. Thursday night I learned that a new generator - without installation - which is not much if it is replacing a current generator is only $2400. But the new model cannot just be put in the same place without some modifications as the old and new units are slightly different in shape and size. So while we could have just had a new Onan generator installed (they are the only company that makes these) it would have cost us considerably more. What is most important is that it is running. When we got home I started it and turned on the A/C. It sounds somewhat quieter now when it runs. The next day I did the same just to see that it still starts and runs and keeps running with the A/C on. It does.

Is there a moral to this drawn out tale? Not really. Just some of the frustrations of owning an RV - any RV. Some think that it is a dream come true. It is a dream with a price - sometimes a very steep price both out of pocket and in frustration and concern.  Is all well now? Well, I know that we need to replace the RV batteries very soon as they are five years old - and I am not so sure that all is well with the interconnection between the RV batteries and the engine batteries in the van. That may be another tale to be told.

Before we left the service shop I asked the service manager two questions? What would the price have been if it was just the oil pan that was stripped that needed to be repaired/replaced? About $500. And then I asked him what do they charge for an oil change of the one quart of oil in the generator as I don't really want to go back to Pennsylvania to have this done given the problems in the past two years. About $125 - and he can do it while we wait. That is a lot for an oil change, but considering the two bridge tolls, the two turnpike tolls and the gas - it is a plan for next year.

Thank you for going along on this journey and reading this Onan Tale!


  1. Robert, I have been wondering if there might be a better way to RV. My thoughts are to start with a hi top van. Take the two middle bucket seats out and put a Ikea cabinet behind the drivers seat and make it into a kitchen. Then build a plywood box to house a PortiPotti with a cushion on top.
    For a table use TV tables. The savings. When cold, run the engine. Same for air conditioning. Insure as a car, not an RV. Register as a car,not an RV. Makes more sense. Have everything so you can take the cabinet out and put the middle seats back in. The bed is the reclining back seat.
    Just an idea. All you read on the internet are horror stories about owning an RV.

    1. Your idea works until you get to running the engine for air conditioning and heat. I would not want to be in a van with the engine running all night. I know that the Roadtrek underhood generator is designed to do just that, but there is too much danger of carbon monoxide poisoning. Come up with a way to install an electric heater and A/C into the fan (I have seen vans with A/C's through the cargo window space.) and a 110 volt hookup outside in - get a portable generator that is placed a distance away from the van overnight - and this could work. Also - RV insurance costs about a third to half of car insurance with MUCH better coverage including full replacement. Also be aware that no campground will let a van like you describe in.

    2. Frederic, while your idea sounds easy, there are hundreds of do-it-yourself RV vids, and I have watched a ton of them. Most end up looking decent, but the fact that you have to run any electric and plumbing yourself is the big time consuming effort. RVs by nature are intended to be small apartments, and your suggestion of just the basics is pretty much a notch above being homeless. I have seen vids of people forced to live at that level and it is not fun, some even living in just regular cars. Again, RVs are for 'fun', and the more amenities you can have the better the experience.

  2. I wonder how necessary a generator is-- if you're using your RV as a "camper van." If you're spending nearly all of your time driving, or out of the van sight-seeing, hiking, etc., why deal with a fussy, difficult (impossible?) to service generator? If your idea of travel is sitting for hours in your vehicle watching TV, just go to a KOA and plug in. For heat, and the fridge, you have propane. If you want to camp where it's 100 degrees, and no electric hook-up, don't, find a place that does. The nightmare scenario described above doesn't seem to make the rv experience-- that requires all the instant comforts of home-- hardly worth the trouble.

    1. There are some places that you may want to visit where there will just not be any campgrounds - perhaps the nearest a long distance away. It is possible to stay in many Walmart parking lots (not all - watch for signs and always ask for permission from the manager) and often when there is no campground there may be a Walmart. While it is possible to get by on just batteries if you don't need your A/C or you have enough battery charge to keep the fan on the furnace going all night (anything with a fan is a fast power drain, you are going to need a generator. There is no room inside to carry a portable generator. Some put a hitch rack on the rear hitch and carry a generator (but make sure it is securely locked on). We actually have gotten the most usage out of our Roadtrek's generator during blackouts. We have gotten through two extended blackouts from hurricanes inside the Roadtrek running the generator. I would still make sure that I got a generator on any RV that I would purchase, should I ever look to purchase another.

  3. On a side note,solar could eliminate the need for a genie,had my 2005 class b serviced at onan,oil,fuel filter,air filter for $350 bucks,for us,having a working generator is a must,have been told the worst think for a generator is not being used enough.

    1. One of the reasons that Onan is very specific about how often (every month) and how long (2 hours under at least half load) the generator needs to be exercised is to make sure that it is being run regularly - and splitting that two hours to small parts does not count.

      As to solar - the biggest reason we have the generator for is to be able to run the A/C all night (12 hours) if we are not where we can plug in. So far no B has been able to accomplish that on solar alone. Even Roadtrek's solar with multiple lithium ion batteries still needs the engine generator to go that long. Solar has a long way to go still.