Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Living in the Roadtrek - Security Part II

This is the second in a two part article on securing the contents of the Roadtrek from potential crime. Part I was last week's article.


We needed a way to close off the view from the front of the van. The first thing we tried was a mylar sunscreen sold at most auto stores and box store auto departments. It unrolls and holds into the windshield under the visors to keep the sun out while parked. This worked, but was a pain the neck to put up every time we stopped. We saw a large Class A RV in a parking lot that had curtains inside the driver's cab that went all around the windshield and the windows. We could not find anything like that made for the Roadtrek. Of course, as I said in Part I, the Roadtrek comes with curtains that cover the windows in the front doors and windshield, but closing them takes a bit of effort, as does securing them back again for traveling. No, we wanted something just as easy as the back curtain that we made. Actually, Meryl made. (She is not only a great embroiderer, but sews exceptionally as well - she is a prize winning doll maker.)

It was back to Walmart for another flat sheet in black. My first idea was a curtain that went up over the windshield - and we actually did make one. There is little metal in the front at the ceiling for magnets. We used the metal arms at the top corner of the visors. It did not hold well. It was easy to get up and take down - but so easy that it had a tendency to come down on its own. Plus with this design the door windows were uncovered and there was a clear view inside of the cabinets. No, the curtain had to be positioned so that while the front cab was visible nothing behind it would be. Seeing the inside of the cab is not a problem - it is a van after all and that is all you would be able to see.

The curtain we designed is made to hook on the front of the sliding drawer that we have in our Roadtrek over the front cab. This drawer is an option and well worth the cost. It adds storage space in a place that has no use otherwise.

The hooks are from the Scotch company and are from the Command line - these can be removed if you want to and will not damage the finish where the adhesive stuck - or so they claim (I have not removed one so I don't know). When in place the curtain still let a small view in from the front passenger window so Meryl added a small piece of Velcro to the right side and the matching velcro to the Roadtrek curtain for the Roadtrek entrance door window. When it is fastened and that entrance door curtain is closed (easy to slide and snap in place), there nothing is visible in the Roadtrek area.

In this photo you can see the curtain in place at the front of the Roadtrek looking at it from the middle. You can see the drawer there at the top going across. This drawer pulls toward the back of the Roadtrek and the door pulls down on a long hinge to access the inside storage. The fabric is hemmed all around and there are plastic rings sewn in to hook it in place

Opening and closing this curtain is easy. When not in use it hangs behind the driver's seat from the left hook. The photo on the left shows the curtain being put away for travel - the part hanging over the seat is just for you to see what has to be tucked back. It all does hang completely behind the seat and is not in the way. At night the curtain comes down when we are using the front seats to lounge in.

Below you see what it looks like with the curtain in place from the outside and what it looks like with no curtain.

I mentioned the curtain on the side entrance door. This door is behind the passenger door. It is the main entrance to the living section of the Roadtrek and that door has a window. The curtain on that window is very easy. Here is a photo of that curtain when closed.

This photo also gives you a good view of how the window curtains snap closed. They slide on a track at the top and bottom of the window.

With the back and front "security" curtains that we made closed, no one can see anything inside but a van. Of course, there are things that you may want to hide in the front section where the driver and passenger sit. The GPS does come out of the dash and can be hidden. A jacket thrown casually over anything is a good cover up - and looks like nothing more than a sloppy van.

I said in part one that I would get back to personal security in the Roadtrek. This is my advice. If you are staying overnight in a parking lot, a forest, a rest area, or any place that is not a populated campground, keep your van keys nearby while you are inside or if you are in bed asleep. If you hear anything that you feel is someone trying to break in, get in the drivers seat and drive away. Look out the window, but never open the door. Drive away. If you are in a campground and hooked up, lean on the horn and keep blowing it. Someone will wake up and come to yell at you and at the same time the crook will run away. Your key remote has a panic button that honks the horn. You can use this if you can't get to the steering wheel. Then call the police.

I know that some carry guns - there are different gun laws in every state. Some carry mace or pepper spray. Some states have laws about this too. If you are going to use either of these that means you are face to face with an attacker and you never really want to be in that position. It is not like it is in the movies. I am not going to get into detail about this. Avoid it.It is the best course of action.

Some Roadtrek owners get alarms and the one most talked about is the Viper Alarm. This will protect the van when you are out or in. There is a remote that will sound the alarm from inside if you need help. The alarm is wired into the electric system of the Roadtrek and the van. I have been told that Best Buy will install this in a Roadtrek. As I am in an area where no one has ever seen a Roadtrek, I am not sure I want the kid who installs stereos at Best Buy rewiring my Roadtrek. The alarm is not a bad idea - and if I knew the installation would be done correctly I would put one in.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Living in the Roadtrek - Security Part I

I may have misnamed this article, as I am not really sure how to put a title on what we do to keep the Roadtrek secure from break in when we are away from it while it is parked. As far as personal security in the Roadtrek - you are as safe inside as you would be in your car, truck, or van. When inside lock your doors and it will take a bold criminal to come in while anyone is inside. That is not to say that it cannot happen - and I don't want to go off on a tangent here, but I will come back to this before the end of the article.

Anyway - when we got the Roadtrek it seemed to me - as we live in one of those parts of the country where you do not leave your house door open at night or your car unlocked when you are not inside of it - that there was a lot inside the Roadtrek to attract someone with wrong intent to break in. We often hear about GPS units being stolen from cars. In the Roadtrek you have a flat screen TV, positioned where it can be easily seen through the rear and side windows. It is also very obvious when looking through the windows to the inside that this is an RV and that there are people's belongings inside. All very and much too tempting...

Roadtrek's do come with curtains on all of the windows including for the windshield and the windows on the driver's door and the passenger's door. We closed the side windows - on the sides of the bed area and leave them closed. The curtains for the front doors and the windshield are two curtains that pull from the sides and go all around on a track and velcro closed where they meet which is just about under the rear view mirror. This is fine to do at night for privacy, but a pain to do every time you come and go. There are curtains on the rear cargo door windows, but it is necessary to have both doors open to close these windows from the outside. It is possible to close them from the inside easily, but this requires being on the bed, if the bed is made up, and when we are traveling we keep the bed made up all of the time. If you have read my article about making the bed in our Roadtrek, you will understand why. To open the right cargo door is no problem. Open the door and there is the window curtain - pull it across on the tracks that it is on and lock it in place with a button snap. The curtain on the left door works the same way, but to open that door requires dropping the arm that the spare tire sits on, as this blocks this door from opening. The spare tire and holder is very heavy. It is not something that you want to do every time you stop and park - and certainly this will call attention to what you are doing and your Roadtrek. We looked at all types of ways to reach the curtain and pull it over. Nothing that we thought of really would work. We looked at blinds and shades for the windows that might be easier to pull down with just one door open - but these would swing and make noise when driving and that did not seem like a solution. After examining the door frame, we came up with a design for a curtain that would reach across the entire back of the Roadtrek behind the bed that could be pulled up easily from the one open door, secured into place, and be done in just a few seconds. I know that many just keep their rear window curtains closed all of the time. I am not certain of the legalities of that where I live - I am sure it is fine in some places to have the rear windows blocked but with the limited visibility in the back of the Roadtrek while driving, I want the windows open to be able to see what little one is able to see through them. For me, a little can go along way when need be.

The curtain we designed is made from a flat sheet - black - from Walmart (the less expensive sheets that they sell that are not in sets). The cloth is dense enough to not allow any view inside even with light coming in from the windshield to the back and costs less than similar fabric purchased in a fabric store. In the photo to the left you can see the curtain through the open right door. All of the edges are hemmed. The top hem is larger to hold two small, button rare earth magnets at the end in each corner of the top. The magnets have to be stitched into little sections so that they do not lock together (tough to get apart) and so that they sit on the metal door frame at the top corners. The open space at the top is not visible when the door is closed and if there is any space at all there that can be seen nothing is recognizable behind it. The magnets need to be positioned just right inside the corners to make sure that the curtain hangs just as you want it as to hide what it needs to hide. Now, you ask - you still can't get to the curtain on the left - so how is this different. When you release this curtain from the right side, and leave the left side in place on the magnets, the fabric drops down and out of the way of seeing out the left rear window. To make certain of this, I carry a dowel that I can use to push the curtain where it meets the bottom of the window to the side and behind the Roadtrek's open curtain. The magnets are strong and they will not come down unless you really give a tug. To put this curtain up, I open the right door, grab the top corner of the curtain which is usually sitting at the floor right at the side of the left door, and put it in place with the magnets. Close the door and go! With the doors closed, because of the way the windows are tinted (not full tint unfortunately), all you see is black. It is so black that when I tried to take a photo of it all you could see was the reflection of what was behind the Roadtrek outside. This hid the most obvious things that needed to be hidden. And with the curtain in place, from the rear it looks like any other parked van. This was the first thing that we did to secure the Roadtrek, and we thought at first that we did not need to any more. It is not easy to see inside through the windshield and the front side windows. One night getting out of the Roadtrek in a parking lot with bright lights all around, I realized that I could see quite clearly inside and through the windshield I could see all of the cabinets - and the TV. We had more to do.

End of Part I - next week Security Part II.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Living in the Roadtrek - The Ride

I have talked about driving the Roadtrek and I have talked about parking the Roadtrek. Now, I will talk about the feel of the ride in the Roadtrek. I am only talking about the Roadtrek 190 Popular because that is what I have. The Sprinter chassis Roadtreks I am certain have a much different ride. The 210 models have an extended chassis and they will have a different feel to the ride. The Roadtrek 170 is on a shorter chassis and that ride may be different as well.

What we have discovered over the almost year that we have been traveling in the Roadtrek is that the ride is dependent on two things - the surface of the road and the amount of air in the tires. All cars, vans, and trucks should be dependent upon those two factors as well, but the Roadtrek seems to be particularly sensitive to both.

There is a sticker on the inside edge of the door of the Roadtrek and inside the cover of the manual that tells you the amount of air pressure that should be in the tires, placed there by Roadtrek and not Chevy. The sticker says that the front tires should be 50 psi and the back tires must be 80 psi. When we got the Chevy, and you may have read my article about this, we felt that the van was pulling to one side as we drove. We were certain that we needed an alignment and started on a roller coaster ride to get that done - in the end it was not done because one wise alignment shop told me to check the air in the tires. If the air is not even in the front tires, the van will pull to one side. I checked and the air in one tire was well below 50 in the front. I added air to both - both were low and suddenly the ride evened out. I had been in communication with Roadtrek about the need for the alignment and when I told them what I did and that all was well, I was given more specifics about what the air in the tires needs to be. The 50 psi in the front is what would normally be used for a plain Chevy 3500 van. Roadtrek kept this number but I was told that the ride of the Roadtrek will change significantly if that number is increased from 50 in increments of 5 psi to a maximum of 65 psi. I was told that over 65 psi in the front, the ride will start to degrade. I increased the front tires to 55 psi and I did see a difference. Just before our last trip this past December I increased the front tires again to 60 psi, and I felt a remarkable difference. I know that other Roadtrek owners go to 65 psi and beyond. I plan to stay at 60 psi at least for the first several trips this coming Spring and see if the ride remains good. While we are talking about tires, the back tires MUST BE 80 psi - from what I am told - NO MORE AND NO LESS. So I have tried my best to keep them exactly 80 psi. The reason I am told is because of the extra weight on the rear end of the Roadtrek from the conversion.

The ride of the Roadtrek changes dramatically with the road surface. We happen to live in an area where the road pavement is poor. There are pot holes, cracks in the road, and bumps of tar strips where attempts were made to repair other cracks. With the front tires at 50 or 55 psi, sitting in the Roadtrek as it was driven on these roads, you could feel every crack, hole, and bump, no matter how small. I have ridden on these same roads in a passenger van and various cars and SUVs and I never felt the road surface as I have in the Roadtrek. When the road is good, the ride is smooth and comfortable. When the road is like I describe, not only are you feeling the bumps but everything inside the Roadtrek that might move is set into vibration and motion. It can be a constant bump, bang, bump clunk, bump BANG. It has gotten a little unnerving just listening. When on local roads, I say to Meryl that the Roadtrek was never designed for New York roads. It can climb mountains, drive in the dessert, but if you get to NY be prepared for the noise and the bumps.

We have driven on the New Jersey Turnpike, the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey, the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and I-95. Each in the Roadtrek for the most part was smooth and a very enjoyable ride. Once in New York, however, where the road pavement must be some of the worst in the country, the ride has not been good at all. I must say that this was improved slightly when I picked the psi in the front tires to 60. Bad roads cannot be avoided, but be aware that you will notice them a lot more in the 190.

The Roadtrek does something else on some roads, that I am told is common with a lot of RVs. It is called "porpoising". We experienced it before we learned that there is a name for it. It comes from a road surface being uneven and varying in height as it goes along. The result is that the Roadtrek (and, apparently, other RVs) feel like a bucking bronco or as the name implies, like a porpoise jumping in and out of the water as it moves along, up and down, up and down. We first felt this on the Pennsylvania Turnpike where the road was under construction. It was wild and took me, at the wheel, by surprise. It is particularly a problem if you are driving at highway speed and the only way to stop it from happening as dramatically is to slow the speed down. It does not fully go away, but it is a much more tolerable ride.

There are devices that can be added to the Roadtrek and changes to the suspension system that are said to improve the things that I have been telling you about. Some change the shock absorbers to a ones that are designed for these problems. Some change the springs to a much heavier spring. Some modify how the coil springs and the leaf springs interact. There are even things to be added into the suspension of RVs that claim they will eliminate porpoising and some of the rough ride. So far, we will go along with what the Roadtrek has as stock and think about modifications off in the future.

None of this has kept us from enjoying our travel in the Roadtrek. Once out of New York, the ride is smooth as glass. We always know when we cross back into New York - which has more to say about New York, than it does about the Roadtrek. And since we are in the Roadtrek to get away from New York, we don't mind putting up with the "escape" route at all!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Living in the Roadtrek - Parking

I have told you about all of the things to be aware of when driving a Roadtrek (or any Class B), now I will talk about parking the Roadtrek - or any Class B. A big feature of a Class B is that you can park it anywhere! That is mostly true. You can park it almost anywhere.

You cannot park a Class B, Roadtrek included, in an indoor parking garage with a height clearance less than 9 feet. I know that there are very few of those around the US but I have not yet seen one. Most indoor parking garages have clearance heights less than 7 feet. This makes taking the Roadtrek into cities where the majority - if not all of the parking garages are indoors. With the price of real estate in cities around the U.S. where there once were outdoor parking lots, these are quickly being replaced by indoor parking garages, either above or below ground level. Just like the caution about driving under low overpasses - you cannot go into a parking garage with the Roadtrek that has a height clearance less than nine feet (and that is cutting it close).

Parking the Roadtrek in a regular outdoor parking lot is not much of a problem at all depending on the length of the spaces and the width of the driving lanes. You have a 20 foot long vehicle. We have parked the Roadtrek in some parking lots where it fit perfectly in one space with nothing hanging out into the driving lane - and then we have been in some where the spaces are shorter and in one space the rear of the Roadtrek is too far out into the lane behind it. When this is encountered you need to park in two spaces front to back and unless the parking lot is very crowded you can usually find two spaces to park in. We have done it a number of times and no one has ever said anything about our taking up two spaces. I do park in the middle of both spaces so that no one gets the idea that they can squeeze their little car in behind us or in front of us - learned from experience - because it happened in the parking lot at the Colonial Williamsburg Visitors Center - one little car just had to get into what I left in the space in front of us - and he was just to darn close to my bumper as a result. Now I make sure that cannot happen.

It is often easier to park the Roadtrek a corner of the parking lot that has few cars and while these are a bit of a walk to where you are going when you get out of the van, it is well worth the exercise to be out of the way of the traffic in the lot. Of course, security of the van may be a concern but we will talk about that in another article.

If you have a Roadtrek with bumper covers - many Roadtreks do (we ordered ours without them) - do not park in a head in parking space that is on a curb in front and try to pull up to the tires to get into the space further. The front bumper cover may hit the curb and be damaged. Always be aware of what is hanging down under your Roadtrek.

Diagonal parking spaces pose a problem when pulling a Class B out of the space. With the limited visibility as I spoke about in the article on driving that you have in looking behind you in the Roadtrek, you have just as much of a problem seeing what is coming down from the lane behind you off to the passenger side of the van. The angle that you are parked at makes it almost impossible given the sight restrictions in a Class B to see what is there. This is when your passenger needs to get as clear a look as possible - even if it means opening the window and leaning out to see what is coming down from the right side BEFORE you back out of the space. There was a long discussion about this on a Class B forum and it was generally agreed that what I have described here is true.

Newer Roadtreks come with a backup camera in the dash as part of the radio/GPS package. This camera does work. It is adjustable to get the view you want - but you set it and leave it. You cannot move the direction of the camera automatically. It cannot be adjusted from inside in any way. The picture is not very clear, is dependent on the weather, and at night is helpful but not as good as it can be during the day. It will help when backing out of a parking space but has a limited angle of view. It does a good job when just backing up - but there is no way to judge distance to what is behind you in the camera's picture. You will know not to run over someone and not to back into something large.

I have read in a forum that someone can parallel park his Roadtrek on the streets of New York City - between cars. I would never think of attempting this. I would not even want to take a chance to try it. My advice - take it or leave it - is forget about parallel parking your Roadtrek.

Parking the Roadtrek is no problem as long as you follow these suggestions and learn from my (and others) experiences about parking a Class B.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Living in the Roadtrek - Driving

I thought that it would be good, for those interested in Class B RVs, and Roadtreks in particular and also for those who are considering purchasing one, to describe what it is like driving my Roadtrek 190. One of the benefits to a Class B RV is that it is the smallest of the motorhomes and it drives like a van. Well, it almost drives like a van . There are a number of things to be aware of when driving a Roadtrek or any Class B RV because of their size and what is in the interior that makes driving a little different from driving a car, an SUV, or a standard passenger van.

I am going to say right away to you that anyone who drives can drive a Roadtrek. There should be no one that feels that it is beyond them to drive or that they would be frightened or nervous to drive it. Before getting our Roadtrek I had driven two small passenger vans that we owned, a large, 15 passenger, extended van, and a small school bus. My wife had only driven cars, SUVs, and our two small vans. We took a test drive in the Roadtrek before we purchased it. Both of us drove it. And both of us were very comfortable getting in and pulling out onto the road, and driving. We both noticed on that test drive that it drove very much like a car - and was very similar to driving our small passenger van. When we took delivery of our Roadtrek, it was Meryl who drove it out of the dealer's lot and to the campground an hour and a half away on a turnpike with me following in our car behind. She had no problem at all.

If you have ever driven a cargo van or a small commercial truck, there really is nothing different about driving a Roadtrek or a Class B. In one of those you will have the same driving considerations that you need to have when driving in a Roadtrek. In fact, those are harder as there is no rear window to look behind you at all.

OK - so no panic. The first thing that you need to be aware of is height. You cannot drive on just any road or highway. The Roadtrek 190 is 8 feet 9 inches tall. Some other Roadtreks and Class B's are taller. In most areas in the country there are few roads with low overpasses, but in some, particularly it seems on the East Coast, there are. There is a parkway near us with overpasses with 7 foot 10 inch clearance. We found one lower where that parkway meets another. You need to be very aware of this BEFORE you get on any highway in your Roadtrek. You do not want to find yourself in a situation where you cannot stop or pull off the road and come up on a sign that shows a height limitation below 8 foot 10 inches - in fact you want a foot or so more to be comfortable that you are not going to rip the roof or anything on the roof off when you go under that overpass. So, all you need to do is pay attention to height restriction signs - and they are usually posted before the entrance ramps. You also know you are fine if trucks are on that road - as you are well below the height of any commercial truck. Before we got the Roadtrek we drove up and down (both sides) of roads, highways, and parkways that we commonly use where we live. There are several that we cannot drive the Roadtrek on because of the low clearances.

When we plan a trip we route the GPS (IN ADVANCE) around those roads. Do not rely upon your GPS - they have no idea that you are not driving a car and take nothing into consideration when routing you except the fastest route. A standard car GPS does not have height allowances in routing. The GPS built into the dash of the Roadtrek are standard TomTom GPS units - just like the ones in cars. There are specific GPS models by two manufacturers that are designed for routing RVs and these do include height and weight restrictions. Magellan and Rand-McNally both make RV GPS units. There are road atlases that have this information also. Once we leave New York we have not had a problem, though we understand that there are a few highways in Connecticut that do not permit RVs including Roadtreks.

The overall size and weight of the Roadtrek is something to consider when driving. It is 20 feet long - the 190 is no wider than a standard van - and it is almost 8,000 pounds - heavier when packed for a trip with driver and passenger(s). Because of this, you don't make any sudden changes in position on the road when driving. NO sudden movements! And certainly, never cut anyone off closely. There is a lot behind you and a lot of weight to get where you need to go and you want to do that with the full awareness that you have room to get in there. A few times in our travels this past year, Meryl - who is a good navigator - will tell me there is the turn - just several yards away with cars around me. In a car, maybe you could pull over quick to get to the turn - for me - never in the Roadtrek. I would rather miss the turn and go back than cut some car in half that comes up too suddenly or was unseen - and we will get to that next. So - anticipate what lane you will need to be in and do that as much in advance as you can.

In a car and even most passenger vans it is easy to see what is around you, behind you, and next to you. This is not the case in the Roadtrek - again, if you have driven a cargo van with no windows this is no different. In the Roadtrek when you look in the rear view mirror what you see is the cabinets, the edge of the TV and about the middle third (including the center post) of the rear view van windows. Some keep the rear window curtained, we do not - I am not sure if it is legal here (though we see vans that do this) and I would rather have the limited sight out the rear door windows than none at all. What you can see out the rear door windows is only good for what is directly behind you. To see on the sides of what is behind you (or next to you) you need to rely upon the door mirrors. Newer Roadtreks have special side view mirrors.

I have looked at a number of Chevy and Ford vans to see if they have the same mirrors that came on my Roadtrek 190 Popular - some do and some don't. It is hard to tell model years and that may be the difference - and it does not seem to be a difference between cargo models and passenger models. Each of the two side mirrors is a split top and bottom mirror.

You adjust these mirrors so that what is in the top mirror - larger of the two mirror sections to see what is behind you at a distance on that side and it will also take in some of what is in your lane behind you. You adjust the smaller section at the bottom to see what is close to the side of your Roadtrek - right there in the lane next to you but behind you. Top top section of the mirrors are power mirrors and can be adjusted electrically inside at the driver's seat. The bottom section must be adjusted manually. These mirrors function like the split extension mirrors for large RVs and trailers.

Here are photos of the mirrors on my Roadtrek -

When I took my Roadtrek to our local mechanic for its first State Inspection he was very impressed by these mirrors. They do make it very easy to see what is all around you - but you must remember when driving the Roadtrek to use these mirrors to their fullest advantage. They can almost take the place of the rear view mirror and I for cargo vans where there is no rear door window to look out of, these mirrors are used for everything.

Now, all of that explained, let me tell you that even with these mirrors there can be cars that you do not see coming up along side of you. Where one section of the mirror leaves off, the other section, even when adjusted properly, does not necessarily start in view. I have found that if a car is in the very left of the left lane next to us or the very right of the right lane next to us, they are in a blind spot in the mirror sections - and can come up next to you without you seeing them until you look at them directly out the driver's or passenger's door window. Again, a reason not to make any sudden lane changes.

One other minor thing to note about driving the Roadtrek or any Class B - heck, any motorhome, is that you are driving a room with a lot of things in it that are not normally in a vehicle. You have cabinets and drawers, and things that are stored that all together make noise. And you hear noises that you start to wonder about while you are driving. The thing we have found is to laugh about them, wonder about them, but ignore them. Do your best to place things in cabinets so that they move as little as possible. Find things inside the Roadtrek that shake, rattle, or vibrate and secure them as solidly as you can (more about this in another article). Once you have found all of the noises and done something about each one -not while you are driving, of course, the noises mostly go away.

All of this can be learned and gotten used to very quickly. In fact, if you are just aware of these things, it all just becomes a matter of fact when you get in and start to drive and it is automatic. Do not leave this article feeling that you could never do this. You can. For a couple, it is important that both partners feel comfortable driving. You never know when one has to take over the wheel. A couple of drives in your Roadtrek and it will be like you have been driving one for years.

I will write in other articles about parking the Roadtrek and about the ride.