There it sits. An imposing figure of fiberglass, plastic, rubber and steel. It loafs in the driveway, staring back at you expectantly, daring you to tackle its broad flat panels, filthy roof and abundance of windows. Some call it an RV … but right now, you call it a chore. And the very thought of cleaning it makes you want to go back inside and watch reruns of “Iron Chef America.”
Come on, now; you’re better than that. All you need is a game plan, a little coaching and the right products to detail your rig like a pro. To get you started, we talked to some of the leading manufacturers of RV (and some non-RV) detailing products to get their tips and suggestions, and harvested the considerable experience of the TL staff as well. Since you probably already know how to wash and care for your tow rig, we’re going to devote most (okay, all) of the attention to your trailer. Remember that most of the companies we mention here offer a complete line of RV care products, so be sure to check their websites for more information, products and useful tips.
The Wheel Deal
As you know, cleaning your RV thoroughly can be a time-consuming process, so you’ll want to create an efficient workflow to prevent repeating any steps. Start with the wheels and tires first, because you don’t want any of the strong cleaning agents and resulting grime to spatter onto the painted/gelcoated surface and be left there.
Apply a good tire and wheel cleaner such as Eagle One’s All Wheel and Tire Cleaner or Protect All’s new RV Wheel and Tire Cleaner to one wheel/tire at a time, gently agitate the surface with a wheel cleaning brush, then hose off. And by the way, the same is true for your tow rig, so you can clean all wheels and tires first before proceeding. Once you’re done detailing the trailer, apply a good tire protectant (one without petroleum distillates) for a like-new appearance.
Take it From the Top
Now, you’re going to work top to bottom, cleaning the roof, awning(s), walls and finally the glass. As you’ve likely noticed, the roof is where most of the grime accumulates, and how you care for it has a lot do with what it’s made out of. Common roof materials on newer RVs include fiberglass, rubber (EPDM) and thermoplastic polyolefin, also known as TPO. Fiberglass and TPO roofs can be cleaned like the rest of the surfaces in your coach; in other words, hosed off and gently cleaned with a soft bristle brush (designed for vehicle detailing) and some RV wash.
Rubber roofs are a completely different story, however, because they are more porous than other roofs and are more likely to suffer damage caused by neglect. Direct sunlight can cause the surface to become chalky, while excessive moisture can allow algae and mildew to form. When the deteriorating rubber is mixed with dirt and airborne pollutants, you’ve not only got a dirty roof, but the dreaded black streaks will soon appear on the exterior walls and windows (more on them later).
How often you tend to your rubber roof depends on the environment and/or conditions in which you live; however, the experts we interviewed agree that it should be cleaned and conditioned at the beginning and end of each season, at minimum. If the RV is parked under trees or is stored in an area where dirt and/or pollutants accumulate quickly, the roof may need to be cleaned and conditioned four or more times a year. There are a variety of products available from companies like Camco, Dicor, Protect All and Thetford designed specifically for cleaning RV rubber roofs, as well as treatments that will protect the rubber from the elements after cleaning.
Depending on the product used, the typical manner in which rubber roofs are cleaned is to spray the roof with a garden hose first to remove loose particulates. Then, starting at the front of the coach and working back (toward the ladder you came up), apply the product and gently scrub with a soft bristle brush designed for vehicle detailing such as Shurhold’s deck brushes (Shurhold even offers complete cleaning kits). Camco also offers an adjustable RV Wash Brush that connects to your garden hose, is adjustable from 40 to 66 inches long, and features a built-in on/off lever.
Keep in mind that, while you should give your rubber roof the full treatment at least twice a year, it should be rinsed off every time you wash the RV to keep dirt down to a minimum. (See the March 2011 issue for even more in-depth information on roof maintenance.)
Fawning Over Your Awning
Under normal use, cleaning the awning isn’t much of an issue, because it spends most of its time stored, away from the elements. But during long stays or full-timing, it’s only a matter of time before the awning gets dirty or worse yet, covered with bird droppings, sap and other debris. Thetford and Camco offer products designed specifically for cleaning awnings and removing the stains that affect them most. First, deploy the awning and flood it with water to remove the worst of the dirt and debris, scrub stubborn stains with a brush and extension pole, then rinse clean. And while this may sound obvious, make sure to let the awning dry completely before you roll it back to prevent mold and mildew issues.
Wall to Wall
With the roof and awning cleaned, the next step is the exterior walls. While it is common practice to use common household dish detergent for this purpose, RV and car care product manufacturers advise against this for one simple reason: It strips the surface of any waxes that you may have applied earlier. Specialized washing soaps offered by Protect All, Camco, Thetford and car care specialists like Eagle One, Mother’s and Meguiar’s are all designed to clean away dirt and grime while leaving the thin film of wax intact. In between washes, there are also a variety of “waterless car wash” products designed to rid the surface of the light dirt film that can accumulate over a few days, and spray-on “touch up” wax products to keep a layer of wax on the surface between waxings.
It’s no secret that reaching the upper half of any RV can be a challenge, and constantly moving a ladder down the side of the rig just won’t do. The easiest and safest way to get to hard-to-reach areas is with an extension-pole system. Shurhold, for one, offers three different RV Kits (Basic, Intermediate and Deluxe) that contain a telescoping handle (up to 9 feet in length), a soft brush and stainless-steel squeegee, among other items. And California Car Cover company offers its California Jelly Blade, a giant squeegee (12 inches) made from medical-grade silicone that can also be affixed to an extension pole kit.
Breaking the Streak
Now, before we deal with waxing, we need to touch on the dreaded black streaks we mentioned earlier — because waxing over them will make them more difficult to remove. Any RV can suffer from black streaks, regardless of the type of roof you have or environment the rig is stored in; but what are they?
Essentially, they’re a combination of soils, oxidation and non-water soluble oils used in the manufacturing process of rubber roofs, rubberized sealers and plastic/rubber parts on the RV’s roof and exterior walls. They won’t come off with common soap and water, and if left unchecked, they can etch the surface and become very difficult to remove — especially on older RVs where the gelcoat may have become oxidized.
We can say from personal experience that Thetford’s Premium Black Streak and Bug Remover does an admirable job of removing black streaks without much effort — but companies like Camco and Protect All offer similar products designed for the same purpose. Spray the product on, wipe the streaks clean, and then rinse thoroughly with water.
Whether painted or gelcoated, an RV’s exterior walls should be waxed on a regular basis to prevent surface oxidation. How often depends, again, on the severity of your environment, but figure it should be waxed whenever the rubber roof is treated, or at the beginning/end of every travel season, minimum. This is where the expression, “frequent care is easy care” comes into play; wax the surface often, and you won’t have to worry about oxidation that can damage the surface and require serious elbow grease to remove.
One of the easiest ways to apply a wax product over a large surface is with an orbital buffer, not a rotary buffer, which can quickly burn through paint/gelcoat if used by inexperienced hands. Shurhold offers the Dual Action Polisher (pictured on the top of page 36) that’s designed to eliminate the burn-through woes.
To begin, apply a small amount of wax to the pad, then begin applying the product. Remember, less is more when it comes to wax. If you apply too much, it will splatter and dry elsewhere, requiring more work to remove it. Let the wax form a light haze, and then use a clean bonnet on the buffer to remove the wax and polish the surface. It’s quicker and a lot easier. If you notice wax in some nooks and crannies, you can use a detailing brush specifically made for the purpose, or even a common soft bristle toothbrush will do the trick.
Once the RV is waxed and polished, you can keep a light film of wax on the surface after every wash with a spray on product like Eagle One’s Wax As-U-Dry, Protect All’s Polish, Wax and Treatment or Thetford’s Premium Protect and Shine.
There, now don’t you feel better? Instead of a beast of burden, your trailer will now stand as the benchmark against which all other RVs in the neighborhood will be measured.
California Car Cover Company, (800) 423-5525, www.calcarcover.com.
Camco Manufacturing Inc., (800) 334-2004, www.camco.net.
Camping World, (800) 626-3636, www.campingworld.com.
Dicor Corporation Inc., (800) 837-2059, www.dicor.com.
Eagle One, (800) 832-6825, www.eagleone.com.
Meguiar’s Inc., (800) 347-5700, www.meguiars.com.
Mothers Inc., (714) 891-3364, www.mothers.com.
Protect All Inc., (800) 322-4491, www.protectall.com.
Shurhold Industries, (800) 962-6241, www.shurhold.com.
Thetford Corporation, (800) 543-1219, www.thetford.com.
World Class Motoring, (800) 986-4977, www.worldclassmotoring.com.