Break Downs: Dealing with Maintenance and Repairs On Your Van-Home
One question I get all the time is what does a vandweller do if he/she breaks down on the road? In fact CamperCouple asked it in a comment the other day and I realized that I have never written an article or post on that subject. Because it is such a common question, I want to correct that oversight right now! I started writing and before I knew it, the post was really big! I realized I couldn’t fit it all on one blog post, so I am going to split it up into at least two and maybe three parts. I have a Three Step plan for dealing with break downs: Step 1: Get a good vehicle and take great care of it; Step2: Prepare for inevitable mechanical problems; Step 3: Improvise and cope with break-downs when they happen. In today’s post we’ll look at dealing with the fear and Step 1, Getting a good vehicle and taking great care of it.
DEALING WITH THE FEAR
First, for most of us, our van breaking down is one of our biggest fears. They aren’t just transportation, they are our homes. A break down is no longer just an inconvenience, it literally leaves you homeless! I’m no different than you in that regard; for a very long time I was very afraid of breakdowns. I’ve never had much money so my vehicles have always been older and had higher miles so the idea that they would break down has always been in the back of my mind.
Since most of you haven’t been doing this for long, the fear is probably still very real. You have two choices, you can let it paralyze you or you can take the fear and turn it to your advantage. Here’s what I suggest; get a good mental image in your head of yourself broke down by the side of the road 1000 miles from your nearest family or friends, and 100 miles from the nearest town. Then it starts to rain and get dark. That is a pretty grim picture isn’t it? You are alone and afraid, but more than afraid, you are terrified! I want you to get that mental image firmly in your mind and treasure it. If you do, it will be your biggest tool to make sure it never becomes a reality!
The next time it has been 3000 miles and you know you should change the oil and you are tempted to put it off I want you to bring up that mental image and ask yourself which would you rather do spend an hour today at the Jiffy Lube or a terrifying night alone by the side of the road? Would you rather go to Walmart and get the tires their 7500 mile balance and rotation, or fix a flat in the middle of nowhere? Would you rather spend $100 to renew your AAA membership for another year, or pay $160 for a tow because the guy can gouge you and charge you anything he wants? Would you rather bite the bullet and put $50 into your emergency fund this month, or be broke down somewhere and unable to pay for the repair because you are broke? Would you rather get out your air compressor and properly inflate your tires, or get a flat in the middle of nowhere, or worse, have a roll-over accident?
Use the fear that mental image provokes in you to motivate you to do what you know you should do anyway. The other choice is to do nothing and let the fear paralyze you and trap you into a life you just barely tolerate and maybe even hate. To me it is a pretty easy choice!
One more thing before we look at my recommended actions. You should try to learn everything you can about auto mechanics, but don’t feel guilty if that isn’t much. I hear from people all the time that because they can’t work on their vans or they can’t convert a van or all the other things they can’t do that they are sure they can’t live in a van. That’s simply not true! Lots of people own houses but can’t work on the plumbing or electrical systems or repair the roof. So what is their secret, how could they possibly own a house? Simple, they hire people to do the work. Modern cars are wonderful but for most of us they are a mystery. And that’s fine, you just hire someone to do the work. I’ve changed one starter in my life, and that is enough! After that one miserable experience, I always let a mechanic do it!
STEP 1: GET A GOOD VEHICLE AND TAKE GREAT CARE OF IT
- Before you buy any used vehicle, get it checked out by a mechanic first. It usually costs around $100 and it will be the best money you ever spent! Nothing you can do will keep you from a break down as well as this one simple step.
- If at all possible, buy a 1996 or newer vehicle. Today’s cars and vans are better in every way; they get better miles per gallon, pollute less, are much more reliable and last twice as long. That is due in large part because starting in 1996 all cars were required to have On-Board Diagnostics 2nd edition, which is the computer that controls virtually every function of the car. That’s the reason you want to buy a 1996 or newer vehicle so you can be sure you have it. Some people believe that old cars are simpler and simpler is better, so buy an old car. This is one of those rare exceptions that prove the rule. When it comes to autos, more complex is better.
- The damage from little mistakes accumulates! It’s true that being late for one oil change or carrying an extra 200 pounds of stuff isn’t going to cause a catastrophic problem with your vehicle right away. But you have to think in the long run. If you are like me, you need your vehicle to last as long as it possibly can and be as reliable as humanly possible. And regularly missing oil changes and constantly carrying around extra weight will have an effect on it eventually. So be diligent with all your maintenance. Of course I am just using those two items as an example; you want to be diligent with all your routine maintenance.
- Change all the fluids as soon as you get a new vehicle. It will cost you some money but you will know exactly when all the fluids were changed and the car will last longer because of it.
- Add an automatic transmission cooler. Repairing or rebuilding the automatic transmission is one of the most expensive things you can do and their main killer is heat. An automatic transmission oil cooler will keep it cool which means it will last longer. Oddly enough, a great place to get one is U Haul Centers. I highly recommend them.
- Strictly adhere to a fluid change schedule. In the long run, clean oil and all the other fluids will greatly increase your cars life. And that is what you want to do, think down the road in the long-run. Taking care of your van today will keep you off the side of the road broke down in a few years!
- Keep the tires properly inflated, rotated and lug nuts tight. An easy way to do this is to buy your tires at Walmart and get the Lifetime Tire Balance. Every 7500 miles take your van in and get the tires rotated and balanced for free. For most of us that means at least once a year we will know we have the proper tire inflation and our lug nuts are properly tightened.
- Buy a tire gauge and a 12 volt compressor to check and air your own tires. Most of our vans are loaded fairly heavily and having properly inflated tires is not just critical to avoid premature tire wear and break downs, it is critical for your safety as well. Your life might very well depend on it! It’s getting harder and harder to find a place to air your tires so all too often we just put it off. So I can’t recommend strongly enough you carry a little 12 volt compressor and use it!! I’ve included an Amazon link to the one I own and you will be very glad you bought it. Master Flow MF-1040 Cyclone High Volume Portable Air Compressor
- Carry the minimum amount of weight by getting rid of all your extra “stuff.” Everything I own in the world is in my van and trailer so it is heavy. But carrying extra weight not only reduces your mpg today, it puts extra wear and tear on many of your vans crucial systems over the long-run, especially the drivetrain and brakes. Remember the image of you broke down, alone and afraid by the side of the road? Keeping the weight off today will keep the tow truck away tomorrow.
- Slow down and smell the roses! No “Hot-Rodding” by doing jack-rabbit starts and then constantly slamming on the brakes. Be the turtle! Stay comfortably under the speed limit. Sure, in many places you can drive 90 mph legally, but that just brings you one step closer to that image coming true!
- If at all possible buy a ScanGuage and learn to use it. This is a simple device that easily plugs into your OBD II port and gives you a constant update of the status of the van. It will tell you your RPM, MPG, and even read and reset “Check Engine” codes, along with many, many other things. It’s an invaluable tool if you can afford it and the time to learn to use it.
- Use the cars gearing. Put it in a lower gear if it is struggling up hills and use a lower gear when going down hills. If it has an overdrive, take it off when it is working hard such as pulling a trailer, fighting a headwind or climbing hills.
- If you are going down a steep hill and are still using the brakes heavily even in a lower gear, then don’t ride the brake! Let the van speed up as fast as you are comfortable, then step on the brakes really hard till you are too slow, then get off them and let it speed up till it is going as fast as you’re comfortable, then smash the brakes again until you are too slow. This is the one time you want to work your brakes really hard. When you are off them they will cool off and they won’t get as hot by working them hard as they would if you were riding them.
In later posts we will look at Step2: Prepare for inevitable mechanical problems and Step 3: Improvise and cope with break-downs when they happen.