Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
“The RV won’t start.” That’s not something you ever want to hear. But when you’re living in the RV, and you have places to be, it’s an even worse phrase.
Roadtrek built our 2008 190 Popular 4×4 on a 2007 Chevrolet Express 3500 chassis. It has been a workhorse and the amount of expense to maintain it has been minimal.
However, we recently experienced a problem with our van that turned us and several mechanics into sleuths as we all tried to pinpoint the problem.
The RV won’t start
The first sign of trouble came out of nowhere recently while we were camping in Galveston, Texas. It was technically “glamping” because we were staying at an RV resort park. But with the Texas Winter Storm, we ended up boondocking without electricity or city water for most of a week. So, we really were “camping” again.
The van sat stationary for nearly three weeks because we rented a car for the month. The third week was when we saw temperatures plummet to the mid-teens. When the electricity came back on we wanted to refill our propane, just in case.
That’s when our engine troubles began. I turned the key and we heard some clicks but nothing happened. We initially thought the battery had taken a hit from sitting unused during the cold snap. Sure enough, with a jump start from our neighbor, we were running again.
The next time we went to start a week later, however, we had the same problem. Although the battery tested reasonably well, it was 6 years old. So, I replaced it in Galveston for peace of mind. The van started up and after that, the van seemed to run fine.
The RV won’t start…again
After leaving Galveston, we headed toward Austin to check in with some friends and swing by the Texas state Capitol for a brief visit. Late that night, after stopping for dinner, we finally ended up at a Home Depot parking lot northwest of the city on our way toward San Angelo, which was our next destination. The van didn’t even hiccup during an entire day of travel, including numerous stops and starts along the way.
We woke up early on a dreary Sunday morning ready to hit the road. And, you guessed it, the engine wouldn’t start. This time, nothing happened when we turned the key, no sounds or clicks. I tested the battery and double-checked the cables. Everything seemed fine. My next thought was the starter since we believe that was still original equipment. But that’s not something I felt I had the ability (or tools) to replace. We started trying to figure out how to get to a repair shop on a Sunday so that someone could get us going Monday morning. (Texas hospitality showed itself that morning, as several people stopped and asked us if we needed help, a ride to an auto parts store, or if they could call someone for us. Thanks, Texans!)
We decided to see if a mobile mechanic might be available in the area and, being relatively close to Austin, we were able to find one. In short order, the mechanic came out and confirmed we had a bad starter. He replaced the starter and the van fired right up. We actually started it twice, because we were paranoid and wanted to double-check it before the mechanic left!
The RV won’t start…a third time?!
Off we went toward San Angelo. Arriving later than expected, we decided to check out our campsite before dark and then head into town to resupply groceries. We shut the van down for about 15 minutes. When we went to leave, turning the key resulted in nothing happening. You can imagine the looks on our faces and a few choice words that were uttered!
We called the mobile mechanic back. They were great about walking through various issues that could have arisen because of work they did or other things that might be happening since we knew the battery and starter were both new.
Despite all of our efforts, we were able to get the van to crank but it would not start. The odd thing was that when the van wouldn’t start, it kept doing different things. Sometimes there were various noises and sometimes it did nothing. The mystery continued!
Finally, the mobile mechanic suggested using our multimeter to start testing fuses one-by-one to see if something had blown that we weren’t thinking of. Sure enough, we found a blown fuse for the Power Control Module. We had one spare fuse in the right amperage so we replaced it and tried the engine. Boom, it started.
Getting to a dealership
Luck arose again when we discovered San Angelo has a Chevrolet dealership. It’s only about 7 miles from the state park where we were camping. That meant a relatively short tow if we needed it.
We arranged for an appointment a couple of days later. Since we didn’t want to risk wasting the day of our appointment waiting for a tow truck, we figured we should try to arrive the night before. The plan was to start the van (if it would start again) and drive to the dealership, boondocking in their parking lot overnight. If it wouldn’t start, we’d arrange for a tow and then boondock overnight. Either way we wanted to be onsite at the service department first thing in the morning.
The van started the night before our appointment, so we packed up, drove to the dealership, and spent the night in the Service Department parking lot. And other than the ridiculously bright lights showing off the new cars, it wasn’t a bad spot. (On a side note, do people really shop for cars in the middle of the night? Why can’t dealerships shut most of those lights off after hours?)
The service advisor at All American Chevrolet was great. He understood our dilemma of living in a van that couldn’t be trusted to start every time we turned the key. We explained what we had done to date and he put a tech on it right away to try to solve the mystery.
The best they could figure, our problems were arising from a corroded main fuse box under the hood. Every test and all the various codes they checked indicated nothing was wrong and the van should be starting and running fine. The serious corrosion was leading to miscellaneous fuses and relays not making their connections, which is why our problem was sporadic.
I researched the issue and found that can be a problem with certain Chevy van and truck models. It also would be the reason why we had different problems with starting the van that seemed to come and go.
They had to overnight the parts but could get us in for the replacement first thing the next morning. We got lucky two more times before the repairs. The van started so we could drive back to camp. More important, it started again so we could return!
The next morning, the dealership was able to replace our fuse box and have us on the road within a couple of hours. They even noticed our hood latch was getting tricky to open and took care of that for us without additional charge.
As I write this, it has now been four weeks since the fuse box was replaced. We have had zero problems. The van is starting every time and running great.
- No matter what, stay calm so you can process what’s happening. Don’t make things worse by losing your cool. Yes, we uttered some expletives, but that was just the initial reaction and to be expected. Throughout the whole ordeal, we didn’t argue about anything, we just worked the problem and partnered on solutions.
- Remember, having your house also be your travel vehicle can cause anxiety when you hear “The RV won’t start.” But if you are stuck, at least you’re stuck with a kitchen, a bathroom, and anything else you might need at that moment to be more comfortable.
- Be prepared to work extra-remotely. We work remotely every day for our jobs. But having the ability to pack up laptops and a hotspot so we could work in the dealership’s waiting room made it easier to keep on working while our house was in for repairs. (On a side note, All American Chevrolet in San Angelo has great wi-fi in their waiting room!)
- Talk to your service advisor. Make sure they completely understand the symptoms, the solutions you have tried, and your predicament of living in your vehicle. The team at All American Chevrolet took all of that into account and got us in and out quickly because of it.
- Do what you can and hire out what you can’t. I’m not too bad at basic car maintenance and troubleshooting. And when I find what’s wrong, there have been several times I have been able to do the repair myself. But I also know when my trying to fix something could make it worse. That’s when I call in a professional. And don’t just give up because it’s a Sunday morning and you’re sitting in a Home Depot parking lot. We decided to try finding a mechanic and the mobile tech guys were great to work with.
- Remember, it could always be worse. When we got stuck on a Sunday morning, that was bad. But we were in a giant parking lot where the van was level and there was plenty of space for a mechanic to work in the daylight. The van could have decided to die on a dark Saturday night while we were off-camber, nose first in a city street parking space outside the Texas Capitol!
Did we need it all?
Looking back, you might be wondering if our problems would have all been solved by replacing the fuse box initially. Did we need the other replacements? Our battery was 6 years old. And our starter appeared to be the original equipment. Having a new battery and a new starter isn’t bad. And narrowing it down to the fuse box was part of the process.
It’s best to start simple and take care of the easy and quick fixes first. In this case, it meant the battery (which I could do) and the starter (which I could do now, having watched someone else do it). We replaced three things, but we probably needed to replace two of them soon anyway.
In the end, I know that when I turn the key, I won’t be muttering, “The RV won’t start.” And that is something we definitely need.