Pat and I hang out on several sites populated by people who are either contemplating RVing full-time or are already doing it. The questions are endless and there seems to be no threshold for what is considered too unimportant: Gas vs. Diesel, how do you do your wash on the road, how do you deal with pets, what does it cost, what can I afford, how this, how that, etc. I thought I’d do this blog entry that touches upon a number of questions I’ve been asked, and even though I’m not an expert yet, at least I’ve been through the retirement -> house sale -> domicile -> rig purchase process and I’ve got some insights from having done it. This one is about our coach and our thoughts on what we thought we needed to hit the road and make it stick.
We’ve been driving and living in our 2017 Fleetwood Bounder 35K for a month now, so let’s do a gut check on our satisfaction level. Depending on the price point, every RV has things we love about it, and things we don’t. When Pat and I went shopping for our full-time RV, the one we’d live in for the foreseeable future, we had done about 3 years of Internet research, and didn’t have much practical experience. In the words of one RV tech I talked to along the way, when I told him I was a rookie RV’er who decided to go full-time, “Man, you’re sure not afraid to dive into the pool without finding out how deep it is, are you?”
What we thought…
Well it wasn’t just a dive. More like walking down the pool stairs instead of doing a cannonball from the pool edge. We researched the hell out of this (Internet is your friend here), went to RV shows, asked people – both who were trying to sell us coaches and those who owned them with no dog in the fight – what they thought and what they’d do over again. In effect, we were the people on the introductory paragraph above. After much argument we came up with a list of criteria that our RV had to satisfy:
It had to be a Class A coach. I got lots of advice on this from wonks on the Internet. The most popular types of RV are 5th-wheel trailers (towed by a $70K beefy diesel pickup truck that we didn’t have), Class C coaches, built on a van base, Class A coaches like the one we ended up with, and “travel trailers” that are towed behind a pickup truck in a typical bumper-hitch configuration. Every type has its fans and supporters who think it’s the bomb, and we heard arguments from all of them.
Pat didn’t like the idea of driving a big pickup all over the place to do our sightseeing once we reached the RV park and unhitch, so 5th wheels and travel trailers were out, and we found that full-time living space was a problem in all but the largest Class C’s, so that left a Class A coach as the obvious choice.
It had to be 35-38 feet long. This was for ease of driving, and because many RV parks out there are older ones from the bygone days of shorter RVs, and it’s hard to fit a 45-footer into one of their sites. And, really, no way do I want to drive one of those down a secondary road and tow another 20 feet of car behind me. We thought anything smaller than 35 feet just wouldn’t be big enough to allow for gracious living for the length of time we were contemplating doing this.
It had to be a gasser. Class A’s come in two flavors: diesel (known as a Diesel Pusher or DP, because the engine’s in the back) and gasoline. I was unfamiliar with diesels, plus they cost more to maintain and cost about $30-50K more than gas rigs of the same basic amenities. I was told by diesel wonks, well yeah, but you can get a 7-8-year-old used one with plenty of miles left for about the cost of a new gasser. Well, maybe next time.
It had to have a washer and dryer. These rigs don’t feature a lot of closet space, so our downsized wardrobe demanded a lot of washing. We could use the campground laundry at a cost of about $3 per load, but we figured it would work out cheaper to have our own facility in the coach, which is only really useful if we are in a park with water and sewer supplied.
We had to have a King-size bed – It was what we were used to at home, so why not? The model of RV we ended up with had a queen bed, but there’s more to the story.
We need a big shower. This might not be a big deal to others, but we’re not small people, so it made no sense at all to buy a coach with a shower too small for Superman to change his clothes in. The shower is built into the design of the coach layout, so it was not negotiable or fixable after the sale. We walked around the RV dealership with a tape measure just to be sure. Ours is 30″ x 40″, about the minimum that we considered acceptable.
We didn’t need four TVs in a 35-foot coach. Since this was two TVs more than we had in our house, we were amused when we’d tour RVs that had TVs all over the place. Bedroom, Living Room, above the dashboard, and even one accessed through a hatch on the outside of the coach. Some high-end coaches even have one in the bathroom. RV manufacturers seem to think that their chances of selling the coach is proportionate to thenumber of TVs it has. We really only wanted two – bedroom and living room.
We wanted a kitchen table and chairs rather than a dinette booth like you would get in a fast-food restaurant. This one was harder to find, since we were bucking the buyers’ trend. And, although we could have swapped out a booth for this setup at great expense later, we really wanted it from the get-go.
After sifting through all those criteria, we settled on a 2017 Fleetwood Bounder 35K. It had all of the stuff we wanted and, as this coach has begun to educate us in what it can do, we realized that we got a winner.
The Gasser – while a diesel pusher can do a bit better going up and down hills, our recent trip through the Blue Ridge Mountains convinced me that our coach is no slouch in the mountains, either, even when dragging our car behind it. Yes, there are times when we have to pull into the truck lane and put on our 4-ways while going up steep grades, but on the whole it does pretty well. In 2016 Ford introduced a new, 6-speed transmission that is night-and-day better than the previous 5-speed, and we’re very happy with it. The length is 36 feet (including the rear ladder) and that fell into our desired range. It would take a lot to convince me that we would need to go any larger, and in fact there’s a lot to suggest that we could do with a smaller coach a few years down the line if we decide to buy a new one.
Washer & Dryer – I really like our Splendide combo wash/dryer, and I didn’t think I’d like it as much as the other alternative – an over/under dryer/washer combo. With this model, we just put our clothes in and start it up, go do something fun, and when we return they’re clean and dry. It tends to wrinkle cotton, but liquid fabric softener takes some of that away.
Our Samsung residential fridge requires that we run the generator while we’re on the road for 5 hours or more, but on shorter hops we just keep it closed and it doesn’t lose any cool inside without 120v power. Samsung is not a brand I think of when it comes to RVs, but it works well. Somebody – probably Fleetwood – tried to add a little lever to lock the doors when the coach is bouncing down the road. It sucked and made it harder to open the door and get stuff, so I drilled out the lever and Pat found a better lock (those two little white squares on either side of the freezer, plus a bungie cord wrapped around the door handles on top) on the Internet and we’re much happier.
We thought we needed a King Size Bed – Wrong. Fleetwood (and other makers) found out lately through their marketing data that people really like King beds, so within the last 5 years or so they began pushing them either as an option, or as a primary choice on medium-priced rigs like ours. Pat and I are big people, so we figured that only a king-size bed would make us happy. We were wrong about that, and it only took a couple of nights sleeping in our coach for that to sink in. Ours came with only a queen bed, and we had overlooked the advantages of this size. First off, whether you have a queen or a king, the width of the slide is the same, so what you gain in bed width, you lose in nightstand width as they shrink the nightstand on either side to accommodate the wider bed. We kind of like a wide flat place to charge our phones, place our glasses at night, and hold my CPAP machine, and we wouldn’t get anything that wide with a king bed. Second, the narrower queen gives us more space to stand on the side of the bed in the morning to make it or to get up for something.
Cargo capacity – If I were to think of the worst thing about the coach, it’s that it’s built on a 22,000 lb. chassis. This means that it can’t take more than that weight on the axles or risk a tire blowout or chassis failure, leading to an accident. This leaves us about 2200 pounds for two people, groceries, clothes, plus the liquid capacities of the various fuel and holding tanks, and the weight of our towbar assembly. The first thing we did after we loaded up the coach with all the stuff we brought down from South Dakota or bought in Florida, is run over to a truck stop and weigh the coach with us inside, and we learned that we only had about 260 lb. left for additional cargo or passengers.
Why a 22,000 lb. chassis instead of, say, a 24K or 26K chassis? To save Fleetwood a few bucks and help them meet their price point by cheapening things up. It’s one reason that the interior walls in the coach are made of thin, wobbly fiberboard and stapled to very lightweight studs. Walls in a gasser tend to be very flimsy and easy to break, but to put in sturdier walls would mean beefing up the chassis, or dialing down the cargo capacity even further. One thing Pat and I are learning is to be very aware of what goes into the coach and what goes out, and that we can’t have one without the other. The gross weight above (21740 lb.) tells us that even just the weight of one of our kids on the road would be enough to put us over the max cargo capacity.
Handling – Another baddie is that this coach is hard to handle on the road. This has more to do with the fact that the heavy engine is in front, unlike a diesel pusher, and there is a lot of “tail” (the house that sticks out behind the rear axle). Trucks push us around on the road, and I’ve found that I cannot relax my attention for even a second, leading us to only drive 4-5 hours without pulling off the road due to driver exhaustion. In addition to the tail, which can “wag the dog” if I’m not careful, the height of the rig causes some alarming sway. Also unlike a diesel pusher (which has airbag suspension) our coach has a leaf-spring suspension, and this contributes to the alarming swaying and “float” when taking some turns.
One thing we can do to reduce the sway and improve the steering stability is to install an aftermarket sway bar to harden up the suspension, and also install an aftermarket steering damper – sort of a shock absorber for the steering gear. Pat and I are certainly going to do this within the next 6 months. These two generally run about $3500 for both, so it’s a major expense but worth it in terms of peace of mind while driving. Here’s a video done by a couple of full-time RV vloggers about the process performed on a bounder a year older than ours, but basically the same suspension. It also shows the realities of driving a 35-foot motorhome.
Another option is to install Sumo Springs, which sort of mimic the action of airbags on the leaf suspension. They run about $600 and can have a dramatic effect on sway. These vloggers drive a Tiffen Allegro rig about the size of ours, and it uses the same Ford chassis and suspension as our Bounder.
The Merely Inconvenient
The thing that falls into this category is POOP! And how we deal with it. We have to empty the black tank (what comes from the two toilets only) every four days or so, because our black tank only has a capacity of 42 gallons. Our habit is to always find an RV park with a sewer at the site, hook up a very high-capacity hose (known as the “stinky slinky”) to the sewer dump, and open the dump valve when the tank reaches 2/3 full. Then we use a separate water hose to shoot water into the tank via a special fitting through the tank wall to flush it and clean it out – takes 2 or 3 repeats of this before the water draining from the tank appears clear.
The toilet system our RV uses is called a Sealand Vacuflush system – used in many RVs and yachts, and it’s got some quirks. If you’ve ever used the head on an airliner, you’re familiar with the roar that our toilets produce when we flush them. Then a quite loud vacuum pump kicks on and recharges the vacuum in the entire system for the next flush. Nobody can use the system until the vacuum gets restored by the pump, and this can take a minute or so. There’s even an indicator on the wall that tells you when it’s OK to flush, if the person in the other bathroom has beat you to the punch and flushed first. The trick to the black tank and when to empty it is to keep an eye on a tank volume indicator above our front door. If I forget and ignore it, some very bad things – like some very nasty stuff working up the vent pipe to the roof and giving everyone a poop shower – can happen if the tank gets too full, so it’s something you just have to accept that’s different about the mobile lifestyle.