Answers to Common Questions from RV Newbies

About the Author

Tom Davidock

As an RV newbie, you’ll encounter some challenges along the way. Sometimes things may not work as intended or stop working altogether. You may experience some strange odors and sounds and won’t be sure what to do. The RV learning curve is something we all go through, and with time and a little bit of experience, you’ll be able to solve most problems quickly.

To help you get started, we compiled some frequently asked questions from campers new to the RV lifestyle. While this won’t cover everything you’ll encounter as a new RV owner, it will hopefully prepare you for some of the common issues you’re likely to encounter.

My black tank is empty, but the sensor light says it’s full.

Every new RVer will come to realize two things very early on in their camping lifestyle. First, they want to camp more. Second, RV tank sensors are useless. To understand why sensors fail, you first need to understand how they work. The standard and most common sensor type are small probes installed in the side of a tank. When submerged in water, it closes a circuit, which sends a signal to your control panel and usually illuminates a light, reading one-quarter, half, three-quarters, or full.

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When RVing, you may find that they work great for the first few camping trips, but over time, they become inaccurate. The first to stop being accurate is your black tank sensor. While not too pleasant to think about, the black tank contains a mix of solids and liquids. Over time, the solids will start to build up in the tank and leave gunk and gross things behind after you flush. Eventually, these solids will build up over the sensors, keeping that circuit closed and sending out a false reading. Hence, it may still be partially full even after draining your tank.

The same can happen to the grey water tank. This usually takes longer than your black tank, but it will eventually happen to RVers. While your grey tank is mostly water, food scraps from the kitchen sink, grease, hair, and soap scum can build up and cause the same problem.

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Most people won’t notice a problem with their freshwater tank, primarily because it’s just fresh water and doesn’t have the same problem as the waste tanks. However, this sensor can also fail over time, especially with hard water. However, it will usually take years before this sensor stops being accurate. Many of these freshwater sensors will outlast the life of the vehicle.

How do you fix a bad sensor?

The best way to fix a faulty sensor is to give your tanks a deep clean. This usually involves purchasing a strong tank cleaner advertised as a sensor cleaner. For most products, you add the cleaner to the tank, fill it with water, and wait. The chemicals will attempt to break down any buildup on your tank’s sensors and walls. It may take several treatments until your sensors are working correctly.

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While cleaning is useful, your best bet is to use preventative maintenance. First, always use a good waste tank treatment when camping. This encourages solids to break down quickly. Next, always ensure a good liquid ratio to solids in your tank. For treatments to work effectively, they need water. With each camping trip, start by adding a few gallons of water to your black tank before using it.

Finally, make sure you flush out your black tank regularly. If your RV has a black tank flush feature, use it each time you empty your tank. This will spray off any solids clinging to the tank’s sides or over your sensors. If you don’t have a built-in black tank flush, you can purchase some tools to do this manually.

My toilet smells no matter what I do

A smelly bathroom is probably one of the most unpleasant things about camping. If you have a well-functioning toilet and treating it properly, you shouldn’t have any odor issues inside your camper. If you do, you may be doing something wrong.

When you have a smelly toilet, the first thing to do is see if you need to empty your tank. A full black tank can cause odors when the toilet is flushed. However, if it’s not full, ensure you use a good tank treatment product. I highly recommend Happy Camper, which has worked great for me.

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The purpose of treatment is not just to mask the odor but to encourage the waste to break down. Once the waste dissolves (gross, I know), it will release fewer gasses and odors. You’ll have more of a slurry in your tank. While it doesn’t, and shouldn’t, smell good, the odor shouldn’t be entering your living quarters. Any gasses should vent out the roof vent pipe away from your nose. If you’re using a good treatment chemical and it still smells, check to ensure your vent pipe is not blocked.

Next, make sure your toilet seal is working. If your toilet doesn’t hold water, it can’t stop the gas (and smell) from coming up into the toilet bowl. Fixing a leaking seal is easy. You can apply some lubricant to the rubber seal or replace it for a few dollars.

Additionally, if you’re experiencing a black tank that just won’t drain, you may have a clog. We have a great troubleshooting guide to help you get rid of it.

How to Unclog Your RV Toilet
The Complete Guide to Fixing an RV Black Tank Clog

My RV mattress is uncomfortable

97% of new RVers wake up in the morning after their first-night camping, googling “new RV mattress” on their smartphones. Okay, while I just made that figure up, I have yet to meet someone who said their stock RV mattress is comfortable. In fact, they can be downright painful. Except in the most premium RVs, most manufacturers are cutting costs and providing you with the least expensive mattress available. These mattresses typically sit on a piece of plywood and have a very little padding.

To fix an uncomfortable mattress, you have a few options. First, you can purchase a new RV mattress. However, you can’t just purchase a regular old mattress in many situations. Many RVs have off-sized mattresses, the most common being a short queen. Additionally, you have under-bed storage, where your beds fold up to gain access, a standard mattress won’t work. RV mattresses are designed to fold when the bed is raised. Many RVers found success with a memory foam mattress, which works well.

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My RV Air Conditioner is not keeping my RV cool enough

The other option, rather than purchasing a new RV mattress, is to add a memory foam topper. This works very well and can turn a cheap mattress into a comfortable one. I recommend getting at least a three-inch topper if you go this route.  

It may feel like your RV air conditioner isn’t doing anything on extremely hot days. It can be frustrating and very uncomfortable. However, you can take steps to ensure your RV A/C has the best chance to cool down your RV. RV air conditioners work similarly to the one you may have in a window at home. It pulls air from inside the living space through two vents on the unit itself, cools it, and blows it out through ductwork in the RV.

To maximize the unit’s efficiency, your best bet is to reduce the heat inside your RV to help it do its job. The first thing you can do before running the unit is to try and exhaust as much of the hot air from the RV as possible. This usually involves opening the roof vents and turning on the fans. Crack a window or two to promote airflow. Since heat rises, you will typically have a blanket of hotter air near the ceiling of your RV. Venting this out for 5-10 minutes before you turn on the AC can be very helpful.

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Once you take off the edge with the ceiling fans, the next step is to seal the inside of the unit to prevent heat loss. Make sure all windows and vents are closed. Close your blinds and pull down your shades. You can also add insulation pillows to your roof vents and a cover to the door windows. Just as insulation keeps the heat in during the winter, it will keep the cool inside in the summer. By closing your blinds and limiting the sun, you are also reducing the greenhouse effect, which is the same thing that happens to a car sitting in the sun on a hot sunny day. Taking some simple steps can make your RV much more comfortable.

Also, remember to clean and maintain your air conditioner. This involves routinely cleaning the intake filters and doing an annual cleaning of the coils and fins (accessed from the roof). An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Check out the following troubleshooting guide for more tips.

RV Air Conditioner Troubleshooting

your RV refrigerator is not getting cold or is freezing everything

RV Refrigerators have given more than one RVer a headache or two. If your RV refrigerator isn’t getting cold, ensure that it’s turned on and set to the type of fuel (electricity or propane). Next, remember that RV refrigerators can take longer to cool down once started. It’s not uncommon for a refrigerator to take over 12 hours to get cool.

Don’t expect it to feel cold if you had it plugged in for only an hour. You can place your hand on the cooling plate in the freezer or feel the fins. If they are cooling down, even if they’re not super cold, the refrigerator is likely working. A pro tip is to pre-cool your refrigerator before you head out on a camping trip. If your RV is parked at home, consider plugging it in the night before you leave and letting it cool down.

If your refrigerator is cooling but seems spotty, you may need to circulate the air. Most RV refrigerators don’t have fans, so a fully packed fridge can create cold and warm spots. Try moving things around a bit or install an inexpensive circulator fan. Check out the following article for more details.

Keeping an RV Refrigerator Cold
Best RV Refrigerator Fans for Keeping Your Food Cold and Fridge Running (2022)

Can I hook a 50A RV to a 30A outlet? Can I plug my RV into a regular 110-outlet home?

At some point in your camping journey, you’ll surely come across an RV site that doesn’t have the same hookup for your RV electrical amperage. However, the simple answer is that with the correct adapter, you can plug a 50A RV into a 30A outlet, a 30A RV into a 50A outlet, or either a 30A or 50A RV into a common 110 V outlet.

To do this, you only need the correct adapter, and they’re relatively inexpensive. When you purchase your RV, I suggest picking up an adapter set for your rig. It’s not a matter of if you’ll use it, but when you will. If you have a 30A RV, purchase a 30A to 50A adapter and a 30A to 110 outlet adapter. If you have a 50A RV, you want to purchase a 50A to 30A adapter and a 50A to 110 outlet adapter. That’s all you need.

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However, you need to remember that the amount of electricity you can safely get into your unit is based on the supply you’re plugged into. For example, a 50A RV plugged into a 30A outlet, which still only be able to draw 30A before the circuit breaker trips. This means that you may not be able to run two air conditioners and a microwave simultaneously like you could when plugged into a 50A outlet. The same applies when plugging in at home to a regular 110 outlet. You most likely won’t be able to run you’re A/C on that setup, but it’s useful for low electricity-demand appliances like a refrigerator, lights, furnaces, etc.

MY RV shower isn’t draining

I often see many questions from RVers who have an RV shower that’s not draining. 99% of the time, it is related to two things. The first is a full grey tank. New RV owners may not realize that their RV has two grey tanks. Larger RVs may have a black tank and two separate gray water tanks. One grey water tank is often connected to the kitchen and half bath, and the other is connected to the main bath. If you have this setup, you may have a full tank. The good news is that this usually only happens once while learning about the RV.

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The next scenario, which is usually the most common, is hair. For whatever reason, RV showers seem to clog easily with hair over time. To clean the drain, you want to use a soft plastic drain snake. Refrain from using big residential snakes since RV plumbing is more fragile, plus the drainpipes are fairly short. In most instances, this can be cleared up in under 5 minutes.

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There’s a strange smell in my RV

New RVers will have their senses tested when getting into the lifestyle. There will be new sounds, sights, and smells that they’re not used to experiencing at home. An RV is essentially a home on wheels, with all the components of a typical home packed into a small space.

Odors are one of the first things we notice as RVers. It’s important to know that what you smell can indicate what the problem is. For example, a rotten egg smell can indicate something is wrong with the battery. A sulfur smell can alert you to a water heater issue. Some odors are normal, while others are not. To help you with your odor-sensing skills, I put together a helpful article to help you diagnose what different odors mean and how to address them. Check it out here:

Whats that smell
What’s That Smell in my RV? [How to find and eliminate RV Odors]
Get rid of RV Odors
How to get rid of any smell in your RV

My carbon monoxide or propane alarm is beeping

Nothing is more concerning than a strange and constant beeping sound from a carbon monoxide or propane alarm in your RV. However, there’s no need to evacuate the RV and run for safety immediately. First, find out if it’s beeping or sounding an alarm. If the alarm is actually sounding, it will usually give off four consecutive beeps in intervals of 5-6 seconds. If you hear this, consider that it can be an actual alarm, and you should open windows and get outside in fresh air until you can figure out the problem.

However, if you hear a beep every 30 seconds, you may have a dead battery. Many detectors will have a low-voltage alarm, which is a safety feature. This can happen if the power goes out and your battery drains overnight. The detector will beep to inform you that there isn’t enough power coming into the unit. You want to know this because a dead battery means that the detector won’t work in the event of an emergency.  

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A faulty unit can also alert you that it’s not functioning properly. If you suspect a bad detector, it’s important to replace it. It’s also important to keep any sensors on the detector clean from dust and buildup, as this can trigger a false alarm. Don’t use any harsh chemicals to clean your alarms.

My lights work, but none of my outlets work

This is one of those issues that will leave most RVers confused for a few seconds until they realize what happened. Since RVs are designed to work off of regular AC shore power and DC battery power, some devices will function normally on both. Typically, when we’re at a campground, we plug into the pedestal and don’t think twice about electricity. However, if the power goes out at the campground or you trip a breaker, you can lose that shore power.

When you lose your AC electricity, you may not notice it unless you’re using something like your air conditioner, microwave, TV, or other high-draw appliance. The lights, fan, furnace, etc., may continue to run off the DC power. It’s typically when you go to use something plugged into an outlet that you notice it is not working.

So, if you find yourself with dead outlets but other things are functioning, there’s a good chance you lost your shore power. To diagnose, start by checking all of your breakers. Next, check the breaker at the pedestal. If both are in the on position (not tripped) and you still don’t have power, check with your neighbors and determine if power was lost to all or part of the campground.

Here’s a follow-up article to learn more about your RV battery and electricity (with some additional troubleshooting tips):

Troubleshooting RV Battery Problems
Troubleshooting RV Battery Problems: A Step by Step Guide

One or more of my RV outlets isn’t working

So you went to plug something into an outlet, and it’s not working. You move to another outlet, and it works. Then you try the third one, and it doesn’t work. This is enough to drive any RVer crazy. Most folks first check the circuits, thinking they tripped, only to find them all in good shape.

Before you rip out and replace outlets, there’s a very likely reason this may be happening. It’s a little safety feature called GFCI. In some of your outlets, you’ll see a little button that trips an internal breaker to prevent electricity from flowing. These are usually placed in wet areas like bathrooms, kitchens, and outside.

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While flipping the switch will resolve this issue, the problem happens when the outlet that doesn’t work isn’t a GFCI. In some RVs, outlets can share circuits with other outlets. If one of the outlets on that circuit is a GFCI, anything downstream of it (further along in the chain) can also stop working. When you find yourself in this situation, it’s best to locate all your GFCI outlets and ensure none are tripped.

Sometimes, it’s easy to overlook these outlets as they can be outside, in a storage compartment, or behind something on your countertop. Before you hire an electrician, first start by checking these first. You won’t be the first camper trying to locate the invisible outlet.

will my water pipes freeze if it drops below 32 degrees?

You’ve likely read horror stories about an RV owner with thousands of dollars in repairs from frozen pipes. While you want to take measures to prevent your pipes from freezing when camping in the winter, you don’t need to worry about this as much as you think.

If you’re camping late in the season and when you check the weather, you notice that it will drop below freezing at night for a few hours. You might feel a bit panicked and wonder if your pipes will freeze. However, in many instances, when the temperature is just hovering around freezing, you don’t need to worry.

If you want, do a little experiment. Put a small glass of water in your freezer, which is probably around 0 degrees Fahrenheit (-18 Celsius). Every 10 minutes, check on it. You’ll see that it takes quite a while to freeze. Now, factor in that your water pipes are likely somewhat insulated from the outside elements. If you have an enclosed underbelly, it’s likely getting heat. If the temperature drops just below freezing for the night, it’s very unlikely they will freeze.

However, if you’re camping for an extended period in temperatures well below freezing (0-20 degrees) all day long, you probably want to take some measures to ensure they can’t freeze. This usually just involves running your furnace, which you’re probably doing anyway.

Here’s a good article talking more about this topic. It was written to answer some questions about people camping in Florida in 2022 when the temperature dropped into the 20s. I hope it helps!

Prepping for Freezing when Camping in Florida

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