Motorhomes are not like cars, where the most complicated bit of kit you have to navigate is usually the multimedia system. In a motorhome, you have kitchens, washrooms, lounges and dining areas to figure out, complete with plumbing systems, secondary heaters, ovens and all manner of electricals.
Unlike a car, heading off in your motorhome is not as simple as pressing a button and just driving. And with all of these complexities comes plenty of opportunity for error.
But don’t worry, that’s what we’re here for: to steer you through all these bits of kit, so you know exactly what you’re doing.
The thing that causes most difficulty on a campsite is nearly always the leisure battery. Modern motorhomes have two batteries: the vehicle battery, used for starting and powering the base vehicle, and the leisure battery, which powers all of the habitation equipment.
Modern ’vans rely on 12V DC power from the leisure battery to power almost every item of equipment inside them. Your lights, taps, heating, fridge and oven all need an electrical supply to function, and the battery is a finite source of energy.
When you plug into a mains hook-up, you might think that you’re out of the woods, but this all depends on your energy use. If your motorhome has a 20A charger, but you are running a microwave off an inverter (which can easily draw 120A), you can see that you’re draining your battery six times faster than you’re replenishing it. So it will go flat.
If your leisure battery goes flat, your habitation kit will misbehave. Think of it like a human who has had a few too many in the campsite bar! Everything will work a little wonkily and the data imparted by the control panel might not be as accurate as usual.
This is why it’s always wise to carry a multimeter or a plug-in voltage meter to give you a second opinion. If any electrical device starts to misbehave, always suspect low voltage as the culprit, as a first step.
Traditional 12V batteries are considered flat (empty of charge) when they are below 12V (so roughly 50% discharged) and fully charged at around 12.7V.
Modern lithium batteries (lithium iron phosphate or LiFePo4) are fully recharged at 13.6V and are at 20% of their capacity at around 12.9V.
It’s thought traditional lead acid/AGM and gel batteries have a reduced lifespan if they’re regularly discharged to below 12V and can be permanently damaged if they’re allowed to go into single-digit voltages.
Lithium batteries are said to be far more tolerant of deeper levels of discharge. But with all types of battery, you can appreciate how important it is to have an accurate voltage reading, when just 0.7V can be the difference between full and empty.
If you’re a keen wild camper, lithium batteries, of as large a capacity as your storage space and payload allow, are the way to go. If you only stay on sites with hook-ups, it’s less important.
If you don’t want to rely on hook-ups, there are other methods to keep your battery full of charge. A motorhome solar panel is a must-have for all ‘vans, so long as you understand their limitations and outputs. They’re a trickle charger for your battery that works very well in summer. In winter in the UK, due to the angle of the sun and reduced daylight hours, their output is highly variable and can’t always be relied on.
It’s best to buy the largest solar array that you can afford/fit on your roof to compensate for this. Even then, it’s wise to plug into the mains over winter lay-up if you can.
The most common newbie error occurs when you first buy a motorhome, especially a new one, which might have no touring kit in it.
You’ll need a kettle, a toaster and perhaps a hairdryer when you’re on holiday, so the obvious thing to do is to pack your domestic items into your ’van. The problem here is a simple one: domestic devices are too high-powered for use in a motorhome.
If you’re on a mains hook-up, they will either run really slowly or trip out the hook-up on the campsite. This will then often involve the walk of shame to reception to get them to reset it!
If you are running any of these devices on a large inverter (a gadget that converts 12V battery power to mains AC 230V electricity), you’ll have a massive drain on your battery and can flatten it in minutes.
Remember, too, that no, or low, battery power can make your vehicle’s systems malfunction.
To give you some idea of the scale of the problem, most domestic kettles are around 3000W, which means they need 13A of current from a 230V hook-up.
Switch on your 1500W toaster and you’ll be attempting to draw another 6.5A from the hook-up: 19.5A in total. Most hook-ups offer a maximum of 16A in total, so will immediately trip as they are overloaded.
It’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with the location of your motorhome’s consumer unit (for resetting 230V RCDs) and fusebox (for protecting the wiring to your 12V devices).
Generally, if it cooks, heats or cools, it will be a high consumer of current. Look on the base of the device and you will see a label indicating the power in watts (W). Anything over 1000W will be a pretty heavy current consumer.
The solution to this problem is simple – you just need to buy a low-powered motorhome kettle, toaster and curling tongs, and only ever use one device at a time. Better still is to boil water on the hob and use gas whenever possible.
- Looking for some more items to take on tour in your ‘van? In our guide to the best motorhome crockery, we take a look at the standout options on the market.
Another electrical error
If we had £1 for every time somebody complains on an internet forum that their ‘three-pin electrical sockets don’t work’, we’d be millionaires by now!
All of the 230V mains three-pin sockets in your vehicle will only work when you’re plugged into the mains hook-up. Think of the motorhome as simply a mobile mains extension lead and you’ll get the idea.
You can get all of the sockets to work directly off the battery via an inverter and a switchover contact, but this isn’t a good move, for several reasons.
First, converting from DC battery power to mains AC power loses energy in the process and isn’t as efficient as running devices directly on DC (for example, TVs and laptops). It massively increases the risk of depleting your finite battery resources.
Second, there are numerous safety concerns to overcome with inverters – such as their lack of an earth point and the risk of having an inverter and mains hook-up in use simultaneously.
Plug into the mains hook-up
Always fully unwind your electric hook-up cable before use (to avoid problems with overheating because of the magnetic heating effect of coiled wire) and plug the female end (with the lift-up cover) into your ’van first. Then plug into the hook-up point.
When leaving the site, always unplug the mains hook-up end first, before you unplug from the motorhome.
Blue CEE plugs are fairly universal in Europe, but you’ll occasionally find a site that uses the older two-pin style plugs. You can buy adaptors for these for under a tenner in the UK, but most campsite shops will also sell you one.
Base vehicle battery
If you lay up your ’van over winter, your best bet is to plug into a mains hook-up, or if your vehicle has an older fixed-rate charger, use a specialist trickle charger to keep both vehicle battery and habitation battery topped up.
Not all vehicle batteries are topped up by plugging into the mains (you can add devices to do this – speak to your dealer), so you need to check this out to avoid the problem of a flat battery in spring.
More modern base vehicles can have a natural drain of 50-100mA when they are parked up. ECUs, trackers and alarms all contribute to this and it’s normal.
To put this in context, if the ’van uses a 100Ah starter battery, with a 50mA (0.05A) drain, it will be completely flat in just 83 days. With a 100mA drain, this will drop to 41.5 days.
As mentioned, if you allow the battery to fully discharge, it will be damaged, so you never want to leave a battery with no extra power for longer than 20 days. A solar panel can help, but remember its reduced output in winter might not be enough, so if you can plug into the mains or use a battery conditioner, that’s better.
Don’t be tempted to remove battery terminals to reduce the drain – this will stop your alarm and trackers working and might invalidate your insurance.
On my first-ever motorhome road test, I had no clue about how to swap a gas bottle. Naturally, one of the cylinders ran out in the middle of a freezing cold night and of course, it was raining and the site shop was shut.
After struggling for several minutes to undo the propane valve, I figured out that it had a reverse thread, and started to loosen it. The gas locker was immediately filled with a high-pressure hissing sound. Ah, you have to switch the tap off first…
The whole process was quite scary and I left the site viewing gas bottles as evil. My opinion has changed over the years, but the fact remains, you need to know what you’re doing when swapping cylinders or refilling LPG tanks. Read the manual, or better still, have it demonstrated at handover.
Bottled gas is the most expensive way to buy gas and the smaller the bottle, the higher the cost per litre/kg. If you can do so, it will be preferable to switch to a refillable LPG tank – either an upright cylinder in your existing gas locker (for example, Gaslow) or an underslung tank.
The latter option has the additional benefit of freeing up your gas locker for storage. More importantly, you’ll never have to heft heavy gas bottles around.
Filling up with LPG requires a knack and how convenient it is for you largely depends on how far you live from an LPG filling station.
In the UK, the coverage can be a bit patchy, but in Europe, the network is better. Using an LPG tank in Europe (with an adaptor) is the cheapest and easiest way to get gas on the Continent and avoids all of the potential problems with gas bottle regulators (which are different shapes and pressures for each country) and contracts.
Of course, you don’t have to have gas in your motorhome at all – you can get diesel heaters and hobs, or all-electric models. But if you’re wild camping, fossil fuel will last the longest.
Emptying the cassette toilet
I was once pitched up on a French site and drew the curtains to see a fellow camper walking towards the Elsan disposal point carrying his Thetford cassette level at arm’s length, rather like it was a ticking bomb. This was odd, because it was one of the modern ones, which have wheels and a pull-up suitcase-style handle.
He reached the empty point and then spent a little time carefully levering out the central slider. “Uh oh!” I thought and hastened over to warn him, calling out, “Monsieur! Monsieur!”
He didn’t hear me, upended the cassette and started to shake it, then reached for a water hose. I beat a hasty retreat and from a safe distance away, observed the ensuing carnage.
A large beige shower erupted from the cassette, reached an impressive height and seemed to hover in mid-air, before gracefully splattering down on his head, glasses and shirt. The wall opposite received the remainder of the fallout. Later in the day, I spotted a series of dried brown footsteps sadly padding away from the Elsan point…
At this point, I should add that I’m a huge fan of Thetford and Dometic toilet systems, which are easy to use – when you empty them correctly.
Clearly, that hapless camper hadn’t emptied one before and didn’t read the instructions. Most cassettes easily slide out of the side of the vehicle – often with a push-down catch to release them. If the cassette doesn’t slide out, something is wrong – don’t just force it or you’ll break it.
The most common reason is that the toilet blade is still open and has locked the cassette in place – close the blade and the cassette should be freed.
Most cassettes will have wheels or a carrying handle to allow them to be carried to the empty point with one hand. Empty points come in all shapes and sizes, but are usually a dedicated toilet or a large stainless-steel or ceramic tray with a central hole.
Once there, retract the carrying handle and rotate out the pouring spout. Remove the cap and put it on the floor, in a place where it can’t fall into the toilet or empty tray. Don’t balance it on the toilet or the lip of the tray – that’s asking for trouble!
Hold down the pressure-release valve button on the top, then pour away the waste. Set the rinse hose to a gentle flow and add a litre or so to the tank. Rotate
it around the tank, then empty it out.
Repeat until the cassette has next to no odour. Refit the cap and rotate the spout back into place. Back at your ’van, add some toilet fluid to the cassette.
It’s sensible to monitor how quickly you’re filling the cassette and to empty it before it fills to the brim.
A top tip to keep your toilet bowl clean is to lay down toilet paper in a cross pattern over the hole. This then encapsulates the waste and avoids the bowl being soiled. It all rinses down into the cassette with the flushing fluid.
If cassettes are emptied regularly and topped up with the right dose of fluid, they shouldn’t smell. These days, it’s best to use organic toilet fluid (usually in green packaging), such as Elsan Organic or Thetford Aqua Kem Green – take a look at our guide to motorhome toilet chemicals for our top picks.
If the cassette does smell, you can add a fan system, such as the SOG, which uses a small electric fan and charcoal filter to vent to the outside.
Some self-builders are fans of the eco-composting toilet, but these can be much less pleasant when it comes to odours and emptying.
As with all your motorhome resources, water is limited and unless you want to refill your tank on a daily basis, it’s wise to use it as sparingly as you can, especially while showering.
Most ’van water boilers are around 10 litres, so when mixed with cold water in the mixer tap, that still only gives you a maximum 20-30 litres of warm water. To avoid it running out or going cold, it’s best to soap up with the shower off, then use it to rinse off, rather than running it continuously.
The exception is if you have a large RV or A-class motorhome, where epic water boilers and vast water tanks are the norm. If you’re lucky enough to own one of these leviathans, you can shower away with reckless abandon and simply have the butler refill the tank…
Water tank tips
Modern motorhomes are really feeling the pinch when it comes to payloads, thanks to the base vehicles becoming more portly and the habitation areas being stuffed with more toys.
This means that with some models, you might go over the MTPLM (maximum technically permitted laden mass) if you travel with full water tanks.
Water weighs around 1kg per litre, so a full 100-litre tank can easily knock 100kg off your available payload.
It’s often better to travel with the bare minimum in your fresh-water tank, then top it up when you get to the site. Not having 100kg of water sloshing about can also improve the way the vehicle drives, as well as marginally improving its economy.
Most sites don’t charge for topping up your water tank, so it’s a money-saving tip, too, as you’re not being charged by your domestic water company.
Equally, empty your waste-water tank at the campsite, to avoid carrying the extra weight and help your motorhome eke more miles out of its fuel.
Another common problem concerns motorhome tyre pressure. Unlike cars, where you simply read the pressures from a label on the door jamb or fuel filler flap, on motorhomes, it’s more complicated.
Leisure vehicles can hold far more kit than a car, so their actual weight can vary wildly from the brochure weight. Motorhome manufacturers can’t know which new accessories you’ve bolted on and what hefty items you’ve slung in the garage, which means that the only accurate way of establishing the weight of your vehicle (with all of your kit inside it) is to visit a weighbridge.
These large weighing pads are either public weighbridges, run by your local council, or private concerns operated by businesses such as farmers, grain merchants and scrap metal dealers.
You generally have to pay a few quid to use one, but it’s an essential visit to determine the vehicle’s actual weight and set the appropriate tyre pressure.
Ideally, you want to weigh the front and rear axles separately, to determine their maximum loading.
If you’re thinking that all sounds like a bit of a faff, consider this: the driver of any vehicle is legally responsible for knowing its weight. If you’re caught driving an overladen ’van, you can be fined and given points on your licence. Not knowing the weight isn’t a legal defence, either; it’s your responsibility as the driver to be aware of it.
Once armed with the actual vehicle weight, you can contact your tyre manufacturer for their recommended tyre pressures (some firms, such as Continental, publish detailed tyre pressure lists online). Many tyre firms now simply quote using the maximum inflation pressure, but this can result in an overly firm ride.
When it comes to renewing your motorhome tyres, you should always use tyres of the correct size and make sure their load and speed ratings are appropriate to your vehicle.
Never use car tyres, because they do not have as many plies as those made for leisure vehicles. If you can, it’s best to use motorhome-specific Camping tyres, which will have a ‘C’ marking on their sidewall.
These have motorhome-specific tread patterns and are engineered to withstand the rigours of ’van use.
Avoid cheap tyres and stick to brands that you’ve heard of. We drive large, heavy vehicles and the tyres are a vital safety component. In tyre tests under emergency braking in the wet, the difference in stopping distance between a cheap budget tyre and a branded tyre can be as much as 10m.
That’s the difference between safely stopping or squashing a couple of cars.
Fit a reversing camera
If your ’van didn’t come with a reversing camera from the factory, have one fitted. Wired ones work best and they are an essential safety aid when it comes to backing neatly onto a pitch.
Some can also double as a rear-view mirror when you’re out on the road. They’re incredibly useful and make it far less stressful when you have to back up your vehicle, and far easier to spot people or objects behind you.
Given how expensive rear bumpers are, they’re a must-have item.
Whenever you see a motorcaravanner struggling on a campsite, don’t be that person who just strolls past – go over and help them. Remember, we were all less experienced once, and nobody is an expert in everything.
Equally, never be reluctant to ask for help – most campers will be only too happy to show you the ropes and you might even find a new campsite buddy in the process. Every day is a learning day in motorhome world!
Future Publishing Limited, the publisher of Practical Motorhome, provides the information in this article in good faith and makes no representation as to its completeness or accuracy. Individuals carrying out the instructions do so at their own risk and must exercise their independent judgement in determining the appropriateness of the advice to their circumstances. Individuals should take appropriate safety precautions and be aware of the risk of electrocution when dealing with electrical products. To the fullest extent permitted by law, neither Future nor its employees or agents shall have any liability in connection with the use of this information. Double check any warranty is not affected before proceeding.
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