Cleaning and maintaining your RV is a fact of life when traveling full-time. Factors such as road grime, dust, sand and dirt are just the way it goes when RVing, but those dedicated to a life of living on the road while enjoying the national parks, state and local parks, quirky sites and seasonal festivals this country has to offer simply deal with this aspect and consider it an equal trade-off for the experiences they enjoy on a nearly daily basis.
In this guide, I’ll share some of my secrets for keeping your RV clean and organized while traveling and some ideas that may work for you as well. As with many aspects of full-time RVing, you may have to experiment with different tools, cleaning supplies and practices for keeping your RV clean and organized, but once you have mastered a plan that works for your circumstances and type of RV, you’ll find that these chores are well worth the time and effort and will generally add peace-of-mind and comfort while on the road.
Starting with cleaning your RV exterior
As a rule, the exterior of your RV will need far less cleaning as frequently as the interior because that’s your living quarters, and the exterior is there for others to see, enjoy or criticize. For example, many years ago, when I was living in a traditional “sticks-n-bricks” home, I had a new neighbor couple knock on my door soon after they had purchased their first home across the street.
They were a very nice couple and after they introduced themselves to me and told me they were going to be my new neighbors; I thought our conversation would come to an end. Instead…and much to my surprise, the young lady reached in her purse and handed me about five sample paint chips from the local hardware store.
“What do you think of these?”, she asked.
As I took the paint swatch samples from her hand, I said to her, “I don’t understand, what are you talking about?”
She looked at me for a moment or two and said, “Sir, we don’t know you yet. On each side of our property line is a row of trees and shrubs that block the views of neighbors on our side of the street. But you live right across the street and you are going to see our home every day from across the road.”
“And?”, I asked.
“Which color do you prefer?”, she responded and then she spoke on. “Sir”, we’re planning on starting our lives together at this home, and most of our time will always be indoors. You’re the one that will be looking at it from outdoors and across the road. We like these four colors. Which one do you like best?”
I chuckled and said to her, “I’m kind of partial to this light blue here.”
“Oh good,” she replied. “That was our favorite too.”
Two weeks later, their house was a nice light blue and the trim was a mixture of white and darker blues. I stayed there for a couple more years and then I moved on, but I have always been impressed by that young couple’s attitude and kindness.
So, I guess my point is this: you don’t have to ask what or how your neighbors at a campsite expect or prefer your RV to look, but you should keep it presentable and clean. Personally, I don’t like a lot of those swooping decals that many manufacturers plaster all over RVs these days. In the past, the first thing I have done is to remove them, so they won’t fade, crack, or peel over time. This will also allow the color of your RV to fade equally and should the decals need to be removed due to weather wear, you won’t be able to see where they were once they are removed.
Since my 5th wheel is all white, I removed the big swooping gray toned decals and replaced them with some nice teal green pin-striping that matches my awning and the color of my lawn furniture.
Removing the decals also allows me to use a stiffer bristle brush (pictured below) with a soapy water solution and some diluted bleach water when I am cleaning the exteriors walls without the worry of possibly damaging the decals.
If you do keep the decals on your RV or motorhome, then I would recommend using a medium to soft bristle brush.
I would also encourage you to purchase a telescoping handle (below) that screws into your brush or other cleaning implements. This allows you to avoid having to carry a standard or collapsible step ladder that requires a larger storage area when not in use.
Another type of brush that I highly recommend for cleaning your RV’s exterior is a very stiff bristle brush. This type of brush is especially useful for cleaning tires, chrome, and glass when there are dried bugs on your windshield. It also works very well for removing any mildew that might build up while your RV is in areas such as heavily wooded parks or places like the coastal regions of the Pacific Northwest where there is a lot of moisture and dense forests that prevent natural drying to occur such as you would find in more open spaces.
One of my most used tools for keeping the exterior of my rig clean is a window squeegee (below) and a softer bristle brush designed for cleaning glass. As a rule, you’ll find that most of your RV windows won’t need to be as vigorously scrubbed and cleaned as your windshield and a good alternative is to have a soft brush to scrub the road grime and dust from your windows and a squeegee to quickly wipe that water from the surface.
Other materials you need to clean the exterior of your RV
If you’re going to tackle the outside of your rig with scrub brushes and some good ole’ elbow grease, you’re going to need a good bucket or two. In a previous column, I explained the importance of keeping a few five gallon buckets around for these types of projects. In fact, keeping your cleaning solvents and another bucket of clean rinse water is essential to keeping your RV properly cleaned.
What types of cleaning solvents do I need for the exterior of my RV?
As far as cleaning supplies are concerned, I tend to be frugal and buy most store brand cleaning supplies with one exception; I always purchase Dawn Ultra detergent for cleaning the exterior of my RV. This detergent is an excellent tool for keeping your rig clean and free of residual oil or grease buildups in its interior and on its exterior.
One of the reasons I recommend this brand of detergent is because I have seen it used to disperse oil in the water while I was employed working on ferry boats in the Great Lakes. Occasionally, one of our ferries would blow a turbo or gasket and several gallons of oil would leak into the water in a matter of seconds through our exhaust ports. When this would happen we would immediately set up oil spill booms to contain the contaminant and then we would dump a few gallons of Dawn in the contained area and the detergent would cause the oil to disperse into the booms where we could soak it up with special pads designed to absorb oil based pollutants.
Another cleaning product I recommend when working on the exterior of your RV is Armor All Extreme Wheel & Tire Cleaner. I like to spray this cleaner on my tires and let it sit for a few minutes. Then I take the stiff bristle brush shown above and give the tires a good scrubbing. This will usually clear the tires of any road grime, tar or oil buildup and it will usually bring the tires back to the original black as well as any white wall trim on the tires.
Other items I recommend include bleach for killing any mildew and keeping the color of your RV bright, various sponges, rags, and towels for wiping and drying your rig too.
Cleaning the interior of your RV
One of the biggest challenges when living in your RV full-time is keeping the floors clean. Sometimes camping can be a dirty experience and it’s likely that you’ll be bringing some of that dirt inside when you’re traveling and exploring.
Since I live in a larger RV, I bought a nice used upright vacuum cleaner from a church thrift store that I can store in a small closet in my 5th wheel. I purchased it over three years ago for five dollars and it has proven to be money well spent.
However, I also have a nice cordless handheld vacuum that is battery powered and it allows me to get into corners or areas that are not easily accessed by using my upright 110v powered vacuum cleaner. These come in especially useful for cleaning areas such as the upper corners of my walls and clearing dust from the tops of my window curtains as well as areas in or around any cupboards or storage compartments.
It’s also nice to have a rechargeable battery-operated handheld vacuum for when you are boondocking or you just need to quickly clean up something you may have spilled or dropped on the floor or counters such as sugar, flour or rice. Remember, when traveling sometimes things such as grain, pasta and flour or sugar canisters can become loose no matter how hard you tried to secure them.
When I refurbished my 5th wheel, I eliminated some of the carpeting that extended into the kitchen and dining area and I removed the factory installed Linoleum. I did this because it was obvious to me that these areas were worn beyond repair as well as stained due to repeated traffic by people wearing shoes that were filled with sand and dirt. Instead, I added some ceramic tile and maple wood parquet flooring that is easily cleaned by wiping it down with a good sea sponge and some Dawn Dish Detergent, then giving it a thorough freshwater rinse and finally drying it off with a couple of absorbent towels.
For areas that I walk across most often, I have purchased small inexpensive throw rugs to control the amount of dirt or sand that may be tracked in on my shoes or feet. These throw rugs are easily rolled up when dirty and taken outside where I can shake them out and clear them of any sand or dirt. I also keep a nice piece of outdoor carpet under my awning as well as a small welcome mat made from stiff natural fibers that I or any guests that may be visiting can wipe their shoes on before coming into my home.
Another area of your RV that needs cleaning regularly is the bathroom. If you have an RV that has a bathroom with a shower or a combination shower/toilet/sink area, then you’ll need to keep it clean and dry. I recommend regularly wiping it down after each shower and keeping it as dry as you possibly can.
It’s also a good idea to make sure that your bathroom exhaust fan works correctly and that you keep your bathroom free of any unnecessary moisture. To do otherwise could lead to excessive moisture or water buildup that will lead to mold and decay of your flooring, walls or other fixtures such as electrical outlets.
Your kitchen and cooking habits should also be addressed when cleaning the interior of your RV. For example, every time you fry up a burger or pork chop using your stove inside, you let particles containing grease contaminates into your small contained space. These particles contain odors and they make your home smell. They also build up on things like your curtains, carpets and clothes if they are not stowed away properly.
When I clean the inside of my 5th wheel, I like to use a bucket of hot water, a good sea sponge and elbow grease. I try to always wipe my walls clean of any residual grease or oil buildup brought on by cooking and I always try to keep sand, salt and dirt away from my home’s exterior and interior. As someone that lives and travels in their RV full-time, keeping my RV well organized as well as clean and tidy are very important to me.
What are some of the bigger issues I should look for when cleaning my RV?
The biggest things to look for when cleaning your RV is corrosion and water damage. Corrosion could be the result of salt and other chemicals dispersed on roadways to melt ice and when not regularly cleaned off from the undercarriage of your rig can eat away metal components and electrical wiring. While scrubbing the undercarriage of your RV can be difficult, I recommend at least spraying it with a good power water sprayer to clean any of this residue off especially if you are using your RV for any winter travels.
As for water damage, always watch for any water stains on your walls and especially along the seams where your walls and ceilings meet. If you discover any damage or stains, then you will need to address these problems quickly. RV walls are not like traditional sticks-n-bricks homes that one would normally live in were they not traveling. RV walls are not constructed with 2×4 inch studs and drywall, but instead, most RVs use 2×2 studs and a very thin wood paneling for walls that is then covered over with wall paneling or even wallpaper. Since this type of wall is not made of solid wood but is instead made up of many layers of thin chipped wood to form a larger panel, once it gets wet it will swell and separate. Once separated, it will dry out and be so brittle that you will be able to stick your finger through it with little or no resistance. Also, any water damage near things like electrical fixtures is a huge concern and could eventually lead to a faulted out electrical circuit or worse yet a fire.
I discovered water coming down from the top of my wall when it rains, what should I do?
This is an excellent question, and in a future article, I’ll share some of the things you should do regularly to maintain your roof to avoid these issues as well as troubleshooting your roof for problems and what course of action you should take when you discover your roof leaking. Remember, water damage is a major issue when you’re RVing and it’s a problem that needs to be addressed as quickly as you possibly can.
This will wrap up this guide to cleaning your RV for now, thanks for reading and remember to stay safe, enjoy your travels and I hope to see you out there someday.