We love our RV. It took us six weeks of intense searching and shopping to find and decide on the one for us last summer. Ultimately it came down to having bunk beds and spacious, drive-time seating arrangements.
We started off using the RV part-time taking two trips over 6 months, spending nearly three months on the road covering 12,000 miles. The pace was quick for sure averaging around 150 miles a day. Without a doubt, we were green but we learned the basics. Our biggest needs and tweaks centered around entertainment and education.
But it was our six-month long, full-time trip where we learned what we needed to live, especially in the wild — our favorite type of RV camping.
So here is our list of top 10 upgrades to our RV. (Note, all were DIY except for #10)
#10 – Popup USB/Power Ports
While we were in for maintenance service from our manufacturer, we had many warranty items fixed. One of the technicians, seeing that we had five children, asked how we do for powering handheld devices, so we showed him our power ports in the ceiling. He walked us over to show us an American Eagle coach in which he just installed a popup 2-outlet, 2-usb extension strip. Sold! When driving down the road or at night, the kids can plug in 4 devices on the countertop with no hanging wires. When they are not using it, it closes downward and out of sight.
Note: I believe it is the HAF-822-99-340 model that is newest/improved (an older version, according to reviewers, did not work with Apple devices.)
Cost: $65 parts, $60 labor
#9 – Sirius/XM Satellite Radio
One of the coolest things we saw in our RV on the sales lot, was the little Sirius/XM logo on the dashboard radio/navigation. We have had satellite radio in all of our vehicles for 6-8 years now and we love it especially on long travels. We find it comforting to be able to find the genres that energize our drive times while bustling down the road. Sometimes it’s easy-listening Classical, News, Classic Rock, Pop or even the occasional Country music — but mostly, its set to Pop for our teen/pre-teen kids.
There was only one problem — when we called to activate the radio while traveling down the road, we learned that our radio was Sirius/XM-“ready”. And the added part to make it “live” — a $36 antenna. Really? That seems trivial to leave out of production. We had Amazon ship to us on the road and were able to make it work 50-70% of the time with the antenna just resting on top of the dashboard. When we returned home, we permanently routed and installed it on the roof and it works perfectly. Sirius/XM-ready, grrr.
#8 – High Arc, Pull-Down Kitchen Faucet
Our RV came stock with a two-handled, low faucet in the kitchen sink. With five women in the RV, that was becoming a growing problem as they don’t wash their hair as often and find it easier to do so outside the small shower. It seemed like a quick upgrade but one thing I failed to notice prior to the install was the diameter and thread size of the new faucet versus the existing water connectors — they were different of course. A quick run to Home Depot, no…no it was not quick because our new faucet was installed and locked in, so it took probably an hour of checking comparable faucets on the shelf and comparing against our old faucet that we dragged into the store, but we managed, and it now works perfectly. It’s also spacious enough to wash the large pot that we use often.
Cost: $74 plus adapter/connectors from Home Depot (~$10)
#7, #6 – Single Lever Shower Faucet & Oxygenics Shower Head (+Slide Bar)
A complete shower overhaul ranks right up there with the new kitchen sink faucet. We were not looking to do this but in a product booth in a Quartzsite, Arizona RV expo, we were “upsold”. I stopped to find two exterior LED lights from the wife of the ownership team when the husband stepped up (well done, sir) and started a pitch about our “lovely four daughters” and “all that hair.” He waxed about how difficult it is in a typical RV shower to get shampoo out of thick, long hair. It sounded great, but I had no clue and no such problems, so I looked over to the girls and asked them and they confirmed it. Sold!
The new shower head pressurizes the water to rinse soap easily — as advertised. The old shower head used 1.0 gallon per minute whereas the new one uses 10% more (1.1 gym) which seems more wasteful — a problem when you want to wild camp and have limited tank supply. However, it rinses soap about twice as fast so all-in-all, a big boost in efficiency. The single-handled faucet versus the OEM two-handle design offers better temperature management and the slide bar helps for the younger kids to enjoy more water pressure.
Links: Oxygenics 26481 Brushed Nickel Body Spa Shower Kit, Dura Faucet (DF-SA150-SN) Single Lever RV Shower Faucet Valve Diverter (Brushed Satin Nickel), Dura Faucet (DF-SA300CL-SN) RV Shower Slide Bar – Brushed Satin Nickel Finish
Costs: $40 (at RV show), $37, $47 = $124
#5 Additional Shelves (DIY)
We bought a family-ready RV with two bunk beds and a queen-size, foldout couch bed. What surprised us, especially in the bathroom, was that we had two cabinet spaces — not family-ready at all, but nearly 29″ tall with only a single shelf/divider for each — rendering each shelf space to be 14″ tall. That left a lot of unused spaced as we don’t have any bathroom supplies that are that tall. So we bought particle board, speaker fabric, and 3M spray adhesive to add two more cleated shelves on each side — doubling our shelf space from four oversized spaces to eight intimate and perfectly sizes spaces.
Cost: ~$40 which includes this same treatment to 2 other storage areas with larger shelves.
#4 Auto-Aligning Winegard DirecTV HD Satellite Dish
We read many RV sites and reviews about satellite dishes. Our RV came with an OEM dish that worked for DishTV HD or DirecTV SD. We are long-time DirecTV subscribers, so going from HD at home to SD on the road was not something I would tolerate for long — we’ve reached the point of no return with HD quality. Granted, we don’t watch much casual television — we are traveling to see the country and the parks, to be outdoors. But because we homeschool, we do use the television to supplement our teaching and scholastic subjects. We watch shows like Jeopardy! to test and improve the kids’ general knowledge (ours too!), and we also watch Discovery, History and Science channels in addition to national/global news networks to teach current affairs. Sure, we have movie channels still and we record a few sitcoms and dramas, but mostly, our focus and use is educational.
The reviews we read insisted that tripod mount was superior especially for those moments when camped under trees. Well, we tried that first but, not only did our tripod mount get knocked over by heavy winds beating the head out of sync, but we also found it to be a waste of time setting it up each time. We pulled the trigger on this purchase after our second trip and we haven’t looked back. Frankly, even in the trees, we have a clear view for satellite most of the time. Now, when parking the RV, dish setup is built into our routine – park, put out jack pads, drop air shocks, start up the dish auto-unpack/aligning while also starting the auto jack-leveling. By the time the RV is leveled, the satellite is locking onto a signal and by the time the slides are out, we’re locked on.
#3 Verizon MiFi & WeBoost Cellular Booster
On our first trip (8,000 miles), we ran into a serious issue for a 21st-century entrepreneur with a wife and five kids moving from city to city, national park to national park — lack of internet. Being Sprint (and subsidiary) customers for nearly 20 years, we grew to be blinded by our local bias and long-term relationship of quality service. As we headed into northern Michigan and across the divide into the UP (Upper Penninsula), Sprint went dark on us. My cell phone was also our wifi hotspot, so communication with my team went into the abyss and sent us scrambling. We drove on as quickly as we could to move through Wisconsin and then Minnesota with no changes outside any l areas. So at the moment we hit Sioux Falls, South Dakota, we went running into a Verizon store and bought a MiFi and their service.
The service out West and in the wild was far better than our Sprint phones. But still, in wild camping, we ran into thin areas, especially in State and National parks. Quickly, we were back on Amazon picking up the highly reviewed WeBoost — at first, like the satellite radio, we ran with the antenna/booster in the dashboard until we could permanently mount it back home. It’s still not perfect, we still run into dead zones here and there, but this configuration has been far more reliable than cellular alone.
#2 Unlimited Verizon Mifi Data Plan
The only thing worse than not having an internet connection was paying exorbitantly high rates for metered and unpredictable service. Once we had our Mifi/WeBoost combo working solidly and predictably, I had to do the unthinkable — block everyone else’s devices so that I could work and “milk” the data plan. Our acceptable price point was $100-180 before it became a business pain point and business was my primary need. Verizon offers plans of 20GB for $110/month and 30GB for $180/month. Now, I had NO idea what that usage rate meant. The only way to know was to use. With simple team chats, photo uploads, and research, it seemed unbelievable that I was bumping into our limits each month. One month, our cost was $440 for I think 60GB – this happened when Julie and I both had our mobile phones connected overnight once, and they ran updates and possibly location services at 10GB clips.
Every day on the internet was like walking on coals. So we asked around, googled and finally trusted a referral from new acquaintances who shared similar experiences. He leases grandfathered, “virtually unlimited” business account/SIMs and we finally found relief for a steady, predictable and reliable $180/month for un-throttled 4G LTE service. Now, we allow the kids, music/movie streaming (though not much), DirecTV receiver, AppleTV and more — without panic. Our only contract constraint was a warning for use over 800GB a month. I think the most we’ve come close to that was 300GB. All from a little chip (leased SIM card) replacement.
Link: Contact Jason
#1 Kyocera Solar Panels and Magnum PT-100 Solar Controller
Without question, the best upgrade we’ve done to the RV is solar which allows us to work, homeschool and yes, even entertain while in the wild without having to run our generator but rarely. We installed these at the beginning of our 6-month journey while in Quartzsite, Arizona, the infamous home of boondocking/wild camping. We had flirted with the idea on our first trip that was 8,000 miles long and included several wild camping locations but we just didn’t know enough yet — not about our usage/habits to determine our solar needs. With the coaxing of some new friends, I found myself in a solar shop taking notes, learning, asking questions and feeling like I was about to jump naked into an ice-cold lake. It turns out that we tripped upon some great pros who supplied us with both gear and knowledge for a DIY install. They had great reviews for quality, detailed installations but it was the busy season there and we had travel plans — so we decided to install ourselves — gulp. To their credit, they brain dumped on me, both improving my original strategy and alleviating any concerns we had for DIY — which were many.
That first day of flipping the switches, then running TVs, computers, Xboxes, vacuum and even the microwave for short bursts – was a day we haven’t forgotten. “What’s that sound?” we would joke, “Nothing,” was the punchline. We managed to reduce our generator use, cost, and sound to just a fraction. That is a pretty amazing feeling.
Links: RV Wild Camping on Solar – see this previous article regarding materials and sourcing.
Estimate savings in 5 months of use: -$2670 (65 days out of a possible 137 days, 47% of our time on solar)
Solar Tax Credit for 2016: -$1100
Net Cost: -$115 (Wow, I just now calculated that and realized that it has fully paid for itself.)
So that’s it — buying an RV is like buying a home, it’s never quite right until you customize it for your lifestyle, physical and emotional needs. We had a great time doing these projects not only for the value they added but for what we learned about the structure and operation of our RV and for what we learned about ourselves.