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Roof maintenance and cleaning – A necessary evil

If there is one article of mine you are going to read, and I hope you read them all, this is the one. Believe me when I tell you that the majority of RV damage that I see today, and have seen during 16 years of working professionally in the RV industry is water damage from leaks as a result of lack of maintenance.

RVs are tortured machines. Really. I frequently say that they have to put up with a hurricane and an earthquake every time they go down the road. In addition to that, RVs are not built like stick homes. They are designed to allow livability and amenities in a lightweight and functional package.

RVs also have an inherent flexibility to them. Most structures move to some extent. Skyscrapers sway, bridges bounce and vehicles flex to absorb the variable topography upon which they travel. This means that at the seams where major pieces of the coach meet, soft flexible sealants are required, many of which mate up to a flexible light weight roofing material.

So, when you take all this into consideration, the RVs we have do a pretty good job at keeping out the elements, but will only do so if maintained properly.

Water kills RVs! Over time, most RVs exposed to water intrusion will rot and fail in one way or another, not to mention the fact that the moisture can lead to problems like mold and mildew.

I am delighted to see more and more RVers asking about roof maintenance when they come into the dealership I work at or ask me about it directly. It proves the word is getting out. Many RV dealers offer a free roof check when other maintenance is being done, and will tell you if resealing needs to be done. This is a valuable service and if your dealer or service center offers it, take advantage of it, and if you’re not sure if they offer it, just ask.

You can do this maintenance yourself if you wish, and here’s a primer on how to do it.

Caution – Take extreme care when working on the roof of an RV, especially when wet. Also not all RV roofs can be walked on. Test the roof for sturdiness before walking or climbing on the roof, and/or check your manual or contact your manufacturer to find out if you can walk on your roof. Failure to do so can cause RV damage, and personal injury or even DEATH.

First, you have to know which type of roof you have on your coach. There are four primary roofing types used in the RV industry: EPDM and TPO are the soft roll roofing materials, aluminum and fiberglass. Some RVs will have a combination of aluminum or fiberglass and rolled roofing. Most folks have the hardest time identifying their rolled roofing type. Your owner’s packet should have information on the type of roof you have on your coach, but if not, here’s how you can tell.

  • Ethylene propylene diene monomer (EPDM) — This is the rubber roofing seen on most RVs. EPDM is usually pure white with a black bottom layer. EPDM weathers causing a white powder to form as it ages in the sun, and if you rub it with your hand you will get it on you. EPDM is smooth to the touch.
  • Thermoplastic polyolefin (TPO) — TPO is the other soft roofing and it is basically a plastic. It comes in several colors and has a textured surface. TPO doesn’t weather the same way EPDM does, so you won’t have the white powder that gets on you when you work on the roof. Because TPO is a plastic, the roof is the same color all the way through. Early forms of the roof had a felt backer attached to the material, but that is no longer the case. Newer TPO roofing is glued down to the roof decking in the same way that EPDM is, but using a different adhesive.
An RV roof needs cleaning once a year or more. (photo courtesy of RV Roof Armor)
An RV roof needs cleaning once a year or more. (photo courtesy of RV Roof Armor)

A clean RV is a happy RV

Cleaning starts with your RV roof, because whatever lands on your roof eventually ends up everywhere else on the RV.

Cleaning a TPO roof is pretty easy. Use a non-abrasive household cleaner, such as Top Job or Spic-N-Span, and a medium-bristled scrub brush. Do not use any harsh or highly-abrasive products during cleaning.

EPDM roofing should be cleaned with a rubber roof cleaner and conditioner, several of which are available commercially through your RV parts supplier. These cleaners and conditioners not only wash away the excess ‘white powder’ from the membrane, but also seal the membrane and reduce the formation of the powder (weathering) from UV and environmental exposure.

CAUTION: DO NOT use cleaners or conditioners containing petroleum solvents, harsh abrasives or citric-based cleaners on either roof type. You may cause irreparable damage to your roof and/or may void your warranty.

Maintaining the roof seal

RV roof seals are often covered in one of two types of sealant materials. First, and the most common is a liquid self-leveling sealant appropriate for the type of roof upon which it is being applied. Second, is a tape product with a super tacky sealant attached to one side, and a white plastic or metallic tape on the other.

Warning – it is imperative that you use a compatible sealant for the roof you have. EPDM and TPO sealants are NOT interchangeable. NEVER use silicone sealant on the roof of an RV. Silicone is NOT compatible with most RV roofing sealants, and doesn’t have the performance properties needed to properly seal the RV.

Roofing and roof sealants should be inspected every six months! Cleaning should be done at about the same frequency, more if the roof is exposed to more contaminants.

Look for:

  • Tears or holes in the roof. With membrane roofing, beware of small slices that can allow water intrusion. Get any holes or slices fixed immediately.
  • General condition of the membrane. EPDM roofs that start to show black through the white are at the end of their useful life and should be replaced.
  • Large wrinkles or bubbles. While these can be OK, they should be monitored for change in size. If you’re unsure, contact the roofing manufacturer, your dealer or Certified RV Technician.
  • Areas of bumpiness under the roof. Many RVs use OSB for their roof decking, which is made of strands of wood glued together. These are susceptible to water intrusion and will swell, leading to raised areas that are bumpy. This is an early indication of a leak and must be fixed immediately. Removing a section of the membrane and allowing the decking to dry or replacing the decking is recommended.
  • Sealant condition. The self-leveling sealants are used around everything that goes through the roof, including antennas, vents and the terminations at the front and back of the roof. A similar sealant is used on the sides of the roof, but it is not self-leveling. Look for peeling, cracking or openings in the sealants, and if found should be cleaned, dried and resealed. Use mineral spirits on a rag to clean the sealants if they remain dirty after washing the roof. If you believe moisture and dirt have gotten under the sealants, they should be removed and replaced.

Aluminum and fiberglass roofs use their own sealants for the roofs, many of which are self-leveling. Many also use the sealant tapes that were mentioned before. Please refer to your coach’s owner’s manual for any recommendations for replacement sealants on these roofs, as certain manufacturers (like Winnebago) have specific sealant requirements for their units.

Products like Eternabond can be used to make emergency roof repairs. (photo courtesy of Eternabond).
Products like Eternabond can be used to make emergency roof repairs. (photo courtesy of Eternabond).

Be one with your RV roof

Do yourself a favor and, as Spock said, ‘Be one with your RV roof!’ If you keep on top of all the seals on your RV (not just the roof) you’ll do a lot to help maintain the long-term value of your unit.

I also highly recommend making up a roof emergency kit to keep in your coach. In the kit you should have a tube of your RV roof’s sealant and a caulk gun, an emergency repair patch or roll of microsealant type tape (Eternabond, Dicor or other brand) and a tarp.

Don’t let leaves, pine needles and other debris collect on the roof of the RV or the slideout roofs. This debris holds and wicks water into lesser protected areas of the roof causing extreme damage. I highly recommend installing slide toppers to keep this debris off the slide out roofs and out of the slide out seals and keeping the rest of the roof clean and debris free.

If you have a roof air conditioner, it is sealed to the roof using a large foam seal, and is secured to the roof using four bolts that form a compression ‘sandwich’ between the inside ceiling unit and the roof unit in most cases. These should be checked for proper tightness once a year or if leaking is noticed. Please refer to your air conditioner’s installation manual for instructions or have your RV service center perform this maintenance for you.

Lastly, some manufacturers unfortunately use nails to secure the decking on the roofs of their RVs. Over time, because of the flexing, some of these nails can start to back out and start to punch through the roof membrane. If this happens, it may be necessary to cut the roof membrane where the nail(s) is (are) popping through to make proper repairs and then reseal the roof.

With a little bit of work and care your RV can provide you with many years of enjoyment, as well as maintain its value much longer for when it comes time to… you know… trade up!

Hey, we all do it!

Have a great season!

About Chris Dougherty

Christopher Dougherty, "The RV Medic", offers service advice and maintenance tips. Dougherty is a certified technician who has written for several other RV publications in the past. He also serves as a consultant to the RV Industry Association and other RV groups on service-related issues.

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