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Help from a popular auto parts store gone wrong—battery bust!

As most of you know, I post an answer to a question from a reader Monday-Friday in the RV Daily Tips newsletter. This time, though, things looked different. Although this is technically an answer to a reader’s question, it did not come in the traditional method via email—it came personally in my backyard.

Every year the Des Moines Register holds a huge bike ride across Iowa called “Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa”—RAGBRAI! According to their website, “It is the oldest, largest, and longest multi-day bicycle touring event in the world.” They have more than 17,000 riders and start in the west part of Iowa at the Missouri River and ride to the east side and the Mississippi River.

Bikers ride and support vehicles called SAG wagons or converted buses and RVs carry sleeping bags, tents, coolers, and other supplies. They ride during the day and spend the night in stopover towns. This year, my town of Mason City was a stopover town, and my subdivision had several what I call “encampment” villages in vacant lots and back yards.

A new neighbor

I came back from work Wednesday night and noticed a very nice Coachmen Mirada parked in the last non-developed lot behind my twin home. They had several bikes, Jeeps, and other supplies spread out and were hooked up to the house beside them. Typically, they spend the night and pack everything up the next morning for the ride to the next town and another “party”. This unit stayed another day. That usually means it’s either relatives or friends of the host family that rode the first half and want to spend time.

Friday morning I got up at 6:30 to check emails from my favorite RVtravel.com readers hoping “Snoopy” had another challenge for me. [Hey, don’t pick on my pal, Dave. —Diane] I noticed the rig was still there, plugged in with all the slides out still, but no jacks were down. An hour later I noticed several people outside the rig looking around and underneath, still with the slides out and jacks up. My wife and I took the dog for a walk and when we got back, there was the Jeep in the front of the motorhome. If you have a motorized RV, you know that any type of car, truck, or Jeep in the front is not a good sign!

Just to clarify, I was not pulling a Bewitched nosy neighbor Gladys Kravitz. My chair sits at an angle looking out from the backyard deck, and the RV was in plain sight. Although I do have to admit, I pulled out the binoculars to get a closer look at what they were trying to connect.

A not-so-nosy neighbor decides to help

It was obvious they had some type of power issue, so I decided to venture over and see if I could help. I approached and asked, “Do you need any help?” The first person said “NO!” But the guy in the RAGBRAI biker outfit stepped up and said “YES!” They were headed to another town and could not get the slide rooms to come in. They had the engine running and the generator, so it was puzzling why they couldn’t get the slides in.

As it turns out, Coachmen requires the engine key to be in the ACC position for the slide mechanism to operate, and that means the engine is off. As soon as the key was placed in the ACC position, the generator quit. This means the house batteries were not supplying 12-volt power to the generator.

I lifted the entrance step cover and saw two “Super Start” batteries in the house battery tray. My multimeter indicated that both were dead. The owner of the rig said he just put new batteries in before going on this trip as the old ones were not holding a charge.

That’s me on the left looking for areas that might cause a wind leak and ultimately a whistling sound at 55 mph. No RV ever has only one issue at a time!

The wrong batteries

It dawned on me that the batteries in this unit were automotive batteries that are designed for cold cranking amps (CCA) to turn over an engine. They are not designed to be drained down, recharged, and drained several times. That is a deep cycle battery.

These batteries were no good, so I advised them to go to the local Mill’s Fleet Farm, which is the best place to find deep cycle batteries. Here is a photo of the type of battery that was in the unit when I got there. Notice the sealed system and “Marine Starting”.

About an hour later I saw one of the gentlemen of the group walking through the grass again. As I came outside, he indicated they bought new batteries but it still did not work. We walked over to the rig and the new batteries also had “Super Start” on the top and nothing about deep-cycle or amp hour rating, which would also indicate deep cycle. He went to an auto parts store, but the kid behind the counter stated they were designed to be drained and recharged. I don’t normally trust auto parts “kids” when it comes to RV parts.

Even if they were automotive batteries, they would most likely get them home. So I started tracing the battery cable to see what might be the issue. And there it was: The batteries were 12-volt batteries as each had two “caps” with three cells in each. Since it was not a sealed battery like most automotive types, it is possible it was a deep cycle. Today I went to the auto parts store and found the batteries they bought, which are the Super Start but are Marine Deep Cycle.

However, the issue now was they had 12-volt batteries connected in “series”—meaning positive to negative and positive to negative, which produces 24 volts. The owner indicated he hooked them up just like the old ones.

Fixing the problem

Unfortunately, I did not take a picture of the old batteries or the new ones they installed. That is frustrating because now I don’t know how they had them hooked up before. My guess is they had two 6-volt deep cycle batteries from the factory. Since they only have a traditional WFCO converter, they did not get a multistage charge and they sulfated after two years.

The owner took the rig to an auto parts store. They put in new CCA batteries and they were ruined in a short period of time. Then the new batteries were installed wrong. The owner also stated that he heard a pop or something when they were connected, so I would assume it shorted either a fuse or relay, or melted a fusible link to the generator.

We re-cabled the batteries in parallel, which is positive to positive, negative to negative. But we still did not get voltage to the generator using the multimeter. We looked at all the relays, fuses, and cables in the battery compartment. Nothing indicated a short. We also verified the fuse in the distribution center. So somewhere there was a direct 12-volt wire/cable from the battery to the generator that needed to be found.

The owner had a Coachmen app, which I was impressed with. However, it just went to a website with documents that did not help. What we needed was a wiring diagram to track down where that open circuit was.

Quick fix

As it was Friday and they needed to get going, the quick fix was to “jump” the generator with the Jeep and jumper cables. That allowed us to start the generator, put the ignition in the ACC position, and then we were able to retract all the slide rooms. Not a perfect scenario, but it was better than manually retracting all three rooms.

I got hugs and kisses from the numerous dogs, and homemade macaroons and a bottle of wine from the owners. They could not believe the irony of breaking down in the backyard of the Managing Editor of the RV Repair Club and Technical Advisor for RVtravel.com!

Moral of the story: Take some time to understand what type of house battery system you have and work with suppliers that know RVs!

Dave Solberg is a leading expert in the RV industry and the author of the “RV Handbook.”

Read more from Dave here

##RVT1065

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rvgrandma
1 month ago

When I bought my new batteries last year, I am glad I had taken a picture of how they were connected up. When the kid at Les Schwab installed them he was not sure how they hooked up. He was struggling so I showed him the picture which he was happy to see.

JAMES
1 month ago

Walmart is really bad about putting young people who know nothing about cars & RV’s in their auto dept.

Elliot
1 month ago
Reply to  JAMES

It ain’t just Walmart! Welcome to the post Covid world!

Snoopy
1 month ago

Hi Dave, pretty good detective work, actually an on hands situation, rather than a situation from a reader who didn’t supply all the necessary information! I’m also thinking that there were (are) some weird problems created! I didn’t understand why the gen stopped running after the engine switch was put in ACC position. Why would the gen need 12VDC power to run, & if it didn’t have 12VDC power, how did he start the gen? Ok Dave, I didn’t want to let you down, so I just had to give you another challenge! Hey, how were the home made mac cookies??
Snoopy

Last edited 1 month ago by RV Staff
mimi
1 month ago

They were, indeed, very fortunate that they landed in your backyard. They were also very fortunate that you were home!! You could have been away in your own RV, enjoying the summer.

Tony Grigg
1 month ago

GREAT story, Dave! As a native Iowan I’ve seen several RAGBRAI events and they are awesome. 17000 bicycles passing thru tiny Iowa towns and back roads. These folks had extraordinary luck, if not so much RV knowledge, to have found YOUR backyard.

Bob p
1 month ago

the Moral of this story like you say never trust the “kid” at the auto parts store. All they know is go to the computer and if their company doesn’t sell 200,000 parts for your vehicle each year it likely won’t be in their computer. If I have a technical question I look for the oldest person there to ask, maybe they’ve been there long enough to have experience for your problem.

Bart
1 month ago

Hey Dave. I think you have your rivers ln the wrong side of the state. Mississippi is on the east side not the west.

Spike
1 month ago
Reply to  Bart

I was wondering how and when those two rivers rerouted! 😉 🙂