Here’s How An RV Dealership Can Fix Water Damage Without Totaling Your Camper


Last month, I detailed the incredible water damage that has sidelined a 2007 Thor Adirondack 31BH travel trailer that my family has owned since 2016. Things looked grim after years of water getting through a bad seal in the roof, with floors so broken that you could fall through and walls so rotted that you could easily peel them away. Replacing every damaged part would have cost at least $25,000, but the dealership figured out a way to get the job done for just $7,800. Here’s the clever way an RV dealer fixed our travel trailer’s damage.

As I explained in my last entry on the condition of this trailer, when my family travels, we take a travel trailer with us and stay at a campground rather than in a hotel. Our road trips have taken us just about everywhere from Sandusky, Ohio to Orlando, Florida and various other spots around America. We love being able to bring a piece of home with us, and honestly? I’d take just about any campground over most hotels. You can’t beat the magic of grilling and a campfire while the sun sets. Or in some situations, perhaps jets tearing through the sky above your head.

Somehow, despite having two large travel trailers, my family hasn’t gone camping this year. And I’ve only slept in the back of my Volkswagen Touareg or in a tent. During the summer, I explained how my parents bought a new Heartland Mallard M33 fresh off of the lot. But we haven’t been able to take it anywhere yet because every time we try to, something major has broken.

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Most recently, on an attempted test run, the water heater sprung a huge leak. Due to parts shortages, the camper spent the entire season broken, waiting for parts.

That led my parents to consider the trailer that the Mallard was supposed to replace, a 2007 Thor Adirondack 31BH. It’s a towable that weighs in at 6,256 pounds and is about 36 feet-long. To correct my previous entry about this trailer, I found the sales documents for it. My parents actually paid $9,000 for it. From what I can tell, they were confusing the price paid for the trailer with the price that they paid for a used Ford Expedition.

When my parents picked the trailer up in 2016 I immediately noticed the telltale signs of water damage: bubbling exterior skin.

The Water Damage Was Bad

For a quick review, travel trailer walls are typically built with a vacuum-bonded sandwich of materials. The exterior siding is fiberglass. It’s sandwiched together with two layers of wood and styrofoam, with the interior wall serving as the other side. Those layers of wood often consist of thin lauan, a tropical plywood product also called luan.

Things were fine for a few years, as the floor towards the rear seemed a little soft, but still solid. And the bubbling on the outside was not too bad. The dealership that sold us the camper (a different dealer than the one that did the repairs) said the bubbling was normal, and nothing to worry about. Well, as my parents learned the hard way, bubbling is definitely something that you do not want to ignore.

The bubbles increased in size and the floor got just a little bit softer. Then, in 2020, I walked into the camper and felt the floor crack beneath my feet. And on the outside, it looked like the bathroom unit had been in a fender bender. We realized that things got much worse.

My parents sat on the trailer, not knowing what to do. This year, they decided to just bite the bullet and get it fixed. Two more years of water leaks did some heavy damage, resulting in the skin literally peeling off of the trailer and the floors splintering.

As the dealership explained to me, water damage occurs from seam seals failing or from other forms of damage that exposes the luan to the elements. The damage happens slowly, first with saturation and cracks in the luan that are behind the fiberglass siding, and thus you can’t see. Then, over time, delamination occurs. As the materials deteriorate, they separate, leading to the bubbles. The dealership further explained that once you see the delamination, you’re witnessing damage that has been occurring for months, if not years.

However, the dealership told me that not all delamination is the result of water damage. Some delamination occurs simply because the luan sandwich begins failing due to defects or wear.

When it came to the Adirondack, bubbling appeared in two places, the front wall and the walls around the bathroom unit. The bubbling around the bathroom is so bad that you could identify where the bathroom begins and ends simply by looking at the bubbling.

How The Dealer Fixed It

The camper has been in the RV operating room for a few months and we learned a lot. Technicians from the dealership found the source of the leak to be the plastic skylight above the shower. The skylight provides some light, but also just a few more inches of headroom for tall people. Unfortunately, the seals around the skylight apparently failed years ago. So every time it rained, water leaked through the skylight and into the surrounding luan walls and the floor. Rinse and repeat for years, and while the bathroom looked fine, behind the scenes everything was getting wrecked.

Thankfully, the technician believes that we dodged a bullet with the front of the trailer. From their inspection, they found that the outer fiberglass siding had delaminated, but the remaining layers underneath were undamaged. This, they think, was likely a manufacturing defect, not water damage. My parents asked how much all of this would cost to fix, and they were given a couple of choices.

To completely fix the damage in the rear, the dealership said that it would have to pull up the entire rear floor section. This would require the rear section of the trailer to be torn down, then rebuilt. And fixing the wall would require tearing down the wall and rebuilding that, as well. The estimate for that restoration was $25,000, and didn’t include any curveballs that might be thrown during the process, such as additional damage. And that number did not include redoing the front wall.

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This is why water damage is so catastrophic. By the time that you notice it, the damage will set you back five figures to fix. However, the dealership offered another idea. The dealership could do what’s essentially a patch job, and this would cost $700 for the walls and $7,100 for the floor.

As the technician explained to me, they first cut out the bad portions of the wall and ripped out the vinyl floor from the damaged sections of floor. The camper then sat in the service bay, getting dried out using a dehumidifier and agents that soaked up moisture. Once everything was dried out, the technicians applied sealant to the existing floor, then applied a layer of plywood on top.

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The team then installed new vinyl, installed the camper’s existing carpet back into the rear bedroom, and moved some fixtures up just under an inch to on top of the new plywood. There’s also a metal transition strip between the center floor section and the rear section. That’s there because the transition is a rise of roughly an inch, and that can cause tripping.

During this process, it was discovered that the shower unit itself was a major source of water damage as its seals failed. Thus, every time we took a shower we made things worse. Fixing this apparently required the removal of the shower unit and further cleanup of the walls. It was put back in and sealed as well.

The repair team was able to reuse some of the flooring, but not all. Check out what got tossed:

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You’re looking at a mix of residue from fittings that were rusting and mold. None of us have gotten sick, but who knows how long that mold has been there. [Author’s Note: The technician called this stuff linoleum, but as a reader helpfully points out, this is most likely vinyl flooring.]

On the outside, the rotted plywood was replaced with new plywood, then sealed up. This job doesn’t repair the delamination. Instead, it uses a brace and self-tapping screws to secure the fiberglass layer back onto the trailer.

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The technician says that it may look unsightly, but he’s confident that the trailer’s water leaks are now behind it, and thus the repairs should last a long time.

Touring the camper for the first time since the repair, things feel great! The floor feels just as solid in back as it does in front. And the rear bedroom, my bedroom, looks as cozy as it did in 2016. And the bathroom never felt this solid, even when we got the trailer in 2016.

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I helped my parents tow it to where it’ll be stored for the winter. There are two problems left to fix, and it’s a rat infestation and the trailer’s torn awning. We know that the rats are eating a fake, decorative apple in the trailer. But we otherwise don’t know where they are.

I’ve warned my parents to take care of that before they start chewing up wiring. Hopefully, that gets sorted. With luck, this thing has some more years and adventures left in it.

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37 Responses

  1. The first thing I learned when I started thinking about buying an RV is that _any_ visible signs of water damage is an instant walk away condition.

    by the time you see it, it is generally terminal. primary sources are leading edge corners, roof seams, window frames and any roof penetrations such as skylights or AC units.

    inside or out, any bubbling, peeling discoloration, obvious repetitive caulking in an isolated area is a sign from god that this is not the RV for you. (some owners are super anal and re-caulk every single seam every year, this is good. big globs of caulk around 1 window or a skylight are bad)

    some brands do not use Luan in their wall structure, so that vulnerability is lessened.
    some brands use one piece fiberglass front and rear end caps.
    some brands use one piece fiberglass roofs where the roof edge rolls over the top of the sides a bit.

    before you buy – check every single outlet and appliance. get an independent inspector. check the age of the tires and the batteries, they need to be replaced about every 5 years whether they look worn out or not.

  2. Mercedes, whether intentional or not, this post was a three-act play that was quite a little ride (for me at least)…

    Act I – RV dealers are sketchy liars. RVs are expensive and unreliable. Why would you ever own one?

    Act II – RVs can be affordably repaired and maintained and provide years of comfort, fun, and enjoyment! Maybe I should consider buying one!

    Act III – RVs are also subject to rat infestations. Why would you ever own one?

    1. Can confirm. I had an issue with mice in my garage and was hesitant to use poison because of my dogs. I’ve started putting pouches of peppermint infused sawdust in the areas I’ve seen signs of activity every fall and haven’t seen any evidence of mouse activity for a couple years.

  3. Reading this article makes me glad I just disappointed my kids and dumped our trailer on someone else.

    It was a 23ft hybrid pop out trailer, it was delaminating at the back, there was previous water damage that had been fixed but I noticed new water damage had popped up. The side was bubbling and last time I used it there was water leaking out the side from behind the bathroom…

    I listed it and pointed out all the problems, some jackass came by and lowballed me, then even had the gall to short me $100 after claiming he had all the cash in his truck, then claiming he needed money to get home and trying to pay half with zelle, then returning an hour later and said he had to go to 5 ATMs to get the money… it was clear he was trying to scam me somehow and it backfired on him with my insistence he pay only in cash.

    After reading this article it makes me feel better about the whole situation with the buyer… he’s stuck with that turd now, and I’ve got his money.

  4. I know that there’s a seat for every ass but I still don’t really get the appeal of these camping trailers. You even admitted that your family has used them 0 times this year. For the $$ out there that’s a lot of overhead for a maintenance nightmare. If you want the joys of a campground experience rent one for a week or two but to own one of these, no thank you!

    Good article though!

  5. Nice work and much less than a new one. Along with the original problem being addressed.

    Before people go on about build quality, remember this is a 16 year old travel trailer that is pretty much a house going the down in an earthquake during a hurricane. That is a long time for this to last, even with routine maintenance.

    A 16 year old car, house, etc will need some level of rebuild at some point.

    1. true, but these issues existed and were dismissed by a dealership well before the trailer was 16 years old, and the only reason they are doing all of this is because the other new one they got is broken and can’t get fixed.

      age is understandable, but this is more then just that.

  6. My parents have owned campers for decades. Best advice as far as preventing this from happening? Get one of those metal carport kits. No matter what you do, these things WILL eventually leak. And since they are made out of the shittiest materials even a small leak can turn walls into oatmeal. That and the shitty plastics will crumble in the sun thus another reason to keep it under cover.

  7. Those repairs to the outside should be fine, until the unit starts moving and twisting thereby breaking all the bonds. Generally there are two ways to repair an RV, the proper hard and expensive way, and the way to do it before you send it off for auction, this looks like the latter. Hopefully they have some sort of warranty

  8. The two best days of an RV owner’s life. The day they buy it and the day they sell it.

    I just sold mine and so glad to be rid of that thing. Such a pain in the butt to get it ready to go each time, hitch it up, haul it, empty the tanks, and store it again. Always something broken and needing repair, they’re just a constant source of aggravation.

  9. I recently bought a medium sized bulldozer and I completely understand what you mean about the sensation of “guiding” an unstoppable mass! It’s a great feeling, but controlling something that will crush you, your dog and your truck without missing a beat is a little unsettling. That said, before long the mind adapts to this new reality, and all of a sudden, trees are not obstacles, trees are traction!
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  10. I want my next travel trailer to be an Ember Overland. They’re all composite construction, with no wood in the roof walls or floor, with no hands of water damage like seen with a more conventional build.

  11. Forgive my being pushy. I’ll wager that you’ve never seen the movie “The Long, Long Trailer” starring Lucy and Desi. There’s a lot of trailer towing angst in the script and it’s funny as heck. If you have a couple of hours to kill, you could do worse.

  12. I just don’t get the appeal of a travel trailer. Poor build quality. Endless points for failure. Takes up a bunch of space on your property or (God forbid) you’re paying a fortune to store it. Weighs many thousands of pounds so you need a big-ass truck to tow it. You’re stuck either using that awful truck as a daily driver or keeping it around as an extra vehicle. Unless you regularly go someplace where a hotel isn’t feasible (like the middle of the desert), it doesn’t look like the huge hassle and expense can be worth it.

    1. OK I’ll try, a few advantages of a trailer,
      1) if you are going to a national park you can camp way closer than a hotel, saving precious time before it gets crowded.
      2) you can camp nowhere near a hotel,
      3) some aren’t that heavy and an SUV would be enough to tow them.
      4) you can (illegally) put people in there while driving which can save your sanity.
      5) hotels are 3-4 times more expensive than an RV spot.
      I still agree it would be insane to pay to store one unless you love wasting money.

      1. Some counterpoints:
        1. These large trailers won’t fit in many of the more scenic camp grounds. They’re basically designed for ‘campgrounds’ that are glorified RV parking lots. If you want to camp in a national park, you’re usually better off with a large tent
        2. can do the same with a large tent for a fraction of the cost
        3. Don’t have to worry about towing at all when you have a tent
        4. The people that drive you insane can either stay home or come up in their own vehicle
        5. while the hotel for a week might cost more than an RV spot for a week, when you add up the total annual costs of owning an RV (along with the costs of having a tow vehicle) going to a cheap hotel or motel is usually cheaper AND more pleasant.

        These are the conclusions I came to when I seriously considered getting a camping trailer and then ran the numbers.

        And I’m saying that as someone who grew up with a Starcraft Galaxy 8 camper that I loved. But I also remember how that camper needed regular maintenance and repair.

      2. 6) If you’re traveling for long periods, it’s really nice to have your own stuff and bed the whole time instead of living out of a suitcase in different rooms and beds every time. Also much easier to bring your pet(s).

        Regarding #4 though.. only if you really, really don’t like those people. Have you seen what travel trailers do in a wreck? I think riding in one might actually be less safe than riding a motorcycle.

  13. There’s about a zero percent chance that floor was linoleum. It’s sheet vinyl.

    Linoleum is made from linseed oil mixed with pine resin, cork, sawdust, and mineral fillers on a canvas backing. It’s not cheap, about $6/sf in materials.
    Sheet vinyl is vinyl in 6′ or 6.8′ wide rolls. It is cheap, less than $1.50/sf in materials.

    1. Canvas huh? The type I’ve installed had a jute backing. Marmoleum was the manufacturer and I thought they were the only company still making it but maybe not, although they might have a product line with a canvas back. Aggravating stuff, cracks as soon as you look at it. Took a while to get my helpers to understand that you had to cut it down in stages, forcing it into a tight curve rips it immediately.

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