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Break Downs: Dealing with Maintenance and Repairs On Your Van-Home

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Middle-NowhereOne question I get all the time is what does a vandweller do if he/she breaks down on the road? In fact CamperCouple asked it in a comment the other day and I realized that I have never written an article or post on that subject. Because it is such a common question, I want to correct that oversight right now! I started writing and before I knew it, the post was really big! I realized I couldn’t fit it all on one blog post, so I am going to split it up into at least two and maybe three parts. I have a Three Step plan for dealing with break downs: Step 1: Get a good vehicle and take great care of it; Step2: Prepare for inevitable mechanical problems; Step 3: Improvise and cope with break-downs when they happen. In today’s post we’ll look at dealing with the fear and Step 1, Getting a good vehicle and taking great care of it.
First, for most of us, our van breaking down is one of our biggest fears. They aren’t just transportation, they are our homes. A break down is no longer just an inconvenience, it literally leaves you homeless! I’m no different than you in that regard; for a very long time I was very afraid of breakdowns. I’ve never had much money so my vehicles have always been older and had higher miles so the idea that they would break down has always been in the back of my mind.


I love to get as deep into the back-country as I can. For a long time I was afraid to do it, but not anymore. In this post I tell you how to deal the fear.

But, today, it’s no longer a big worry to me. In my 11 years of fulltime living in a van or other vehicle, I have had lots of emergency repairs and have been towed numerous times. It was always an inconvenience, but there was always a way out of the problem. In every situation, a solution presented itself. So for the most part, it is no longer a fear I have. In a later post I will give you some examples of break-downs I’ve had and how I dealt with them.
Since most of you haven’t been doing this for long, the fear is probably still very real. You have two choices, you can let it paralyze you or you can take the fear and turn it to your advantage. Here’s what I suggest; get a good mental image in your head of yourself broke down by the side of the road 1000 miles from your nearest family or friends, and 100 miles from the nearest town. Then it starts to rain and get dark. That is a pretty grim picture isn’t it? You are alone and afraid, but more than afraid, you are terrified! I want you to get that mental image firmly in your mind and treasure it. If you do, it will be your biggest tool to make sure it never becomes a reality!

I’ve owned this 12 volt air compressor for over 6 years and used it many, many times. It works extremely well and will inflate my vans tires to 80 lbs easily. You should have one in your van as well! I’ve included a link to so you can order one.

The next time it has been 3000 miles and you know you should change the oil and you are tempted to put it off I want you to bring up that mental image and ask yourself which would you rather do spend an hour today at the Jiffy Lube or a terrifying night alone by the side of the road? Would you rather go to Walmart and get the tires their 7500 mile balance and rotation, or fix a flat in the middle of nowhere? Would you rather spend $100 to renew your AAA membership for another year, or pay $160 for a tow because the guy can gouge you and charge you anything he wants? Would you rather bite the bullet and put $50 into your emergency fund this month, or be broke down somewhere and unable to pay for the repair because you are broke? Would you rather get out your air compressor and properly inflate your tires, or get a flat in the middle of nowhere, or worse, have a roll-over accident?

Use the fear that mental image provokes in you to motivate you to do what you know you should do anyway. The other choice is to do nothing and let the fear paralyze you and trap you into a life you just barely tolerate and maybe even hate. To me it is a pretty easy choice!
One more thing before we look at my recommended actions. You should try to learn everything you can about auto mechanics, but don’t feel guilty if that isn’t much. I hear from people all the time that because they can’t work on their vans or they can’t convert a van or all the other things they can’t do that they are sure they can’t live in a van. That’s simply not true! Lots of people own houses but can’t work on the plumbing or electrical systems or repair the roof. So what is their secret, how could they possibly own a house? Simple, they hire people to do the work. Modern cars are wonderful but for most of us they are a mystery. And that’s fine, you just hire someone to do the work. I’ve changed one starter in my life, and that is enough! After that one miserable experience, I always let a mechanic do it!

  1. Before you buy any used vehicle, get it checked out by a mechanic first. It usually costs around $100 and it will be the best money you ever spent! Nothing you can do will keep you from a break down as well as this one simple step.
  2. If at all possible, buy a 1996 or newer vehicle. Today’s cars and vans are better in every way; they get better miles per gallon, pollute less, are much more reliable and last twice as long. That is due in large part because starting in 1996 all cars were required to have On-Board Diagnostics 2nd edition, which is the computer that controls virtually every function of the car. That’s the reason you want to buy a 1996 or newer vehicle so you can be sure you have it. Some people believe that old cars are simpler and simpler is better, so buy an old car. This is one of those rare exceptions that prove the rule. When it comes to autos, more complex is better.
  3. The damage from little mistakes accumulates! It’s true that being late for one oil change or carrying an extra 200 pounds of stuff isn’t going to cause a catastrophic problem with your vehicle right away. But you have to think in the long run. If you are like me, you need your vehicle to last as long as it possibly can and be as reliable as humanly possible. And regularly missing oil changes and constantly carrying around extra weight will have an effect on it eventually. So be diligent with all your maintenance. Of course I am just using those two items as an example; you want to be diligent with all your routine maintenance.
  4. Change all the fluids as soon as you get a new vehicle. It will cost you some money but you will know exactly when all the fluids were changed and the car will last longer because of it.
  5. Add an automatic transmission cooler. Repairing or rebuilding the automatic transmission is one of the most expensive things you can do and their main killer is heat. An automatic transmission oil cooler will keep it cool which means it will last longer. Oddly enough, a great place to get one is U Haul Centers. I highly recommend them.
  6. Strictly adhere to a fluid change schedule. In the long run, clean oil and all the other fluids will greatly increase your cars life. And that is what you want to do, think down the road in the long-run. Taking care of your van today will keep you off the side of the road broke down in a few years!
  7. Keep the tires properly inflated, rotated and lug nuts tight. An easy way to do this is to buy your tires at Walmart and get the Lifetime Tire Balance. Every 7500 miles take your van in and get the tires rotated and balanced for free. For most of us that means at least once a year we will know we have the proper tire inflation and our lug nuts are properly tightened.
  8. Buy a tire gauge and a 12 volt compressor to check and air your own tires. Most of our vans are loaded fairly heavily and having properly inflated tires is not just critical to avoid premature tire wear and break downs, it is critical for your safety as well. Your life might very well depend on it! It’s getting harder and harder to find a place to air your tires so all too often we just put it off. So I can’t recommend strongly enough you carry a little 12 volt compressor and use it!! I’ve included an Amazon link to the one I own and you will be very glad you bought it. Master Flow MF-1040 Cyclone High Volume Portable Air Compressor
  9. Carry the minimum amount of weight by getting rid of all your extra “stuff.” Everything I own in the world is in my van and trailer so it is heavy. But carrying extra weight not only reduces your mpg today, it puts extra wear and tear on many of your vans crucial systems over the long-run, especially the drivetrain and brakes. Remember the image of you broke down, alone and afraid by the side of the road? Keeping the weight off today will keep the tow truck away tomorrow.
  10. Slow down and smell the roses! No “Hot-Rodding” by doing jack-rabbit starts and then constantly slamming on the brakes. Be the turtle! Stay comfortably under the speed limit. Sure, in many places you can drive 90 mph legally, but that just brings you one step closer to that image coming true!
  11. If at all possible buy a ScanGuage and learn to use it. This is a simple device that easily plugs into your OBD II port and gives you a constant update of the status of the van. It will tell you your RPM, MPG, and even read and reset “Check Engine” codes, along with many, many other things. It’s an invaluable tool if you can afford it and the time to learn to use it.
  12. Use the cars gearing. Put it in a lower gear if it is struggling up hills and use a lower gear when going down hills. If it has an overdrive, take it off when it is working hard such as pulling a trailer, fighting a headwind or climbing hills.
  13. If you are going down a steep hill and are still using the brakes heavily even in a lower gear, then don’t ride the brake! Let the van speed up as fast as you are comfortable, then step on the brakes really hard till you are too slow, then get off them and let it speed up till it is going as fast as you’re comfortable, then smash the brakes again until you are too slow. This is the one time you want to work your brakes really hard. When you are off them they will cool off and they won’t get as hot by working them hard as they would if you were riding them.

In later posts we will look at Step2: Prepare for inevitable mechanical problems and Step 3: Improvise and cope with break-downs when they happen.


  1. Christine

    Really wonderful tips! Thank you for writing all this down.

    • Bob

      Christine, you are welcome. Congratulations on your new van, it is a sweetie. If there is anything I can help you with as you convert it, feel free to ask!

  2. JohnNTx

    No amazon link for the air compressor is seen.

    • Bob

      JohnNTX, it showed up for me. Generally the problem is you have a pop-up blocker that prevents it from being visible. I will go in and put in a live link also. Thanks for pointing that out.

    • JohnNTx

      That compressor must be used in a 20 amp power outlet. There are several instances of blown fuses discussed in the Amazon ratings. Download the instruction manual and operate the unit exactly as the manufacturer states, to avoid problems. An alternative might be Harbor Freight Item #69284.

      • Steve & Zeke the Mountain Dog

        John and all, Being an avid 4wd fan for many years veers me to tell you all this… Buy a air compressor that hooks directly to your battery… You can easily replace the lighter socket attachment for battery clips… In doing this you by pass all the fusible links and air up your tires via the direct link to your battery with the engine running…
        Steve and Zeke…

        • Bob

          Steve, that is good advice. My compressor has worked just fine with the cigarette lighter plug, but if it did struggle with it, I would do just what you said.

      • Bob

        JohnNTX, that’s news to me. I used it this week and plugged it into the cigarette lighter plug of my van. Of the many times I have used it, it has never blown a fuse. Maybe I have been lucky. To the best of my knowledge all cigarette lighter plugs use a maximum of 15 amps. Most of them have a 5-10 amp fuse inside the plug itself.

  3. Kim

    Good stuff! I also didn’t see the Amazon link. But I want to put the compressor on my wish-list for sure. I have pretty good luck getting free air for my van tires (no doubt due to my undeniable charm) but I would rather do it myself. Look forward to your other posts regarding the traveler’s worst fear.

    • Bob

      Hi Kim. I put in a link at the end of #8, will you let me know if it shows up on your page? I use my compressor once or twice a year and have found it really handy to have. Bob

      • Kim

        Hi Bob. Thanks for the response. Yes, the link for #8 works. I’ve put the compressor on my wish list.

  4. Lee

    This is all good advice. Most modern vehicles really are quite reliable even though most owners do not follow
    through with the preventive maintenance you correctly stress.
    The only one I am not sure about is number 13. On the older vehicles at least, I was told to use “engine
    braking” (shifting down one gear when going down a mountain, while at the same time making sure engine
    RPM’s do not get too high). With the sophisticated transmissions (read that expensive) in newer vehicles your
    method may be preferred.
    I bought your ebook from Amazon, and due to being busy only have completed part of it, but its good so far.

    • Bob

      Lee, you are quite right, you don’t want to let your engine RPM to go up to high while in a lower gear either going up or down a hill. I should have made that clear. Thanks for pointing that out.

  5. Joy

    You mean we have to do more than put gas in it?????
    Only kidding , I’m not that inept….I own a tire gauge and everything…
    Great article!

    • Bob

      Thanks Joy, I know we have all been scolded many times about vehicle maintenance and most of us still aren’t very good about doing it. Just looking for another way to present an old idea.

  6. CAE

    Great advice! One thing I learned as I became more and more of a minimalist…..take very good care of the things you actually do decide to keep. It’s amazing how many things will last a very long time if they are properly maintained. Even things that were not very expensive to purchase.

    • Bob

      CAE, that is a very good point! The less you own the more important it is to take good care of it. Especially our little mobile homes.

    • David Thoreau

      So true. The other day I used a 1/2-inch Craftsman drill I bought in 1974. Next year, it will be 40 years old. It still works great. Not only has it given me good service but, when I needed one, I had it. I didn’t have to stop my project and go buy or borrow one. To me, that’s a big deal. Now if I could stop losing the chuck key, life would be perfect. 8-D

      • Bob

        it’s hard to go wrong buying good tools David, and Craftsman is usually a great tool!

  7. Barb

    Thank you so much for this, I, for one, really needed the horror image in my mind. i tend to be really lazy about taking care of my vehicle. off to get the oil changed1

    • Bob

      Barb, join the crowd! I wish I could say I was good about it but I am not, so this was written as much toward me as to you all!!

  8. rick

    Man, I LOVE readying your posts! Can’t wait for part 2 and 3.

    • Bob

      Thanks Rick, that is VERY encouraging to me! Thank you!

  9. Susan

    You give such great information Bob !!! Thanks,looking forward to part 2 and 3. Taking notes.

    • Bob

      You are very welcome Susan!

  10. Charlene Swankie

    Hi Bob… always learning something new from you, Papa Smurf. OK… what is my OBD II port????
    11.If at all possible buy a ScanGuage and learn to use it. This is a simple device that easily plugs into your OBD II port and gives you a constant update of the status of the van. It will tell you your RPM, MPG, and even read and reset “Check Engine” codes, along with many, many other things. It’s an invaluable tool if you can afford it and the time to learn to use it.

    • Bob

      Charlene, remember that your van has a computer in it and all computers need a way to get data in and out. With our PC or Mac computers we use a USB port. Your van uses an OBD Port that does the very same thing. You plug things into it and and data moves in and out. The Scangauge takes data from the motor and presents it in plain English. If you take the time to learn to use it you can get your best mpg. Do a Google search to find where it is on your van.

  11. jeff

    For chevy owners……I have a 97 2500 silverado pu with a 454 big block,that I pull a 24′ 5th wheel trailer old hot rodder trick is to use a pureolator pf373 2qt oil filter.this doubles the filter area and allows you to run an extra quart of oil. This works for both small and big block engines.I would also reconmend a deep sump trans pan they hold two to four extra quarts extra depending on application.extra fluid is allways a good thing….

    • Bob

      Jeff, that is a great tip! Thanks

  12. Tim McDougall

    Great post Bob, I’m looking forward to the next parts.

    • Bob

      Thanks Tim!

  13. Steve & Zeke the Mountain Dog

    Man where do I start and how do i get it across that this life can and will break you if you do not use common sense… In the last 6 months I have used my 4×4 van to save people thousands of dollars in simply pulling them out of sand traps that they should have known not to go into… Then there are my repairs that i did myself. in the field, starter, batteries, entire distributor, alternator, brakes, radiator fix and the list goes on… each of these fixes would have cost at least 5X more to fix if i let a mechanic do them, and I am on a limited budget… get real folks this is the real deal and one cannot afford to have these things done for them… This is a wake up call, this life is not rainbows and unicorns, you have to take care of your ride or you are stuck… My best advice is to have an emergency fund set up that you religiously put into for these days, try to travel with people who can help but understand your problems are not their problems, and learn, learn to work on your own vehicle to do the simple maintenance tasks like changing the oil, belts and fluids… I truly know too many folks out here that are in deep sh=t when the first maintenance issue arises… i hope you all the best…
    Steve and Zeke

    • Bob

      Steve, that’s all good advice, but we are all in different situations. Some of us simply aren’t going to do our own mechanical work. Sure, it is much better if you can, but as far as I am concerned that isn’t a reason to not come out here. But you are very right, if you have to pay to get it all done you need an emergency fund!

  14. Al Christensen

    A while back I had five air pressure gauges and none of them give the same reading. That’s because they were the cheap gauges you see at the auto parts store checkout counter. I also had a rather expensive gauge with a dial. It couldn’t make up its mind what the pressure was. Take three readings in a row and get three different numbers. Now I use a small digital gauge that SEEMS to be accurate and consistent. But I don’t really know.
    The gauges professional tire guys use are only as good as the care and maintenance given them. Does an underpaid and overworked Walmart guy take care of his or the company’s tools? Or does he just want to get the customers out the door and finish his shift?
    The thing is, unless we have access to certified equipment, tire pressure is mostly a rough approximation. The best most of us can do is be consistent and somewhere in the ballpark. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep tabs on it and carry a pump.

    • Bob

      I’ve noticed that about air gauges also Al. I tend to loose them so I am all the time buying new ones. I got lucky and the ones I have now agree within a few pounds of each other, but that is unusual. Fortunately the gauge on the air compressor appears to be very accurate.

  15. CamperCouple

    I so enjoyed this post and thank you very much for taking the time to think all this through and put it down so eloquently for all of us to benefit from. I learned so much from this post and others comments .
    Thank you to all of you.
    Can’t say that all my fears are gone, I still have many when it comes to breakdowns. I guess I’ve just had my share of bad expierences . Kind of comforting in a way to know that I’m not alone. I have great admiration for those of you out there that have great courage to be free living the great life of traveling !!
    God Bless you all : )

    • Bob

      CamperCouple, fear is a normal and healthy thing for us humans and being afraid isn’t bad. Just keep moving forward and the fear will take care of itself over a period of time. The only wrong way to deal with fear is to let it paralyze you. But it sounds like you are dealing with it just right!

  16. Sydney

    You’ve laid out great tips that every vehicle owner should know, Bob! Proper maintenance and repair are essential to keep our vehicle’s performance in good condition thus, it makes us safe while off the road. I keep my tools handy and emergency kit. It’s a relief to have them handy in case of break downs out of nowhere.

    • Bob

      Sydney, one of the great things about living in a van is that it becomes your emergency kit. Because I am camping 365 days a year, I’m ready for just about any normal problem in my van. I have plenty of warm clothes and bedding, probably 2 months of food and a weeks worth of water. I produce my own electricity and have about 7 gallons of propane. So if I break down in the middle of nowhere, I am in no big hurry to get out!

  17. Trey Williams

    Very Interesting. I just was directed to your blog by a friend and I must say that I dont spend much time on the internet. I do however want to do much like you described here, I just dont want to end up as a made for TV movie about a guy that hurt himself and took a dirt nap in the woods. I appriciate your bravery!

    • Bob

      Trey, preparation is the key! There really isn’t anything that dangerous to living on public land in a van. In fact anybody can do it. I suggest you follow a blog by a friend of mine. She is an older woman who lives in a small trailer in the boonies. Believe me, if she can do it, anybody can do it! Find the blog here:

  18. tom

    Could anyone tell me if an ’84 Ford Lindy motorhome in good condition equipt with roof top solar, 19″ flat screen tv, microwave for $4600 is a good deal? I know its better to buy after ’96 but my budget is limited.

    • tom

      I forgot to add there’s only 62,000 miles on it.

    • Bob

      Tom, I am no expert on RV prices, but I think it may be a little high, $3600 would be better. But, that isn’t much difference and the solar might make it worth that. I’d go over with 36 $100 bills and make an offer contingent on it passing a mechanics inspection. Then get it checked out thoroughly by a good mechanic. Be sure to check very closely for any signs of leaks, water damage or mold/mildew.

  19. Bob

    Geoffrey, my editor is close to wysiwyg but not quite, some things don’t display quite right. But, the big thing is that it is NOT html, no coding is required. You can switch and work in html if you prefer, but it is not required.
    You will be tempted to go with one of the free ones like or blogspot, and they both work just fine. But you will never have total control over the blog, you have to follow their rules called Term of Service. If you are hopeful of growing and being popular then you would be much better off self-hosting through Hostgator and It will cost you some money and and have a learning curve, but you will have total control.

  20. harris gracia

    You give such great information Bob !!!Thanks for sharing this with us

    • Bob

      You’re welcome harris. Unfortunately, breakdowns are part of life on the road.

  21. Binaca Wray

    Wow nice tips you have shared with us. Thanks for sharing this.

  22. Chamz

    Hey, Bob!
    How are you on this day? I need your help to my small expensive car. I love my car very much. Recently I bought a Central Pneumatic Air Compressor . This is 8-gallon and best portable air compressor. How to Press the tire gauge onto the valve stem?
    Thanks for your contextual article
    I don’t inflate my car tires properly as a new user of tire inflator.

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