By – Mike Richert, Onward RV, Maryville, TN
When it comes to RV roofs, the norm seems to be “out of sight, out of mind.” I’m often amazed when I go to service a customer’s RV and the exterior is washed and well maintained, and the interior is clean, stylish, and organized. Then I climb up and check the roof. Oh my goodness! Often I find a roof that is dirty and moldy, with tears, cracks, and rips. Nine times out of 10, the owners have no idea what condition their roofs are in and are shocked when I ask them to climb up and have a look, or send them photos, like these:
A “healthy” RV roof is essential to the overall condition of the RV. Just as with the roof of your home, your RV roof is the first line of defense against the elements, debris, and environmental contaminants. Regardless of the type of roof on the RV, follow these basic guidelines:
Inspect the roof – While you’re up there, be sure to check the seals around the air conditioner, vent caps, sewer vents, and around the front, back, and sides. Look for weak seams, and any cuts, tears, or gouges in the RV roof.
Prepare the roof – Make sure your RV roof is clear of dirt, debris, and dust and that it is completely dry before beginning work on it.
Use the right products for the roof – Use the right cleaners, sealants, protectants, and materials for the RV roof type you have. This is particularly important on EPDM and TPO rubber roofs.
Follow the directions on the products you use – Give them time to properly cure, set, dry, etc.
While performing RV roof maintenance… – Be sure to check your skylights, AC unit, vents, and ladders, as they can also attract mold and dirt and get cracked. Don’t seal around your AC unit in most cases, it may disrupt the condensation drainage system and push that water inside your RV.
Regardless of the type of roof your RV has, regular visual checks, cleaning, and basic maintenance are necessary to keep the roof in good condition and head off damaging leaks and expensive repairs. Let’s discuss each roof type.
What type of roof do I have?
Simply, there are 3 types of factory standard RV roofs: metal, fiberglass, and rubber membrane (EPDM and TPO). Make sure you know what type of roof you have before cleaning or repairing. (Don’t laugh! People often aren’t sure when I ask.) It’s easy to know if an RV has a metal roof – it looks like metal! To differentiate between fiberglass and rubber, look for these characteristics: fiberglass roofs are hard and smooth. Rubber roofs are soft, white (if they’re a year or so old), off-white or tan (if older), and chalky-looking (if older than one year). When all else fails, refer to the owner’s manual, if you have one.
Metal roofs (usually aluminum or steel) are more common in older motorhomes and are fairly rare in modern RVs. Aluminum roofs are particularly low maintenance, but they increase the cost of your RV and add a significant amount of weight. Regular cleaning and inspection are still necessary. Gentle cleaning with automotive wash and wax products will do the trick, although specialized products are available. Metal roofs should be cleaned once or twice a year unless you regularly park under sap-dripping tress, fruit trees, or trees that attract a lot of birds. Then clean them 3 or 4 times per year.
After washing, the fiberglass roof needs the application of a protectant product so it doesn’t oxidize (lose its shine, feel rough to the touch, and eventually slough off white powder). Oxidation is the bane of the fiberglass roof. Use a protectant in lieu of waxing. Numerous such products are available. An alternative is to put a coat of paste wax on the roof, but be careful when walking on the roof with a fresh coat of wax! Very slippery.
Rubber roofs are far and away the standard for RVs. Today, rubber roofs account for upwards of 70% of RV roofs. There are two types of rubber roofs: EPDM (Ethylene Propylene Diene Monomer) and TPO (thermoplastic olefin). EPDM roofs are more common than TPO roofs. Both types of rubber roof require similar care and maintenance. Make certain the products you use are approved for your specific type of rubber membrane.
EPDM rubber roofing membrane is made to last 20 years or longer and usually has a 10- to 20-year guarantee, depending on the brand. EPDM roofs do not require the use of any protective roof treatment or protectant product. Make certain to use an approved cleaning product on your rubber roof.
NEVER USE cleaners or conditioners containing petroleum solvents, harsh abrasives, or citric-based cleaners on your EPDM roof. Not only could you damage the membrane, you might void your warranty.
EPDM roofs are approximately 1/6” thick which allows them to be lightweight, yet easily susceptible to damage. When driving and parking your RV you want to be cautious of low hanging branches or any external objects that could damage your delicate roof. Because EPDM is porous, it easily collects dirt, and is prone to chalking as it ages. EPDM roofs are likely to show signs of discoloration faster if you reside in damp climates. Regardless of the climate you live in, your EPDM roof is likely to begin chalking after approximately 12 months. Chalking can be identified by off-white and gray powdery residue that sometimes forms streaks down the side of your RV as it is washed away.
Roof maintenance and cleaning for EPDM roofs needs to be performed at least 4 times annually to wipe away dirt, debris and any accumulating mold. While molds may begin to grow on your EPDM roof, the mold will not penetrate the EPDM fully. However both mold and dirt can cause lasting visual stains (although this does not affect your roof’s performance). It is important to remember that mold can grow on RVs in warm climates too. This is because the rubberized material of your roof reflects the heat of the sun allowing mold to grow. To reduce the likelihood of stains, regularly use a non-abrasive cleanser and a soft bristled brush. Try to avoid regularly parking under sap-dripping tress, fruit trees, or trees that attract a lot of birds. Remember to avoid all petroleum-based and citric-based products and cleansers when cleaning your EPDM roof.