We spend countless hours doing research on RVs and full-time RVing. We read blogs, articles, view videos and have gone to RV shows. Now we took the next step: RV factory tours.
Our main goal was to look at the different manufacturing methods to discover if one brand of RV was superior to another. Since we plan to be full-timers and we don’t have a lot of money to buy a new RV every few years, it is important to get a good, quality unit on the first try. Our first may be our last and will need it to stand up to many years of use.
We found it very interesting to tour the factories and see RVs being made. We wish we could have taken pictures or videos, but most places won’t let you. I will try to the hit the highlights and differences.
Thor Motor Coach
We actually toured Thor last October but I never got around to writing about it. We had really liked Thor motor homes when we saw them at the RV show so we had looked forward to seeing them made. A few things stood out. Sidewalls are welded aluminum (good) and Thor uses what is probably a standard solid bead foam (think Styrofoam type substance) for insulation (also good). But the wall we saw under construction looked like it was filled scraps and had lots of gaps. The tour guide explained that someone would come back later and fill the gaps with some type of expanding foam. Other manufacturers we have seen have very tight fitting insulation leaving no gaps. We were also disappointed to hear that Thor doesn’t allow ANY customization. I suppose the standardization keeps production costs down, but it was disappointing to hear.
Most of the rest of the process was pretty standard for the industry. I wouldn’t cross Thor off the list, but it’s not my favorite.
Newmar Motor Coaches
We met a couple at the tour office that was coming to see their special order coach that had just finished being built. It was very interesting to hear how they were able to highly customize their coach. They picked their colors on the exterior, even got solid wood trim instead of the vinyl wrapped composite you see in all but the most expensive coaches.
On the up side, Newmar has some really nice features and builds some beautiful motorhomes. For 2016, all diesel pushers with a rear bathroom will be equipped with an emergency escape door. Newmar is the first I have seen that has handicapped accessible coaches. Counters and even the microwave are lower and easily reached. The shower has a roll-in lip and there is a wheelchair lift. It’s good to know that if we get to the point where it is not possible to climb that flight of stairs, there will be some accessibility options.
On the down side, I had to take points off when I saw they use a fiberglass batt insulation. Although they glue it in, I find it hard to believe it would retain its insulative quality over the years. And what would happen if you got a leak and all that got wet?
Although they join the walls to the floor with screws (most do) they have a special curved piece of aluminum that joins the walls to the roof that gives it extra strength. Again, I wouldn’t cross Newmar off the list – they build a beautiful coach – but it’s not at the top of my list.
I’m not sure who hired Lyndsey Hall as the corporate receptionist at Heartland, but that was a great choice. She was very friendly and ever so helpful. It was a real pleasure to meet her.
Heartland RV manufactures towables under 23 different brand names, including some that look like park models. They assemble these under five different roofs on a campus that covers five or more acres. They have several other buildings on campus that make cabinets, countertops and other parts for their RVs. After a quick look at floor plans and features, we picked out three possibilities. It turns that the three we picked, Big Country, Bighorn, and Landmark; are the only units Heartland will warranty for full-time use. Staying in any of the others more than 90 days continuous will void the warranty (according to our guide). Which is odd considering that several of the brands look like park models.
Like many, but not all, Heartland uses a sub-floor that is one solid piece of marine grade OSB (oriented strand board) up to 25 feet long so it is without seams for most of the RV. Most of the construction looks pretty standard for the industry. Nothing to brag about.
It was a letdown that half our tour was taken in minimal lighting. The workday was over and there were only a few lights on in the building and the guide didn’t know how to turn them on. Between the low lights and the messy workplace it is fortunate we didn’t get injured. If you decide to go, the guide knows how to turn the lights on now.
We look forward to touring more fifth wheel manufacturers to have a comparison.
It was probably because of all the local flooding, but we were the only two that showed up for the tour. Our guide, Tom Liechty, had been with Fleetwood for around 40 years and the two hour 30 minute tour we went on was the most interesting and most informative.
Of the ones we have seen so far, Fleetwoods are the best built. The walls are made with fiberglass that looks to be four times as thick as others, meaning that there is no luann in the walls. Luann is that really thin wood that you see as a veneer on doors and cabinets in homes. Using it as a backer to the strengthen fiberglass sheets saves a little bit of weight and a whole lot of money. (I even saw one video where the manufacturer bragged about using two layers of luann. How thin is their fiberglass?) No luann means there is zero chance of delamination in Fleetwood products. Zero. Those walls then lock into the floor and ceiling with what Fleetwood calls the “Powerlock System” which then has screws driven into them to solidify the joint. Everyone knows that dovetail joints in cabinetry are stronger than butt joints. The same holds true here.
The largest coaches have a solid fiberglass roof (because they can bear the weight), the rest get a TPO sheet that is put on with an adhesive that never hardens – allowing for expansion and contraction.
The slides are different from what I have seen so far. The ramps for the slides are aluminum for long life. And those slides have a pitched roof so water drains away from the RV. Speaking of slides, Tom says that all the critical elements (fridge, sink, bathroom) have to be accessible with the slides in. He also said that Fleetwood puts their slide mechanisms through thousands of cycles with more weight than you can possibly load yourself during the engineering testing. All slides ride on an electric-powered rack and pinion system, which is supposed to be extremely reliable.
One of the most impressive things, all coaches are built with the same methods (fiberglass only walls, Powerlock joints, aluminum ramps on slides) so no matter the coach, you get quality. And all coaches, except the “entry level” Class C, get a full body paint job. No worries about graphics fading or peeling.
Fleetwood definitely goes to the top of my list for quality. I wish we had gone here first to use them as a standard for the rest. We are hoping to go to Winnebago soon and see how they compare.
Learning something about how RVs are built may be the tipping point when you pick one. Once you see the construction methods up close, you can watch videos or see photos and spot who uses the highest quality methods. Some critical construction questions to ask:
- Are all the openings (windows, vents) fully framed? (some aren’t)
- What mechanism moves the slides?
- How hard is it to get replacement parts?
Here are some links to the manufacturers’ videos or information pages: