Cleaning the outside of your camper trailer takes a little elbow grease and some knowledge about how to clean each of the different parts found on the outside of an RV. But why write an article about it? How hard can it be to put some soap in a bucket and wash your RV? It’s not hard at all really. But, if you want to properly clean your RV so it lasts longer, maybe the dishwashing liquid in a bucket approach isn’t the best way to go.
There can be 7 different types of materials, or more, that make up the exterior of an RV including, rubber, aluminum, chrome, glass, fiberglass, plastic, and steel. And, each of these materials requires different cleaners, soaps, waxes, conditioners, and protectants.
But what if you want to just take your RV to the car wash. Well, it most likely won’t fit. Most car washes aren’t big enough to handle RVs. There are some commercial truck washes out there, but they primarily supply water and a hose. You have to provide all of your own cleaning products.
In this article, we want to help you to get your RV as clean as possible as fast as possible without doing any unintentional damage. So, read on and hopefully, you will find some useful tips for how to clean the outside of a motorhome or camper trailer.
How To Clean An RV Roof
This is one of the few times in life when you get to start at the top! To start cleaning the roof the first thing you need to know if what type of roof you have and how to best clean it. You need to clean your roof more often than you think. Those black streaks that run down the sides of your RV are from dirt that accumulates on your roof. So, if you clean your roof more often you may avoid having to scrub the black streaks off of your RV, which take quite a bit of effort to remove.
How to Clean a Fiberglass Roof
Fiberglass RVs have a protective layer of polyurethane called gel coat. It protects the surface of the fiberglass and has a glossy shine. Dirt, oxidation, sap, bugs, and UV exposure can all eventually make your RV appear dull and dirty. To clean your fiberglass roof follow these steps.
- Broom sweep the roof if needed. Then apply a bug and tar remover formulated for fiberglass to any of the areas affected by bugs, tree sap, or white or black streaks caused by roof oxidation.
- Wash the fiberglass with a sponge using a solution of 1 cup of liquid laundry detergent and 1 gallon of warm water. Rinse the soap off by spraying the RV with a garden hose. Allow the surface to dry naturally.
- Use a product called MEK and wipe down the fiberglass with it to remove grease and oils. Start at the top and work down the sides. Methyl ethyl ketone (MEK) can be purchased at a large home improvement store, RV supply store or any paint store that carries solvents.
- Apply a fiberglass wax by following the manufacturer’s instructions. The wax will fill any microscopic pitting in the gel coat and restore its glossy surface.
RVers sometimes use acetone rather than MEK because it is not as strong. You need to take great caution when using these products and follow all of the manufacturer’s instructions. And remember that you must wax your fiberglass after using these products.
How to Clean a Rubber Roof
When you look for rubber roof cleaners you will need to know which type of rubber roof you have. The two roof types are an EPDM rubber roof (Ethylene Propylene Diene Monomer), or a TPO rubber roof (Thermal Poly Olefin). There are different opinions when it comes to cleaning and protecting rubber roofs. But for both EPDM and TPO rubber roofs the care and maintenance instructions have the following warning: “DO NOT use cleaners or conditioners containing petroleum solvents, harsh abrasives or Citric based cleaners. You may cause irreparable damage to your roof.” So, don’t use any cleaners that are citrus or petroleum based and you should be ok.
It’s also important to understand that EPDM rubber roofs shed a bit due to ultraviolet sun rays. This shedding can make white streaks down the side of your RV. However, if the shedding rubber mixes with dirt on the roof, it appears as a black streak down the side of your RV. TPO rubber roofs, on the other hand, don’t shed. With either type of rubber roof, you should also consider applying a roof conditioner once you have cleaned it.
You should also clean your rubber roof about 4 to 5 times a year. For either type of rubber roof, you can use mild laundry detergent or purchase a cleaner for your specific type of rubber roof, which is what I recommend. Apply it with a long-handled scrub brush and then rinse thoroughly. Since you will be on your roof, you might want to check out our article called Can I Walk On My RV Roof? where we provide some great tips about how and where to walk on your RV roof.
RELATED READING: Check out our article called 9 Easy Tips for Cleaning Your RV Rubber Roof for some more detailed information.
How To Clean the Sides of a Camper Trailer
RVs are built with three types of exteriors: metal, painted metal, and fiberglass. Metal sides are more common on older RVs and trailers, as well as certain brands today. They are typically made from aluminum or stainless steel. Metal sides are best washed first to remove the majority of grime and grit, then cleaned with non-abrasive cleaners and soft-bristled brushes and mitts. After your metal sides are clean you can then wax the exterior but do not wax over the decals.
To clean the sides of a fiberglass RV, fill a bucket with water and the appropriate amount of diluted laundry detergent and water. For fiberglass, the best solution is a wash-and-wax product that both cleans your RV and protects it for the future. I like to use a long handle brush, a large sponge and also a still bristle short handle brush for removing the tougher stains.
After I wash one side, I look for all of the stains that didn’t wash off. I find that a stiff brush works best on tar, bug and black streak spots. And then go back over it again with the wash. I’ll do one side at a time, starting with the top and working my way down. Again, a final rinse ensures all the soap is washed off. If you are washing a motorhome or larger fifth wheel, a fiberglass pole and soft brush make it easier to get those “hard to reach” places. I use the same method for cleaning fiberglass or aluminum sides.
Window, Door, and Storage Compartment Seals
Every window, door, and slide in an RV has some sort of gasket or flexible rubber seal. These rubber pieces are designed to be flexible to protect the RV from wind and rain. Keeping these parts clean helps preserve them and keep them soft and flexible – meaning fewer leaks and longer lasting seals. Once a seal becomes dry and loses its flexibility, it must be replaced, and that can be expensive.
Silicone-based cleaners help keep your rubber seals from drying out. The best way to apply the silicone is to spray it onto a rag and wipe it onto the rubber seals. If you want to go the extra mile, you can tape around the seals to avoid getting the silicone on the window glass or on the paint although I rarely see anyone go to those lengths.
How To Clean Tires, Rims, and Wheels
The two types of wheels found most frequently on RVs are polished or coated aluminum with polished aluminum being the most common. Since polished aluminum wheels do not have any kind of coating on them, they are more susceptible to oxidation over time. As a matter of fact, there’s really no way to avoid it. Unless you have the expensive option of coated wheels, the polished aluminum wheels on your RV going to become dull and faded eventually. You can restore the shine in one simple step with McKee’s RV Aluminum & Metal Restoring Spray. It’s the easiest way to clean your wheels. After you wash your wheels just spray it on and rinse it off. You don’t have to scrub with this stuff.
Brown tires are all too familiar, especially when caustic degreasers have been used to clean them in the past, or if they’ve never been protected with a tire gel. In this case, you could use a product called McKee’s 37 Tire & Rubber Rejuvenator. It removes browning and grease from tires and turns them back to dark black. When tires are made they have antiozonants, rubber conditioners, and UV absorbers built into the rubber to help keep the tire flexible. The wrong cleaner will actually cause these protectants to leach out of the tire, resulting in browning, discoloration, and eventually cracking of the tires. McKee’s 37 Tire & Rubber Rejuvenator is non-caustic, non-acidic, and it will not harm your tires!
The Best Way to Clean Glass
If you have a drivable motorhome the windshield is your window to the world while you are driving. And once you set up camp in any type of RV clean windows make any view more vivid and enjoyable. The trick is to get clean streak free windows without damaging the rubber seals around the windows or the windshield wipers.
Most glass cleaners contain ammonia and alcohol, which are great for cutting through grease and dirt, but they cause rubber and vinyl to dry out. So, your rubber windshield wipers and seals around your windows will dry out much quicker than normal. And if you have tinted windows ammonia will remove the tinting from the windows. So, it’s best to find glass cleaning products that are ammonia free and tint safe like Stoner Invisible Glass, BLACKFIRE Glass Cleaner, Wolfgang Perfekt Vision Glass Cleaner, McKee’s 37 Krystal Vision Glass Cleaner, and Mothers ReVision Glass + Surface Cleaner. Stoner and Wolfgang even make a cleaning tool that you can screw onto an extension pole to more easily clean your windshield. Just follow the manufacturers cleaning instructions for a gorgeous view.
Sometimes, even after you clean your glass windows, water spots or a cloudy film just won’t come off. If this happens you may need to polish your glass. A quality glass polish like Wolfgang Perfekt Vision Glass Polish will remove water spots and cloudiness to restore perfect clarity to your windows. Try polishing the glass by hand first and if that doesn’t work you can use a polisher at a low speed with very little pressure. When the polish starts to dry, buff the residue away with a microfiber towel.
Once you have cleaned, or cleaned and polished your windows it’s time to add a window sealant and rain repellent. The sealant will prevent future spots and cloudiness from forming and the repellent will cause rain to bead up and run off of the glass. RainX is ok to use but a much better product is Pinnacle GlassCoat Window Sealant with Rain Repellent. You should also apply it directly to your windshield wipers to keep the rubber soft and subtle too. Re-apply the windshield sealant and rain repellent whenever you wash your windows.
Another way to keep your windshield clean is to add a washer fluid additive. The typical washer fluid available at your local gas station consists of nothing but water and alcohol. In fact, alcohol is just used to keep the washer fluid from freezing, not for its cleaning ability. It doesn’t clean well and it can leave a haze on the windshield. Several companies have created washer fluid additives like Pinnacle GlassWork Windshield Washer Booster for example, that create a slicker washer fluid that cleans much better without streaking.
If you use a good sealant and water repellent it will keep your windows cleaner and make cleaning them in the future faster and easier. And, the rubber seals and windshield wipers will last longer too.
How To Clean Plastic
Most camper trailers have plastic somewhere on the exterior. Light covers, roof vents, and AC covers are all made of plastic. If you have a drivable RV then you have plastic headlight covers too. Plastic is pretty easy to clean and all you need is soapy water and a soft bristled brush. Some plastic parts like light covers are pretty likely to retain water spots. But all you need to do to prevent that is dry the plastic right after you wash it.
Plastic headlight covers can become cloudy or yellow over time. They are made from polycarbonate plastic, just like my reading glasses and sunglasses too. Polycarbonate is perfect for these applications because it’s hard to break. But this plastic is vulnerable to the suns rays so it’s made with a protective UV film. But over time it loses the protective film which allows the plastic to oxidize and become cloudy or yellow.
There are many many articles about how to repair cloudy headlight covers using everything from brake fluid to toothpaste. I’ve tried a bunch of DIY products and bought a few headlight cover cleaning kits too and none of them really work well. There is some improvement but not very much and it doesn’t last. The best way to clean oxidized headlight covers is to sand, polish, wax and apply a new UV protective film to them. I’ve done it myself and it works. Here are the five steps to properly restore your headlight covers.
- Clean the headlight covers with dishwashing soap and water. Then dry them and tape off the area around the headlight covers.
- Wet sand the headlights with 1000 grit sandpaper in a horizontal direction for 5-10 minutes. Then wet sand with the 2000 grit in a diagonal direction for 5-10 minutes. Then wet sand with the 3000 grit in the opposite diagonal direction for another 5-10 minutes. Be sure to keep the sandpaper wet the whole time.
- Now Polish your headlights with a good polycarbonate plastic polish like the Novus 3 part polish kit. Just follow the manufacturer’s instructions and take your time.
- Next, use a good auto wax and wax the headlight covers. Use a small circular motion and wax on, and wax off.
- Finally, apply a UV sealant to your headlight covers. If you skip this step you have wasted all the effort you put in so far because UV is what damages the headlight covers in the first place. And you just sanded all of the UV protectant layer off. So, you have to apply more. Wolfgang has a great line of products and their UV sealant is top notch.
How To Clean Awnings
There are different types of awnings on an RV, and they each have different purposes. For example, window awnings provide shade and keep rain away from your RV windows and slide-out awnings protect the slide-out roof from debris and water. Then there are patio awnings which provide shade and cover when you want to sit outside and enjoy the outdoors. The most important part of your awning is the fabric, and it’s usually one of two types, Acrylic or Vinyl.
To clean your awning mix a mild dish detergent like Dawn dish soap and water in a bucket. Use a long-handled brush with soft bristles, and gently apply the soap mix to the top of the awning ONLY. Remember, do NOT do any scrubbing yet! Then roll up the awning and let it sit for 30 minutes. This will allow the soap to breakdown the dirt and to penetrate through to the bottom of the fabric without breaking down the waterproofing underneath. After 30 minutes, extend the awning out fully and thoroughly rinse both sides, being careful not to blast the fabric with the water. If the awning is clean, allow it to dry before rolling back up to the stowed position.
If, however, you see there are still some stains on the awning then mix 1/2 cup of bleach with dawn detergent and about 3 gallons of water and gently scrub just the stained areas. Do not rinse the spot and let it sit for 5 minutes. Then rinse. If the stain is still there, you can repeat the process on the stained place one or two more times.
RELATED READING: Check out our article called Homemade RV Awning Cleaner for a great way to make a DIY Awning cleaner and save a few bucks too!
Can I Use a Pressure Washer to Clean My Camper Trailer?
I’ve seen articles that say it’s ok to wash your RV with a pressure washer, but I don’t think it’s a good idea at all. First of all, you can cause a lot of damage to your RV if you use too high of a pressure. You can inadvertently remove decals, caulk, or even paint when pressure washing. Any areas that are sealed with products like silicone or other flexible materials can be damaged and compromised by using a pressure washer. And, pressure washers can force water into joints, and seals thereby forcing water behind the walls which could lead to water damage.
Just use a garden hose, a brush, and some elbow grease and that should be all you need to properly clean your RV. If you do choose to use a pressure washer just be careful and use a low-pressure setting. You should also avoid spraying any rubber seals or windows directly with a pressure washer.
RELATED READING: Check out our article called Is Pressure Washing an RV Safe? before you try pressure washing your RV!
What About Using a Professional RV Cleaning Service?
Since water is expensive, most RV parks won’t let you use their water to clean your RV. In fact, some RV parks recommend using a commercial cleaning company to wash your RV because they are so convenient and they don’t need to use the campground’s water. They can come right to your site and wash your RV using their own water, or they can wash your rig with water free cleaners. Most of these services charge by the foot and offer different levels of cleaning or detailing your RV. Just be sure to ask what products they use for the various materials on your camper trailer or motorhome to be sure you are paying for a quality job that will not inadvertently cause any damage.
RELATED READING: Check out our article called Is Mobile RV Washing and Detailing Worth the Cost? before you hire someone to wash and detail your rig.
1. How Can I Keep My Decals From Peeling?
Most decals found on RVs are made from vinyl. And two things are awful for vinyl – UV rays and petroleum-based products. So there are two things you can do to protect the decals on your RV. One is to reduce the amount of time your RV is in the sun by covering it when not in use. And the other is to use a product called 303 Aerospace Protectant on your decals before you wax your RV. Wax contains some petroleum product in it and the 303 Aerospace Protectant forms a barrier to keep the wax off of the decals.
2. Should I Wax My RV?
Yes, you should wax your RV twice a year. Once in the Spring and Once in the fall. Waxing your Rv will help to keep dirt and dust from building up on your RV, and it will help to protect it from moisture. However, as we learned from the question above you need to defend your decals before you wax your RV. And you also need to make sure you use a good quality wax on your RV.
3. Can I wash my RV with Dawn dish soap?
We wrote a whole article about it called Can I Wash My RV with Dawn Dish Soap? Just click the link to check it out!
Do you have any comments about cleaning the exterior of your camper trailer or motorhome? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.
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