RV Service: It's a Solution for Increased Business

May 12, 2000
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Sales manager Dave Barry stands next to an RV being serviced at his Barton Lake RV Sales and Service business.
LA GRANGE, IN — Have you ever stopped to think about the many unexplored business opportunities out there? You know the ones — duct cleaning, plumbing, electrical, chimney sweeping, carpet cleaning, etc.

It’s not a stretch to think that any one of these fields could be integrated into your existing hvacr service business.

Think about it for a moment. Think of all the time and training that goes into educating a field service/installation mechanic. These workers have to wear many hats and know a lot about everything.

You may not picture your service tech taking a stain out of a rug, but consider this: For a minimal amount of training that combines basic mechanical knowledge with a background in refrigeration, a/c, and heat pump maintenance, you can add a new dimension to your business where demand for trained techs is at a premium.

The field: recreational vehicle (RV) service and repair. No, not engine or body repair — appliance repair. These are the units that your techs normally work on in a customer’s home, only in this case, the home is on wheels.

There is a big demand for service technicians to work on RV appliances such as rooftop air conditioners and heat pumps, refrigerators, and hvacr controls. The training is very similar, and the theoretical knowledge needed for the job is identical to that needed when servicing residential hvacr units.

For a small investment in time and money, hvacr technicians can enhance their careers by attending RV service training seminars and ongoing troubleshooting classes. In this type of training, hvacr techs learn the difference between the typical closed-package a/c units and traditional residential-commercial units.

One RV manufacturer goes the extra mile to ensure proper training.

The Dometic Corp. is located in the heartland of America, deeply rooted in La Grange, IN, where, along with nearby Elkhart, the backbone of the RV industry has been formed. The company is one of several major RV manufacturers and suppliers that call La Grange and Elkhart home.

Dometic manufactures and sells refrigerators and microwave ovens, Duo-Therm® air conditioners and heat pumps, and A&E Systems awnings and accessories. The company also sponsors service training sessions in-house and on the road.

Dometic Training

Jim Jones, Dometic technical service representative, instructs students at the week-long training session in the La Grange facility. He also takes the school on the road several times each year.

Jones said his company is special when it comes to training technicians. “To my knowledge, this is the only factory-based training facility for RV mechanics in our industry.”

There are other courses available to technicians, such as a Troubleshooting Course sponsored by the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA), which includes hands-on training involving appliances from several RV product manufacturers.

The RV industry, like the residential hvacr trade, believes in bringing the latest product information and service techniques to their service techs because, like residential contractors, they are also trying to keep and retain top techs. Having the best training is a positive when it comes to attracting young people to the trade.

“Our market is starving for technicians,” said Jones. “But then again, I don’t know of any manual trade that isn’t starving for techs.”

Dometic’s training, according to Jones “involves about 20% classroom and 80% hands-on work.” Service technicians learn how to service air conditioners, refrigerators, heat pumps, and controls, including work on mechanical controls, analog controls, and Comfort Central controls, which can run as many as eight separate packaged systems.

Students are able to work on completed appliances with built-in defects in order to detect, diagnose, and repair problems. Technicians have the opportunity to work with printed circuit boards, which Jones says “drives them crazy.”

The coursework usually ends on the fourth day. Students are encouraged to spend that last day doing a lot of hands-on work under the watchful eyes of two Dometic instructors. The extra time allows for more complicated teardown and rebuild jobs, such as fan motors and cooling units. Upon completion of the course, students are given a certificate of completion.

Crossover Possibilities

“I’ve had quite a few residential techs come through our training,” said Jones. “If they work on residential or commercial systems, RV work would be a drop in the hat.”

One of the characteristics of RV service is that much of the work is done at the RV dealer whereas, with the exception of window or portable a/c or heating units, all of the residential service work is done on-site.

The similarities between the residential market and RV market are starting to become a little more evident.

RV dealers who travel to customers’ homes or campsites are usually set up for road service and are commonly found in “Snow-bird” states; RVs are parked and become semi-permanent home sites. Hvacr service companies spend almost all of their time on the road and have the ability to build close and lasting relationships with their customers.

So here is a possible scenario: “If your tech has a service call and the homeowner has an RV in the backyard, what better time to pick up some extra work?” Jones said it is possible.

Even if a homeowner doesn’t have both a brick-and-mortar home and a home on wheels, the possibilities for extra service work are there.

Andy Barry is an RV service technician for Barton Lake RV Sales and Service in Fremont, IN, about a 30-min drive east of La Grange. Barry, a former hvacr residential contractor, returns to his former roots when the weather turns cold and the RV service work slows down.

“I do a lot of hvac work and electrical work in the winter,” he said. “I’ve also done referral work on RVs after being recommended by homeowners.”

Barry, who has an associate’s degree in hvac and is a journeyman electrician, said the demand for RV techs is very high. If a residential tech walked into his building today looking for extra work, he’d put him on the job right away.

“I’m very busy,” he said. “And it is hard to find anybody who wants to do this type of work.”

Barry added that learning RV service is different from residential work because of a couple of reasons.

“Everything is 12-V and we work with sealed systems,” he said. “The chances of a system being low in coolant is very slim.”

Jones said that residential contractors could benefit by “adding a separate RV service division to their business.”

Barry’s brother Dave, sales manager for Barton Lake RV, said that RV techs need to have a variety of skills to work on everything from heat pumps to awnings to slide-out compartments, which sounds a lot like the many hats hvacr techs have to wear anyway. But Dave hasn’t heard from any residential people yet.

If all of this sounds feasible for a residential service tech to cross over into RV service and vice versa, there’s got to be a catch. Salary? Nope.

“RV techs in metropolitan areas can make between $50 and $75K a year,” said Jones.

“More and more people are setting up RVs as semi-permanent residences. And a lot of residential contractors are calling me up, asking me to send them information about our appliances. These contractors have seen their customer base growing more into RV ownership.”

For more information about Dometic training, call 800-216-5115. They’ll be training in Ontario, Florida, and Texas this year.

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