Reclaiming an RV Trailer

Major Considerations Before Starting

Pros

– There is Nothing More Eco-Friendly

– Massive Up-front Cost Savings

– Learning Opportunity

– You Can Customize More Easily

– Complete Ownership of Your Build (100% DIY House)

– Will Result in a Lighter House with Better MPG

Cons

– Probably a Low Weight Limit

– Extra Cost to Remove RV Waste (Unless You have Trailer)

– Labor Intensive

– Welding Experience and Access Required

– Can Get Unexpected Surprises (Hidden Rust)

– Extra Tools Required (Not too expensive)

– Pushes House Completion Back Several Months

Our RV: A 24′ Coachmen Catalina

After looking for a couple weeks we found a Coachmen Catalina that was nearly 24′ long. From all visible points the frame appeared to only have superficial rust. Later we would find out that one of the rear corners was quite rusted out and needed some extra love. We began the tear down by ripping out the inside of the RV and saving valuable component like the AC, heater, etc. The entire tear down only took one weekend and we took the metal siding to be recycled which made $60 back and took the other pieces to the landfill which cost about $60. We did this by borrowing a different 24′ trailer from a friend. 

The important aspects we were looking for in an RV as one that had enough interior damage that it was nearly worthless ($1,000 range). This way you are diverting one from the landfill which is a massive plus for the environment compared to a new $6,000 that is made from virgin steel. We also made sure that it pulled smoothly and had working brakes (yes, these trailers have brakes in their wheels). We also didn’t want a gooseneck trailer RV because we weren’t fans of the design we would have to go with if we got one. 

 

Our Video on the Process

Must Have Tools and Components

4.5″ Grinder

This model is the best deal with the best reviews. The grinder is key for cutting, sanding, and of course grinding off extra metal.

Sanding Disks – 10 Pack

Also known as flapper wheels, these are very satisfying to use when restoring your trailer.

Helmet + Face Shield 

This is the most versatile helmet for working on a tiny house and is ideal for using the grinder. It has ear protection, eye protection, and head protection. I wear one often (Mike).

Trailer Break Away System

This is a requirement and will automatically engage your breaks if the trailer is disconnected. It uses a battery so it can engage the breks when it isn’t connected.

The Steps

1. Tear down trailer

The first step is to removed the RV from the trailer which can honestly be a ton of fun. You can whack things indiscriminately, throw things around, and just have a good old time with demolition. A must have item besides safety gear is a good pry bar like the one on the right (click image to view). This gives you the leverage to pry out windows, cabinets, walls, and even the old subfloor. If you are trying to save parts you need to be a little careful but the valuable ones are generally limited to the hot water heater, the heater, the AC unit, and the stove. You might not use these in your build but there is demand for them. I also can’t hurt to keep long stretches of copper wire and any copper pipe in the vehicle.

Below  are some pictures from the tear down of our RV. We have the interior halfway through the process, the exterior without the aluminum siding, the aluminum that we recycled, and the entire remainder of the RV in the landfill.

 

18″ Pry Bar

Best reviewed and good deal.

2. Cut off excess parts

The parts you will probably want to cut off are the triangular supports because they are too weak and not far out enough to approach the 8.5 feet width limit, the steps because they would end up under the tiny house, and the propane tank holder. We did not cut off the triangular end of the front beam and instead welded extensions onto them because this piece is a thicker gauge steel and wasn’t affected by rust like the other triangles. We also removed the tanks and tank supports because we didn’t need tanks and wanted to insulate down into the body of the trailer. We used that extra metal to run a beam of metal down the middle of our trailer for extra support.

3. Remove or Neutralize Rust

The next step is to sand off the rust that has inevitably formed on your trailer. Hopefully it is just superficial and won’t affect the structural integrity of your trailer. This is necessary for clearing out spots where you are going to weld on reinforcements so you have a clean weld point and is also necessary for painting the trailer. However, if you don’t want to de-rust the whole trailer which involves a lot of hard work down on your knees then you can also use rust converter to turn that rust into a paintable surface.

If you do decide to go with sanding then using a 4.5″ grinder with a sanding flapper disk that is linked above is probably the most efficient way especially with all of those tight corners. Make sure to use ear and eye protection for noise and dust. Doing this outside on a breezy day is best and a mask is pretty much required.

 

Rustoleum Rust Converter

This one has impressive ratings and is very reasonably priced.

4. Weld Extensions and Reinforcements

This is the most challenging aspect and requires you to know welding, learn welding, or to pay someone else to weld. The cost of paying someone will depend on how much prep work you do and their rates. If you can give a welder all of the pre-cut pieces and clean surfaces they can get the job done quite quickly if there are no repairs required.

We welded on extension boxes out of 4″ C channel. Our choice was probably way thicker than it needed to be at 1/4″ but it didn’t way too much. I would suggest going thinner because welding works better when the two pieces are roughly the same thickness and the trailer metal is much thinner than 1/4″. Chances are there is somewhere on your trailer where you can measure the thickness of you metal, our was under the rear bumper. Our video covers our welding process in detail and even includes how we dealt with the rusty corner of our trailer.

The 4 boxes that we created were on each side of the wheels and each side of the trailer. We also used some of the old water tank metal to make extra braces within each box and a strip of reinforcement down the middle to give the subfloor more support.

5. Painting

Once your surface is paint-ready you can wait for a low wind day to paint your trailer. You can always pay for a professional to do the job but we had great results using Rustoleum enamel (link below). Our whole trailer cost around $60-70 to paint and was very quick and highly satisfying. While you can paint in sections as you finish the welding, make sure you don’t need to weld within a few feet of the paint because it will burn and be highly toxic. Below we have linked a mask that is designed for spray painting as well as dust.

The electrical on the trailer is probably a large enough endeavor for another DIY page but the basic as that you need to connect your brakes and rear lights/blinkers to the vehicle that is pulling it. To be up to industry standard and law for a travel trailer where we are you also need a break-away box that activates the brake if the trailer disconnects. All of these wires will connect to a 7-way plug via a 7-way connector box. One thing I didn’t understand at first was that the neutral wire for the lights simply connect to the trailer and it uses the trailer metal to complete the circuit. This way, you only have 1 wire going to each light component which includes the blinker, break light, running light which are all built into the LED units below. However, the brakes may have both positive and negative wires going directly to the box.

Paint We Used

Best deal on the paint we used. I wish there was a non-toxic alternative but until there is one this is the best option and has held up great for us. 

Dust Mask

With sanding dust this is key. This also specifically designed to reduce exposure to spray paints.

Full 7-Way Plug Kit

We wish we knew this existed because we spent hours going from store to store getting ripped off on each part. This is the most standard large trailer connection type in the US. 

LED Tail Lights

This is the best deal on LED tail lights I could find and I wish we used these. They are specifically for a trailer that is over 80 inches wide.

6. Electrical

The electrical on the trailer is probably a large enough endeavor for another DIY page but the basic as that you need to connect your brakes and rear lights/blinkers to the vehicle that is pulling it. To be up to industry standard and law for a travel trailer where we are you also need a break-away box that activates the brake if the trailer disconnects. All of these wires will connect to a 7-way plug via a 7-way connector box. One thing I (Mike) didn’t understand at first was that the neutral wire for the lights simply connects to the trailer and it uses the trailer metal to complete the circuit. The trailer is the neutral! This way, you only have 1 wire going to each light component which includes the blinker, break light, running light which are all built into the LED units below. However, the brakes may have both positive and negative wires going directly to the box. Once the wires are run which are generally 16 gauge for the lights then you simply have to connect them inside the box.