(This article was originally written for and published in RV Daily Report on January 20, 2019.)
When buying a new or used RV, one of the most important things to do, is inspect the roof. After all, the roof is where most leaks begin and that’s where to look for signs of moisture intrusion, which you will follow up on, inside the coach. You’ll also want to look at the air conditioners, antennas, and other equipment on the roof. But getting on the roof requires that you use a ladder.
Most RVs have ladders attached and this would seem like the obvious method to use, to get onto the roof. In many cases, this would be true. As an NRVIA Certified Inspector, I’ve seen more than a few mounted RV ladders that I would feel quite comfortable using. But sadly, RV manufacturers don’t seem to follow any kind of standard for roof ladder construction and mounting. That’s why I and every other certified RV Inspector I know carry our own ladders.
I don’t want to discourage you from inspecting the roof of the RV you’re about to purchase. You need to inspect the roof. Just give the ladder a thorough examination, before you try to use it. Better yet, bring your own ladder and some sliced pool noodles (I’ll explain the pool noodles in a moment).
Before I go into using your own ladder, let’s look at some of the issues I’ve found, regarding attached roof ladders.
Common Roof Ladder Issues
In the first photo, you’ll notice that not only has the ladder been bent downward, from weight, but also it is bent inward, near the middle. Compare the straight yellow line, with the bend in the aluminum.
The below photo is of a small area of the same ladder (outlined in a green dotted box, in the first photo).
As you can see, not only has it been bent down somewhat, but also one of the shaped spacers is missing and the screw at that point has been tightened too far, bending the metal tube out of shape. This is clearly a roof ladder to be avoided.
In the next photo, of a different coach, you will notice that the ladder supports, extending from the rear cap, are bent to the side at different angles. All of those yellow lines should be parallel. It’s unclear what damaged this ladder. But it’s another roof ladder that should be avoided.
Furthermore, just because you’re buying an expensive coach, don’t assume that the roof ladder will be as substantial as the rest of the coach. Certainly, as you progress up the price scale, you would expect that the ladders would become increasingly better and in some cases that’s true… just not always.
The next two photos are of a high-end Class ‘A’ motorhome. I used this example, because I’ve seen better ladders on different year models of this same coach. The point is that you can’t make assumptions about roof ladder quality, even on the same model of coach, from one year to the next.
In this case, it appears that too much weight was put on the ladder, at some time in the past. You can see how far the ladder was bent down, by how far the horizontal supports are from actual horizontal.
Once a ladder starts bending, its structure is weakened. As with the previous two examples, this is another roof ladder to be avoided.
I should also note here that several manufacturers are completely doing away with roof ladders, on their higher end coaches. For example, Newmar no longer offers a roof ladder on their popular Dutch Star or anything above that, in their product line.
Testing a Roof Ladder
Before using a roof ladder, you should examine it for bent arms, bent mounting brackets, and loose screws or bolts. If you pull on the ladder and the wall moves with the ladder, then the ladder is probably mounted only to the fiberglass, with no metal or wood support behind it. That sounds hard to believe. But it happens.
Before climbing on a roof ladder, it’s a good idea to reach up and grab the ladder high up and then hang on the ladder, with your knees bent off the ground and shake your body left and right. Watch the mounting points, as you do this. If it doesn’t bend down with your weight and the mounts appear secure, then it’s probably in good condition. But having seen my share of inadequate roof ladders, I’ll continue to bring my own ladder.
Dealing With a Damaged Roof Ladder
If you’re buying a coach that has a damaged roof ladder, you will probably get little sympathy by complaining about it. But go ahead and try. In all probability, if you buy that coach, you will end up buying a coach with a damaged roof ladder. It’s usually just not worth arguing about.
How difficult is it to repair a damaged roof ladder? Actually, the question should be, “Is it worth repairing a damaged roof ladder?” Keep in mind that when you repair a roof ladder, the result will likely be a roof ladder that has the same inadequacies that allowed the damage to occur in the first place. Think about it…
Now consider that, even if the roof ladder is damaged or inadequate, you still need to examine the roof, before you buy. Sure, an NRVIA Certified RV Inspector will do that for you and a whole lot more. But you may want to look at the roof, before you hire an inspector. After all, if you find a showstopper on the roof and decide not to go forward, then you will have saved yourself the cost of a full, professional inspection. A professional RV inspection can save you a lot of money and covers issues that require special tools. But why spend money on a professional inspection before you’ve done your own basic inspection and made sure that there is nothing obvious wrong.
So what this all boils down to is that the best option is bring your own ladder and pool noodles.
For RVers, I strongly recommend the Extend and Climb ladder, two large pool noodles, and a roll of double-sided Velcro. My 15.5-foot ladder is ANSI rated for 250 pounds and compresses down to just 36 inches, which is easy to transport. The 12-foot version is ANSI rated at 300 pounds. (I should mention that I receive no compensation for this recommendation. It’s just a great ladder for RVers.)
I would caution against buying any of the foreign knock-offs, since they are only EN131 certified. EN131 certification is a European standard that requires testing only at the rated weight, whereas ANSI certification is a US standard that requires testing at four-times the rated weight. Also, the Extend and Climb is marketed as its actual “length”, whereas the knock-offs are almost always marketed as “reach”, which is three feet longer than the actual length of the ladder. For example, a ladder marketed as having a 15-foot reach is only 12 feet in actual length. If you have a tall coach, you may need those extra few feet.
To prevent damaging the wall of the coach, buy two of the largest pool noodles you can find and slice them down the length of the noodle. Then cut notches on one side of the slit on each noodle, to fit around each rung. A serrated steak knife works well for slicing the pool noodle. Then cut lengths of Velcro, long enough to reach around the noodles, to hold the pool noodles in place. This allows for easy removal and storage of the pool noodles.
Finally, raise the first several rungs of the ladder and attach the pool noodles. The pool noodles will then protect the coach, when the ladder is fully extended. If you look back at the first photo, you’ll see how the pool noodles on my ladder, protect the coach. Although it’s difficult to see, at the top of the photo, the size of the smallest aluminum tube on my 250-pound ANSI rated ladder is more than twice the diameter of any tube on any RV ladder. That should tell you all you need to know.
As a final cautionary note, if you are dealing with a coach that has a spoiler or air deflector at the rear of the roof, you should not place a ladder against that spoiler. That spoiler is not structural. Since you also don’t want to place it against an awning, the safest place to place a ladder on such a coach, is usually against the side of the coach, on the street-side.