In the last installment, I’d just purchased the 1996 Winnebago Rialta with 107k miles on it for three grand and driven it home, and was still pinching myself at my good fortune while waiting for the other shoe to drop in terms of the rig dying or my finding that it immediately needed some crushingly expensive repair. So far, neither of these events has come to pass. So the other shoe has neither dropped, nor is it on the other foot. Which is only worth these two mangled metaphors because later in his piece I mention shoes in the context of how small the Rialta really is.
Let me talk for a moment about price. In the shallow waters of the world of highly compromised vintage BMWs in which I usually swim, I joke that I do my best work around four grand. I was never going to get a Rialta for four grand. It simply wasn't a reasonable expectation. The 2001 and later Rialtas fetch a premium due to their 201hp 24-valve VR6 motor. Low-mileage examples in excellent condition have asking prices of $26,000 and more. The 1998 to 2000 rigs with the 12-valve 140hp VR6 motor are next on the list, with asking prices near $20k for excellent examples, perhaps down to $14k if they have a punch list of needed repairs but still run well and look good. The early (’96 and ’97) 100hp 5-cylinder rigs like mine are the least valuable, owing to their anemic motor and slightly shorter body (21’ instead of 22’). I see asking prices around $14k for those in excellent condition, maybe $10k for a needy rig. Right after I bought mine, I saw one in worse shape—it reportedly had sat for several years and was running rough—sell on eBay for $8500.
So I was stunned when I picked up this Rialta for three grand.
Now, while there is no question that this was a particularly good deal, the vehicle does have a lengthy punch list. I relish the process of becoming interested in a new automotive make and model and learning about it so that, when a smoking good deal turns up, I can act very quickly. That’s what happened here. The seller (Maureen) was scrupulously honest in presenting the punch list of issues and needed repairs, and priced it very aggressively to get rid of it quickly. I do all my own repair work, so, as long as it ran, wasn’t rusty, and didn’t seem to immediately need major work to the drivetrain, the punch list didn’t scare me. I told her I’d buy it on the spot if it satisfied those requirements, and it did, and I did; cash was paid and it was in my driveway by the end of the day. It’s easy to say that she underpriced it, and she probably did, but she very efficiently achieved her goal of a quick sale to the right buyer. And I bought a vehicle that was a great deal, but needed a great deal of attention.
So I began working through the punch list. And I'm still working through it. Fortunately, the rig basically started and ran, and most of the RV systems—the 120VAC shore power and generator, 12V battery bank, plumbing, stove, coach heat, water heater, and rooftop air conditioner—came up running.
· Maureen reported that the roof was leaking slightly and that the upper corners of the windshield gasket had pulled away. I climbed up on the roof and found a split in the caulk next to the skylight and caulked it with silicone. I cleaned and re-seated the corners of the windshield gasket and caulked them as well. For the moment, it appears to be tight.
· The air conditioning in the cab (the vehicle air you need while driving, not the coach air you need while parked) wasn’t working. I do a lot of a/c work. I hooked up my gauges, and found that the system clearly was low on refrigerant. That generally means it’s leaking somewhere. I hooked up my nitrogen tank and pressurized it to help find the leak, but the pressure reading held steady, and there wasn’t any gushing sound of air. In the morning, the pressure still hadn’t budged. I shrugged, evacuated the system, charged it with the correct amount of R134a, and to my delight, it blew cold and has stayed that way. If it’s got a leak, it must be a small one.
· Maureen said that, about two years ago, the vehicle died due to a discharged battery, and that the battery and alternator were replaced. I did a health check on the charging system. At rest, the battery should read 12.6 volts, and while driving, the alternator should charge it up to about 14.2 volts, but I found that, when there’s a big electrical load at low RPM (like idling with the air conditioning on), the alternator doesn’t keep up with the electrical load, and the voltage drops as low as 11.8 volts, which will certainly discharge the battery if you run it this way for a while. The voltage recovers once you start driving and the engine RPM is raised. I cleaned every connection to and from the alternator and it made no difference. I’ve bought an inexpensive voltage regulator to have as a spare, and I drive with one of my $6 cigarette lighter voltmeters plugged in to make sure I’m keeping the combination of energized accessories and engine RPM balanced such that they keep the battery charged.
· The coolant temperature gauge runs hotter than I’d prefer (like, at times, 7/8 of the way up the gauge), but the receipts show a recent water pump and thermostat, the thermostat is opening, the fans appear to be turning on, I can’t find anything wrong, and the Rialta tech forum has posts saying “yeah, they do that.” I’ve got half a mind to spend the $125 on a new radiator and drop it in just so I can cross that off the list. Any vehicle that doesn’t have a good old fashioned mechanical cooling fan and relies on electric fans instead makes me nervous, so I wanted to install a switch and a relay to be able to bypass the sensors and turn on the electric fans manually. I stumbled on a post in the Rialta tech forum describing how to do this by tapping into the existing fan control relay by splicing one wire and running it to a switch. I followed the instructions. Great minds think alike.
· Maureen reported that the onboard 110V generator would start but not stay running, though she had a suspicion that the problem might be due to a low fuel level (the generator uses the vehicle’s gas tank). I filled the tank and have had no such problem; the generator appears to work fine, and powers the RV’s 110V systems, including, mercifully, the rooftop air conditioning unit.
· Maureen also said that there was a leak in the fresh water plumbing. I found that one of the drain cocks had been left open. I closed it, filled the system, and the internal plumbing all seems to work. Never having owned an RV, the idea of having a vehicle with running water for a sink, shower, and toilet is still an unbelievable novelty.
· The side door lock assembly is dying. The handle is extremely loose, and neither the lock nor the deadbolt work with the keys I’d been given, and the central locking doesn’t engage the side door lock. Thus, locking the vehicle requires engaging the side door locks from the inside, then exiting through the front doors, which is a bit of a pain. I pulled the lock out and found that sections are riveted together and not easily disassembled, and that much of the looseness is from a partially cracked piece that eventually will fail. Neither the whole assembly nor individual parts are available from Winnebago. An updated replacement is supposedly available from Trimark, the manufacturer, but it is expensive and the wait appears to be several months. I’m living with it.
· The coach’s fresh water pump suddenly quit working. It turned out to simply be dirty switch contacts in the outside faucet.
· I installed the missing leg of the awning that Maureen had bought.
· The dump valve from the black water (sewage) tank was leaking, so the first time I unscrewed the big quick-release cap to attach the dump hose, there was already sewage present there even before I pulled the lever to open the dump valve. Ick. Even for me who isn’t afraid to tear into things, I didn’t relish tearing into a sewage system. I learned that this leak is a common problem, and fortunately there’s a simple solution—put another valve on the outside, between the release and the cap.
· Maureen reported that the refrigerator ran on 120VAC and 12VDC, but wouldn’t run on propane. The fridge has been the most troublesome component on the rig and will get its own installment.
· There is a faint exhaust leak that I'm not going to do anything about until it, um, becomes less faint.
When you buy any inexpensive partially hobbled vehicle, there’s a period of establishing trust in it, getting to the point where you feel reassured that when you get in the vehicle and turn the key, there’s a high probability it’ll start, and that it won’t drop dead on you while driving. Initially, the opposite happened: After the vehicle sat in my driveway for a week, it barely started, with symptoms of a partially discharged battery. I, who wrote an electrical book with an entire chapter on how to diagnose this kind of a “parasitic drain,” haven’t had the patience to troubleshoot what’s pulling the battery down while the car sits, and instead took to managing the problem by simply disconnecting the battery while it’s parked. So far, so good, but, combined with the issue of low charging voltage while idling, I keep that cigarette lighter voltmeter plugged in whenever I drive, and I watch it like a freaking hawk.
My first trips in the Rialta were to run short errands. When it didn’t die or overheat running it around Newton, I drove it into Somerville (densely-populated suburban Boston) to buy a mattress. Just like during the test drive when I bought it, I was extremely impressed with the degree to which the rig ran and drove like a big minivan, albeit a more rattly one due to the camper body and the stuff in the cabinets. I easily parallel-parked it on a Somerville side street to load the mattress into it. Try that in a 40-foot Class A.
The trip into Somerville meant taking the rig down the big hill on Route 2 into Cambridge, and then back up the hill on the way home. With the 100 horsepower five-cylinder engine propelling the 7,000 pound vehicle, the Rialta had to be popped into 3rd and my foot mashed to the floor to maintain 45mph up this short but steep incline. On the one hand, with my history of owning underpowered VW busses and Vanagon campers, I felt right at home, but sheesh, I thought; this is going to get old on anything other than level ground. Still, it was one hill, and a steep one, without a running start, and I tried not to extrapolate its entire performance envelope from this single data point.
Ah, the mattress. There are three basic Rialta floor plans. Ours has the one with two twin beds in the back and floor space between them. Maureen included a knock-down pedestal table that allows people to sit on the beds and eat back there as if it’s a dinette (though they’re still beds; there’s no padded back like bench seats). A hinged board and a small joining pad allow the twin beds to be connected.
There’s a different floor plan with an actual dinette in the back, where the table slides away and the dinette bench seats fold flat into a bed.
|The dinette floor plan from the brochure.|
But there's a third plan with a full-time double bed and a small walkway and counter on its right side. Maire Anne and I aren’t twin bed people. We looked longingly at brochures showing the full-time double bed, but beggars can’t be choosers.
|The double-bed floor plan from the brochure.|
It was immediately obvious that our rig's original 3” foam mattresses, whether separate or connected, would be miserably uncomfortable to sleep on. That trip into Somerville in the Rialta was to buy an inexpensive used memory foam mattress to put in the back. This turned out to be a failed experiment, as the mattress I bought was 12” thick, which turned it to be too tall; it practically caused our feet to touch the undersides of the cabinets in the rear.
It did, though, cause Maire Anne and me to think about the mattress configuration more carefully. The full length and width of the connected bed space (with the board flipped over) is about 73” long by 80” wide, which is very close to the size of a king-size mattress turned sideways. We initially thought we’d take out the existing foam mattress sections and replace them with a single 6” memory foam mattress and leave it set up across the entire back. Then we considered cutting up a memory foam mattress into sections so that we could fold the board up and take advantage of the floor space between the twin beds and only connect them at bedtime. One problem with this is that memory foam deteriorates if it’s left exposed. You can’t stretch a sheet across the disconnected foam sections, so that would require putting each piece in a slipcover.
In the end, we wound up buying a new high-quality ViscoSoft 3” thick king-size memory foam mattress topper with its own cover, and laying it on top of the original 3” mattress sections. It is very comfortable. In theory, it still allows the topper to be pulled over to one side, the connecting board folded up, and the mattresses returned to twins with the floor space exposed between them, but in practice, the topper is bulky enough that this isn’t easy to do, so thus far, we've left it in the configuration below, which has had some unintended consequences.
|The twin beds connected with the board, and the king-sized memory foam mattress pad on top. Very cozy, very comfortable, but it takes up space and precludes options in ways we hadn't envisioned.|
With the mattress in place, it was time to hit the road. Sort of.
The First Trip: A Simple Overnight
Our first trip in the rig was to the western Massachusetts hill town of Beckett for an evening playing music with some old friends. This was a great easy inaugural jaunt, as all we were doing was driving the rig 130 miles (most of it a straight shot out the Mass Pike) and parking it in a friend’s driveway and sleeping in it; we didn’t need to use any of the RV systems. Two guitars and a small amp nestled perfectly under the board between the connected twin beds. With some pretty good-sized hills on the Mass Pike heading through the Berkshires, we were pleasantly surprised that the rig had no problem maintaining the cruise control’s 65mph. Even on the ups and downs on the local roads through the Berkshires, I felt more limited by the fact that the RV wasn’t one of my BMWs than by its low power. Perhaps this 100hp Rialta wouldn’t be so bad after all.
The big surprise was that, even on this short trip with limited use of the interior space, it became immediately obvious how small the Rialta really is inside. It’s nothing like most RVs where you walk in the side door and are greeted by a couch and two big living room-sized chairs. There’s only 62”—just over five feet—of floor space from the bed bulkheads to the step up for the coach battery compartment in the floor, and some of that 62" is taken up by the 3rd seat. There’s another 18” from there to the backs of the front seats. This proved to be a good place to put our backpacks and a small cooler, because simply putting them on the floor took up a good portion of the tiny available floor space. Cabinet space is similarly limited.
Still, the first trip was quite successful. Nothing went wrong with the rig. Both Maire Anne and I were quite comfortable sleeping in it, and loved having a bathroom right next to the mattress for when we woke up and had to pee, rather than having to go inside and find a bathroom in an unfamiliar house in the middle of the night.
Oh, and the rig averaged about 17mpg on the mostly-highway trip. Not bad.
The Second Trip: Three Days on the Cape
Immediately on buying the Rialta, a natural division of labor emerged: I worked on the rig, and Maire Anne dove into researching campgrounds at nearby Massachusetts state parks and began making reservations for a number of short stays through the summer and fall. She learned about the distinction between RV sites with hookups (shore power and fresh water, about $30/night) and those without (about $20/night), where we’d need to “boondock” and rely on vehicle power and water. At these particular state campgrounds on the Cape, you’re prohibited from running the generator during the quiet hours between 10pm and 7am. Maire Anne booked us first for three nights in late July at Nickerson State Park in Brewster MA, on the “bicep” of the Cape, with other trips in late summer and fall at Horseneck Beach and Scusett.
I had several weeks to prepare for the trip to Nickerson. I thought that this was ample time for me to be able to fix the rig’s three-way refridgerator, but despite a lot of work, I was unable to get the fridge to cool on propane. Without that, and without shore power, the fridge couldn’t be relied on to stay cold without draining the coach’s batteries (I’ll write a separate installment on the refrigerator-related trials and tribs). For the Nickerson trip, we kept it simple and used a cooler with ice. This was easy, as there was a store near the campground.
Nickerson turn out to be a great jumping-off point for a variety of day-trips on the Cape. Neither Maire Anne nor I had used our bikes in many years, but I bought an inexpensive bike rack that mounted in the Rialta’s hitch receiver, freshened up the bikes, and away we went.
|Leaving for Nickerson|
The campground at Nickerson was exactly that—a campground, not an RV park. There was a maximum RV length limit of 35 feet (obviously not a problem for us), and no hook-ups, but there was an RV dumping station. Our camping area was overwhelmingly populated by folks tenting or using pop-up trailers, with a few larger camping trailers. We were one of a handful of RVs. As I said, generator-off hours were between 10pm and 7am. When I did try and fire up the generator during allowable hours, our immediate tenting neighbors took notice. They didn’t complain, but it made Maire Anne and I feel self-conscious, so even though it was allowed, I shut it off. But without shore power or the generator, we had no 120VAC to run the hot water heater for the shower, so we settled into a rhythm where we used the campground facilities in the mornings for showers and, uh, other things.
We’d then head out in the rig to explore the cape, usually taking the bikes with us. We’d come back to the campground in the late afternoon or early evening, unfold the rig’s awning, hang out at the picnic table, cook and eat outside on a Coleman RoadTrip propane grill we’d brought (it was just more camp-y than cooking inside), make a fire in the pit, drink wine, play guitar, crash in the rig, and make coffee in the morning. It was delightful. And, like the overnight in the Berkshires, having the bathroom right there in the rig, and a sink with running water to brush your teeth, was fabulous.
|Throwing an inexpensive Craigslist bike rack on the back of the rig, and the bikes on it, worked flawlessly.|
|Our standard evening libations.|
|Our standard morning libations.|
But the true utility of the RV was shown in a completely unexpected way the day we went up to Cape Cod National Seashore Salt Pond Visitor’s Center in Eastham. The weather was iffy, but we decided to chance it and do a three-mile hike to Coast Guard Beach and back. Unfortunately, when we reached the beach, the skies opened up, and the hike back was in drenching rain. By the time we returned to the parking lot of the visitor’s center, we were soaked clean through. But there, waiting for us, was the Rialta. We got in, drew the blinds, stripped down (without having to lie down on the seats and do that funny horizontal shimmy you have to do to change clothes in a passenger car), toweled off, used the bathroom (in the rig), and put on dry clothes. Then we made coffee (in the rig). Then we made sandwiches, including toasting our buns (the bread buns) on the stove. In the rig. And sat there, happy as clams (warm, dry, caffeinated, well-fed clams with empty bladders), marveling at the experience.
It was an epiphany. Wow, I thought. Of all the vehicles I drop three to four grand on, this one is actually useful. Forget camping. Forget the idea of a big western road trip. Forget the big questions of whether or not we’re “RV people.” Look at what we just did with this vehicle. All of sudden, I realized how useful a vehicle this size with a bathroom, a bed, and a stove could be. Just wait, I thought, until we have a fridge that actually works.
|Highly recommend the hike to Coast Guard Beach, even though we got soaked.|
|Maire Anne toasting our buns after the great soaking.|
There were two other revelatory moments. Our last full day there, we drove up to Provincetown. I hadn’t been up there in over 40 years. I didn’t know my way around. We were following our phone to get downtown. All of a sudden, we were right downtown, driving down a narrow street that wasn’t blocked off to vehicles but clearly should have been, as we were completely surrounded by wall-to-wall people. And we weren’t in a car; we were in an RV. A small RV, but an RV nevertheless. I hung the first right turn out of there, which turned out to take us down a far smaller street. And it was fine, because the Rialta isn’t really that big, and is incredibly maneuverable.
Then, that evening, as we were heading back toward the campground, we made a snap decision to stop at a very well-reviewed restaurant (The Brewster Fish House). I pulled the rig into the parking lot in front and Maire Anne jumped out to ask about the wait. I spied what looked like a parking spot all the way at the end. I drove around, pulled forward, and backed in with little more drama than you’d experience parking a Suburban. Just like when I picked the mattress up in Somerville, try that in a 40-foot Class A. (Note that, bravado aside, this isn’t a minor issue. I just read a post in one of the RVs forums on Facebook I’m now part of from someone who said they were in the Seattle area in their big Class A, and couldn’t find anywhere remotely close to the city to park it so they could go in and see the city.)
|How do you park an RV in the tight parking lot of a nice restaurant? Like a boss. (Actually, like any van or SUV. It was trivial, really.)|
For the trip to and back from the Cape, we averaged between 14 and 15 mpg, which I suppose isn't bad considering it included all the day-tripping up and down the Cape, and a good deal of stop-and-go traffic on the drive home.
The major downside we experienced with the Rialta was that, even more than the trip to the Berkshires, this trip made me palpably aware of how tiny the Rialta is inside—that the small length and excellent maneuverability are purchased with the currency of interior space. When you’re driving, you’re into the vehicle part of RV, and you want it to be as small as possible, but once you’re parked, you’re into the recreation part, and you want the space. The Rialta's driveability is fabulous, but the trade-off against interior space is palpable. This is a bit ironic, as the Rialta’s original brochure touts “more recreation, less vehicle.”
As I pre-echoed in the introduction, take something as simple as shoes. Both Maire Anne and I had brought three pairs of shoes to Nickerson (decent shoes, sneakers, and sandals). That’s six pairs. We found that when you randomly drop six pairs of shoes on the floor of the Rialta, you can’t open the door to the bathroom. And that’s just shoes. You need to be absolutely relentless about not leaving things on the floor. We crammed everything we could in the cabinets, but the cabinet space is pretty limited as well.
Even our precious incredibly comfortable king-size bed created a bit of a problem. Initially we both thought “well why wouldn’t we want to keep the twin mattresses connected all the time with the fold-out board and leave the king-size memory foam mattress topper on them?” The answer is that doing so takes up half the interior space of the Rialta, and because it’s a bed, you can really only use it as a bed. If you want to keep sand and dirt out of the sheets, you can’t throw other stuff on top. And, although we could still use the area between the beds as storage space by sliding stuff under (that’s where we kept the Coleman grill, the beach chairs, the collapsible dinette table we never used, the guitar, the boogie board, the leveling blocks, and the toolbox), it never was available as floor space, which made the interior of the rig feel smaller. And we never could fit as much in there as we would’ve been able to do had it been uncovered. Plus, the vents for the cabin heater are under that board, so when we use the rig in the fall, we probably can't both have the king-size mattress deployed and have the area underneath it crammed with stuff like we did. Plus, without the floor between the beds exposed, in order to put things in the cabinets in the back, we needed to crawl onto the bed, which required taking off our shoes to keep sand out of the bed. This is hardly hardship, but it shows the trade-offs.
After a few days, the idea that we couldn’t put things on the bed because we’d get sand and dirt in the sheets went by the wayside, and we soon began stacking all sorts of things along the periphery of the mattress because, well, there was no other place to put them.
The fact that this Rialta doesn’t have a real dinette area wasn’t too problematic. The front seats turn around 180 degrees, and the 3rd seat swivels 90 degrees, allowing it and the passenger seat to face a small fold-out table. That’s what passes for a dinette in this floor plan. It worked perfectly fine for eating breakfast.
|What passes for a dinette in our floor plan -- the passenger and 3rd seat swung around and facing a very small fold-out table.|
During most of the dinners where we were at the rig, we would up eating outside on the picnic table, and that was fine. As I said, we took a Coleman RoadTrip grill, which was nice to cook at out at the picnic table. The grill, though, even when folded up, ate up much of the storage space under the bed. I kept looking for a cost-effective way to mount both a cargo carrier and the bike rack in the hitch receiver so we could put the grill there, but the solutions either were expensive or dangerously extended the cantilevered load far off the back of the vehicle.
|The Coleman RoadTrip grill can be seen behind the picnic table.|
Another area in which the Rialta’s size is problematic is its lack of the kind of exterior storage compartments other larger RVs have. There are hatches on the Rialta's tail, but one holds the spare tire, the other the shore power line and access to the plug-in for the generator. Neither come close to being large enough for a tool box or a milk crate. This is significant because, at some point, you need to dump the sewage tank in the RV, and to do that, you need an RV dump hose, which is a collapsible accordion-like 3” diameter hose. Needless to say, in the process of doing this, the dump hose becomes, shall we say, fragrant, so you need to rinse it out with clean water, so now you need to pack a garden hose, but you don’t want it to be the same garden hose you use for your fresh water hookup, because, well, even the idea of it is gross, so now you need to pack two garden hoses. And, while washing the dump hose with let's just call it "garden hose number two," you want to be wearing disposable rubber gloves. So any reasonable person would take the RV dump hose, garden hose number two, and a box of rubber gloves, put them in a milk crate, and store them in an exterior storage compartment. But on the Rialta, there is no place to do this. Instead, there is barely enough space to stuff the dump hose in next to the shore power line, and jam both garden hoses in with the spare tire. It is far from optimal, and I find myself looking longingly at the exterior storage compartments on every other RV I see.
One other odd quirk of the Rialta is in its holding tanks. Like everything else on the rig, they’re very small. Unlike most other RVs, the shower doesn’t run off into the gray water tank—it goes to the black water (sewage) tank, and that holds only 12 gallons. If you’re going to have two people showering in the rig every day, you’d probably need to dump the RV every day. So far, Maire Anne and I have managed the issue by not using the Rialta's shower and using campground showers instead. It’s too bad, though. I’d love to test out the shower in my driveway. I’d have no qualms about dumping the shower runoff of soapy water in the driveway, but with it running into the sewage tank, obviously dumping that anywhere other than a dump site is out of the question, and there aren’t any RV dumpsites within 35 miles of my house.
So, for all of these reasons, although I really like the Rialta, and feel damn near blessed that it fell into my lap for the price it did, and Maire Anne and I will enjoy the hell out of it for these quick New England adventures (which, make no mistake about it, was the goal, and which is a great inexpensive way to do some fun things together), I do wonder if it is the right vehicle if we want to head out of state on a more classic RV adventure. The later Rialtas are a tad bigger (22 feet instead of 21), but I think something in the 24-foot range would probably be much more practical, even if that’s a more traditional American Class A or C without the cool Euro Rialta vibe. But I keep combing Craigslist, and have yet to find anything remotely close to making me want to go have a look.
And… Full Circle to Mothing
In my first installment, I described how it was an invitation to Maire Anne to go “mothing” (setting up lights and looking for moths at night) several months back that re-ignited my RV search—that if we had a vehicle we could drive out and sleep in, we might take the mothing folks up on their invitation to camp in their driveway. After we’d bought the Rialta, another mothing invitation came around, so we hopped in it and drove out to Ware MA. We did meet some great folk and see some cool moths, but the evening ended early and we simply wound up driving Bauhaus back home. Maire Anne did get to crash in the back, so the rig showed its utility. A bit anticlimactic, but 90% of life is showing up, right?
Oh, a lot. There’s the new fridge, and the whole solar installation. So stay tuned.