By Russ and Tiña De Maris
The fateful day may come to you, fellow RVer, when your roof vent crank gets cranky. You turn and turn that knob or crank, and nothing happens. Roof vent “operators,” as these mechanical crank assemblies are properly called, can just get cranky. At best, they’ll stop working when it’s hot inside your rig and you need some air. At worst, they’ll go on strike the moment rain threatens and your vent is wide open to the elements.
A broken-down vent operator doesn’t signal the need to replace the entire vent assembly. Not only is replacing a vent a far more labor-intensive proposition requiring access to the roof, it’s also more expensive. A complete roof vent replacement can set you back $50 (plus the cost of sealants), but we recently traded out a cranky operator for less than $10, with no additional supplies needed. And best of all, it’s a quick replacement, usually taking less than 20 minutes.
First you’ll need to get the right beast, because not all roof vents use the same operators. You’ll need to get direct access to the operator by removing the vent screen. These are held in place in a variety of ways. You may find a couple of screws hold the screen assembly in place, or you may have to remove the plastic bezel (trim plate) from the ceiling.
With the operator in plain sight, you’ll make two critical measurements. First, the operator mechanism itself: that little slug of metal that the crank or operator knob seats into. Two screws hold this mechanism to the roof vent frame. Measure the center-to-center distance where the mounting screws hold the operator mechanism to the frame.
Measure both arm length and distance between mounting hole centers. The next measurement is of the operator arm length. This distance is measured from the arm’s pivot point on the operator mechanism out to the center of the “button” on the end of the arm. That button is the attachment point between the operator arm and the roof vent itself.
Armed with these figures, you’ll find most RV supply stores will have what you need, or you can order them on the Internet.
With your new operator ready, you’ll need to remove the old assembly. If you haven’t already done so, remove the crank knob or handle. It’s typically a conventional machine screw. Next, remove the two operator mechanism screws from the frame. You may find that the button on the end of the arm is held in the vent’s “track” with a small metal clip. Pull the clip loose and hang onto it. You may need to finesse the arm a bit to get it to come out through the vent frame, but persevere.
Replacement is pretty straightforward—it’s a “reverse order of removal” thing, but occasionally you may get a curve ball. In our case, the generic “button” on the end of the operator arm was a bit wider than the original, and it wouldn’t fit through the slotted opening in the vent frame. We had to gently “persuade” the slot open a bit wider with the business end of a crow bar. Fit the button in the vent track, and install the retaining clip; hopefully you got a new one in your package, but the old one can be used if needed. You may need to raise the vent lid a few inches to get everybody on the same page.
Now reinstall the operator mounting screws and put back the screen and trim as required.
A special note to vintage Airstream owners: A lot of Airstream folks have come up against cranky operators, or “openers” as the community often refers to them. Yours are a bit different from conventional RV roof vents, as they use two operators per vent, and don’t have an “arm” as such.
Early Airstreams used Hehr brand openers, and as you probably know by now, they’re not available on the market. If yours has frozen up and refuses to budge, don’t give up all hope. Look yours over closely and develop a plan of attack to remove the stuck openers. Once they’re in hand, soak them in penetrating solvent overnight (or maybe even longer). Often the solvent trick will resurrect a seemingly dead opener.
If it works, reinstall the critter, and then every year, work in a light application of lithium grease or a Teflon-containing lubricant.
One more trick from an Airstream aficionado: If your vent screen suffered damage around the operator holes, seal the damage by applying silicon sealant to one side of a steel washer. Use the operator handles to hold the new “seal” washer in place while the silicon sets up