Which Type of RV Slideout System is Best?

RV Slideouts: Hydraulic Versus Electric

A stubborn slideout can turn your trip in to a disaster. Not fixing it means you spend days climbing over furniture trying to live in an RV with the walls pushed in. Or, you can’t depart for home with a slideout that refuses to retract for road travel. What to do?

First of all, an understanding of the mechanisms involved can help you troubleshoot the problem on your own. Today’s slideouts are either electric or hydraulic, with the former making up the majority of mechanisms.

A motorhome at sunset with the slideouts deployed. Photo: Shutterstock.

Hydraulic RV slideout systems

Hydraulic slideouts have some distinct advantages over electric slides. A hydraulic RV slideout system works via a pump connected to a series of valves and lines. The pump pushes air or fluid through the lines and extends/retracts the slideout. It’s a surprisingly powerful system. This robust approach makes light work of slideout movement, which leads to long life and relatively few problems. Theoretically, anyway.

On the down side, few RVers will have the know-how to repair a hydraulic system on their own. A failure will usually be due to a loss of pressure in the lines (a leak) or a defective pump. Either way, you will probably find yourself at the mercy of an RV repair technician. And he/she may not even have the parts needed for a quick repair on hand.

Due to the inherent power of hydraulics, a single pump/motor is often used to extend/retract all slideouts. When it works, you’re golden. When it doesn’t, none of your RV’s slideouts will function.

Hydraulic RV slideout maintenance

With proper maintenance there’s a low probability of malfunction with a hydraulic system. But if a malfunction does happen it will likely result in a complete system failure. That may require the assistance of someone versed in hydraulic repair. That’s not always easy to find when your campsite happens to be miles from the closest town.

The secret to a happy and reliable hydraulic system comes down to maintenance. Your owner’s manual will include a schedule for fluid replacement (some units now have sealed systems that may not require this). It will also include an explanation on checking/topping up when necessary. Lines and valves should be checked regularly for signs of leaking, bulges, excessive wear, kinks, or anything else that could affect pump function. A weak spot on a line can be the result of something rubbing a soft spot on to the hose, excessive heat from an exhaust system or engine, or a failed connector.

How to spot a problem

Problems may present themselves over time (a slow leak) or instantly (a blown pressurized line). Either scenario will be easily identifiable by the presence of dripping hydraulic fluid underneath your RV. Of course this assumes you can see anything underneath your RV. The increasing use of enclosed underbellies in today’s RVs can make it difficult to isolate the location of the leak. We’ve heard of leaking hydraulic fluid dripping from a seam of the underbelly covering a considerable distance from the actual leak. That meant the removal of the cover (no easy task) to properly identify the origin of the leak.

While hydraulic systems may be the new normal, it’s undeniably a more complicated system and the more parts to a system, the greater the chance something can go wrong.

Electric RV slideout systems

A traditional electric system, on the other hand, is much simpler. An electric motor activates gears and pushes/pulls a slideout. So long as the motor is working (and there is electricity) and the gears are aligned properly, everything will be good to go. Unfortunately, the gears used in some units are not aligned properly or are undersized for the task. This results in a grinding sound (the best indicator of something amiss) and eventual failure.

A system out of alignment may chew itself to pieces, strip teeth from gears, and bring the proceedings to an irreversible halt. At this point, a working electric motor will serve no purpose and you will soon be getting your cardio workout for the day as you attempt to muscle your slideout back in manually, against its will.

Manual override

Most systems today have an emergency manual override where you use a hand crank (or electrical drill) to extend/retract the slideout. While this may work once or twice, if you’re dealing with improper alignment or damaged gears, you’ll be living on borrowed time. At some point the slideout mechanism is going to lose its ability to roll. Also, continuing to use a mechanism that is obviously out of whack will only contribute to more damage, turning a possibly minor and inexpensive repair in to a major expense.

Several owners have told us they’ve used their hand crank exclusively for years now after their electric motor failed but we think this is a recipe for disaster. An emergency override is for emergencies just like the tiny spare tire in many of today’s cars. It is made to get you to the next exit and a proper repair. Neither a manual hand crank nor a spare tire is a permanent replacement.

Slideout seals

The biggest issue with slideouts doesn’t have anything to do with the extension/retraction process. It has to do with seals, the rubber gaskets that surround a slideout and keeps the elements at bay.

Improperly installed seals can pull loose and affect movement of the slide. They can also enable rain to leak in or provide access to rodents looking for a nice place to set up shop and start a large and ravenous family.

Leaks in RVs are funny things. They can be active for years before announcing themselves. And when they do, the damage has already been done. A rodent infiltration can be a bit easier to spot (or hear), but often eviction can be time consuming and require the removal of wall paneling or ceilings.

Seals are easy to inspect, too, and should be—frequently. A simple once over, visually, and a little light tugging to ensure everything is snug will suffice. Having someone operate the slides from above while you eyeball the movement from below will let you confirm everything is working smoothly, too. It can also help you identify the problem if something looks (or sounds) amiss, as well.

There are plenty of aftermarket lubricant sprays made for slideouts. They are a cheap preventive measure.

So, which is better?

In conclusion, there are pros and cons to both electric and hydraulic slideouts. We think hydraulic systems are superior to the first generation electric ones. But the current electric systems are pretty solid and reliable. Manufacturers have learned a lot about building a better slideout in the last 15 years.

We don’t recommend buying or avoiding an RV because of the slideout mechanism. Buy the RV that works for you and spend some time learning how the slideout works. You don’t need to be an authority to understand the gist of the system. You only need know enough to perform visual inspections and a little light maintenance. Know how to operate the emergency manual override (and where the hand crank is hidden). If you do experience a grinding sound, stop everything immediately and check it out from below. Don’t force the mechanism. Often you’ll find that your gears are pulling in something they shouldn’t (part of a folded patio umbrella, for instance). You can correct that yourself—although the umbrella may never be the same.

Worry-free maintenance

Make sure you keep track of all your RV maintenance and repairs with an online tool such as RV LIFE Maintenance. Not only can you keep all of your documents in one place, but you’ll also receive timely reminders when maintenance is due to help you avoid costly repairs and potentially serious accidents.