How an RV Awning Works


Learning how your RV awning works is important for the proper usage and maintenance of your awning to prevent damage from occurring. They are an important part of enjoying RV camping since they keep the blazing summer sun off your and your RV to help you keep cool.

So how does an RV awning work? RV awnings are retractable awnings, either using mechanical or electrical means to open and close. Mechanical awnings use a torsion spring while electrical awnings use a motor in the roller tube.

I know that is a very basic understanding of how they work so I’m going to cover the difference between electrical and mechanical awnings, the details on how both work and how to open and close each type of RV awning.

rv awning open and close
Photo ID 80043506 © Bounder32h | Dreamstime.com

Electrical Awning vs Mechanical Awning

As I mentioned there are two types of retractable RV awnings, electrical and mechanical. Electric awnings tend to be found on newer high-end motorhome and trailer models.

Electrical awnings tend to be more expensive than mechanical awning due to needing more complex parts. Electrical awnings obviously need electricity to operate which requires special wiring in your RV.

Mechanical awnings are human powered but that doesn’t necessarily mean you need a lot of it. Mechanical awnings are well designed to let almost anyone extend and retract the awning.

Both types of awnings have built-in safety features to prevent your awning from accidentally extended while driving. On an electric RV awning, the type of gearing of the motor prevents it from unrolling. On a mechanical RV awning, there are physical locks you need to engage.

The next section will cover how electrical retractable RV Awnings work but if you’d rather you can jump ahead to how mechanical retractable RV awnings work.

Electrical Retractable RV Awnings

Many new RVs are being equipped with electrical awnings and even current owners are choosing to install them on their older RVs. Some of these electric awnings have fancy features like auto wind retract or water dumping.

This means if the awning detects a certain level of wind it will automatically retract to prevent damage. The water dumping feature will detect when water has started to pool on the fabric and adjust one arm of the awning to let the water runoff.

Photo 42126757 © Arinahabich08 | Dreamstime.com

How does an Electric RV awning work?

An electric awning extends and retracts using an integrated tube motor. This style of motor fits perfectly in the tube roller of your camper’s awning tucking it away out of sight.

The awning is powered by either 12V DC or 120 AC power depending on the awning make and model. The power comes the RV’s main power supply and the wires are discretely run through one of the awning arms.

I can pretty much guarantee if your awning runs on AC power it will still function if your RV is not plugged in but you will need either your generator running or your inverter on.

The arms themselves will extend and retract as needed with the awning through gas pistons or a spring tension system.

Most electric RV awnings have aluminum frames and arms because it’s a lightweight material. Standard patios usually have two arms. But some have three or more arms if they are very large or have multiple extension positions.

There are also some awnings whose arms are tucked up against the fabric keeping your patio space nice and open. But this style tends to come at a premium.

If you are worried about retracting your awning in the event of a power issue or a broken motor, don’t worry. All electric awnings have a manual override built-in. But you will need a hex key and drill. Check your manual to see what size of hex key you need on hand but likely your awning will come with the correct size.

The video below shows how an electric RV awning extends and retracts.

How to open your Electric RV Awning?

Opening your electric RV awning is done with simply a push of a button. Using either a control panel inside your RV or a remote control push the extend/open button until your awning is at the desired position.

Some awning models have travel locks that must be released prior to extending your awning, but many electric awnings don’t due to the motor design.

How to close your Electric RV Awning?

Closing your electric RV awning is basically the same as opening. Push the retract/close button on your control panel or remote until your awning is fully retracted.

Awnings with an auto-retracting system, which detects wind or rain, your awning will automatically fully retract if too much wind or rain is detected.

If you have travel locks make sure they are properly engaged before heading down the road.

Mechanical Retractable RV Awnings

Mechanical RV awnings are found on older RVs and lower cost RVs since they are less expensive than electric camper awnings. But they are no less effective and are pretty easy to use.

Since mechanical RV awnings are human powered they don’t come with fancy auto-retract functions so you need to be mindful of the wind and rain. Keeping one side of your awning slightly lower than the other is a good auto dumping set up to let water naturally run off your awning.

Tying down the corners of your awning can help prevent wind damage from sudden unexpected gusts. And give you that few minutes you need to safely store your awning when the wind kicks up.

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Camco 42593 Awning Anchor Kit with Pull Tension Strap
  • Extra holding power of spiral stakes works well in all kinds of soil
  • Even distribution of tension makes securing the RV awning easy
  • Includes pull tension straps

How a Mechanical Spring RV Awning works

Mechanical RV awnings work through the use of a torsion spring installed in the awning roller tube. This torsion spring has the right amount of tension in it for the awning to easily roll and unroll without too much force required.

The tension on the spring is set at the factory for each awning make and model. There is also a retract/extend mechanism that lets the spring roll or unroll spending on what the user needs.

Travel locks are also a vital part of a mechanical RV awning. They lock the arms of the awning, preventing it from accidentally unrolling while driving down the road.

The arms of the awning can remain attached to the RV or detach and support the awning underneath the roller tube. If the arms are detached it is important to properly secure them to the ground.

How to open your Mechanical RV Awning?

Opening your awning, while not as simple as pushing a button like on the electric awning, is straight forward and with a little practice can be done quickly and easily by one person.

You will need your awning lever pole to help you with extending your awning. It’s a three foot piece of metal a small hook or “L” shape at one end.

I am going to preface this guide with the warning that not all awnings open and close the same way. This our experience with our Carefree awning as well as some general tips on what to look for. Always read your RV’s awning manual to prevent damage from occurring to your awning.

Step 1 – Release Arm Travel Locks

Releasing the arms’ travel locks is the first step to opening your awning. Travel locks can come in a few different styles, but there is always some type of lock that must be released first to prevent damage to the awning.

On some awnings, you will need to loosen the support arms’ rafter knobs. This is a black knob on the back of the arm which needs to be unscrewed slightly. Then to release the travel locks you will gently squeeze the awning support tabs until you hear a clicking sound. The locks should now be released.

Our older Carefree awning works a little differently, the travel lock is a small handle on each are than needs to be lifted are released. We also need to loosen the black knobs on the back of the awning arm.

Step 2 – Switch to Extend mode

At the top of the awning, typically on the right, there is a little lever you need to switch to the extend or open position. Using the awning rod flip the lever down.

Step 3 – Extend Awning

Using the awning rod, hook it into the pull strap that is found in the center of the awning. Slowly pull the strap away using the rod once you can reach the strap grab hold and continue to pull until your awning is fully extended. If your torsion spring is correctly wound then you shouldn’t need to much force to open the awning.

The awning should remain extended in whatever position you leave it in. It can be fully extended or partially extended. But you need to extend it enough to be able to properly engage the support arms (see next step).

Step 4 – Extend Support Arms

To secure the awning slide the inner support arms out the end of the outer support arm. The inner arm should lock into place with a click. Or if your awning is like ours there is a metal lip the inner support arm hooks on to.

Then, put a little weight on the outer support arm to help tighten up the fabric, then tighten the black knobs on the inner support arm. Repeat on the other side.

Step 5 – Raise the Awning

Next, you will raise the awning using the outer arms. If you are opening your awning by yourself you’ll want to partially raise one side and then the other until you have your awning at the desired height going back and forth. If you have a helper, then you can raise the awning to your desired height in one go.

To start you will release the outer arm lock, raise the arm to your desired height or partial height if on your own then engage the outer arm lock. Repeat on the other side.

When raising your awning make sure it’s high enough to clear the door or you could risk damaging the awning fabric. You can purchase an inexpensive awning saver (link to Amazon) to attach to the top of your door and prevent your awning from rubbing against when opening and closing the door.

JR Products 05004 Permanent Awning Saver
  • Mounting area is 1-1/4 inch long
  • Heavy duty extra wide plastic roller
  • Zinc plated to resist rust

It’s a good idea to leave one end slightly lower than the other to allow rain to run off instead of allowing it to pool. If it’s raining heavily or windy closing your awning is the safest way to protect yourself and your awning from damage.

Step 6 – Peg out Arm (Optional)

Some RV owners prefer to peg out their awning arms away from their RV. This makes the awning space feel more open to some but it completely optional.

To start you’ll retract the arm a little to make it easier to manage. Then you will unclip it from the body of the RV. The clip is found at the bottom of the arm and is easy to remove.

With the arm detached from the RV simply walk it out till it is underneath the awning roller tube. You need to properly peg the arm of the awning into the ground to keep it stable. Once pegged repeat on the other side then raise the arms to the desired height.

If you are more of a visual learner this is a great video on how to open and close a mechanical RV awning.

How to close your Mechanical RV Awning?

Not surprisingly closing your RV awning is the same process as opening it but in reverse. I’ll walk you through the steps below.

Step 1 – Unpeg and Lower Awning Arm

If you pegged out the arms of your awning you’ll start by unpegging them, walking them back to the RV then clipping them to the body. Be sure to give the mounting clip a little shake to make sure it’s securely connected.

Now you will lower the outer awning arm. Release the outer arm lock and lower the arm till it is fully retracted. Remember if you are doing this by yourself you’ll need to do it in stages, partially lower one side then the other side.

Step 2 – Retract Support Arm

Loosen the knob on the inner arm, now your RV may have a latch that needs to be released in order to slide the inner arm down to the bottom of the outer arm. Our RV does not have this, we simply lift the inner support arm slightly and move it over top of the latch.

Repeat on the second arm.

Step 3 – Switch to Retract Mode

Slide the black strap near the extend/retract lever and hold tightly to the strap. Then flip the lever to the retract position. Due to the tension in the spring, the awning is going to want to snap closed, keep a firm grip on the strap as you switch the lever so the awning does get away from you possibly damaging the awning, your RV or hurting you.

With the lever in the retract position carefully slide the strap back to the center of the awning. You want the strap in the center of the awning so it can extend and retract evenly.

Step 4- Retract Awning

Now it’s time to retract the awning. Slowly release the strap allowing the awning to roll up on itself. Just before the strap is too high to reach use your awning rod and hook it into the end of the strap.

Finish rolling the awning up until it is completely stowed.

Step 5 – Engage Travel Locks

To finish you will reengage the travel locks. On our awning, we lift the outer arm slightly till it catches on the inner support arm. Then we flip the travel lockdown the engage and lock it. Of course, we repeat this on the other side.

If you have the knob and clip style we discussed when opening your awning then you will squeeze the inner and outer arms together engaging the lock at the back then tighten the black knob just to hand tightens. Repeat on the other awning arm.

As I mentioned before different makes and models are going to have different styles of travel locks. Make sure you are very clear on how to engage and disengage the locks on your specific awning to prevent damage.

Final Thoughts

So that is the full rundown on how electrical RV awnings work and how mechanical RV awnings work. Plus how to properly open and close both types of camper awnings.

Electrical awnings have the advantage of being extremely easy to operate and taking some of the worries away with helpful features like auto-retract. But they do tend to cost more to purchase and repair.

Mechanical awnings take a little more effort to open and close and you need to keep a close eye on the weather to make sure a rogue storm doesn’t pop up and damage your awning. But they are much less expensive and can be repaired yourself if you are a little handy.

If you’ve run into trouble with your awning and need to replace it, you can use a used awning and shorten the tub to fit. Find out how in our step by step guide to shorten an RV awning.

For a quick and easy upgrade, you can install LED strip lights on your RV awning to create a little mood lighting on your RV’s patio.

Recommended RV Awning Products:

  • Carefree RV Awning Sun Blocker – Adding a quality sun blocker panel to your awning gives you more shade to keep you cooler on those sunny summer days.
  • Awning Tie-downs – Anchoring the corners of your awning helps prevent damage due to little gusts of wind. This tie-down kits included sturdy straps and screw-in stakes perfect for any type of soil.
  • Awning Door Ball Roller – This inexpensive addition to your RV door could save you a ton of money and hassle in the future by preventing your entrance door from rubbing against awning and causing damage.

Diane Dee

Diane is a lover of all things travel. She and her young family wanted to explore North America from the comfort of their own home so they bought an RV. After fully rehabbing a 1994 Safari Trek, they set out to explore both Canada and the USA.

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