What Class of RV Has Air Brakes? (and do you need a CDL?)

Some motorhomes are quite large, and the largest ones often have at least 6 wheels and can be almost as long as big trucks. While I know 18-wheeled trucks use air brakes, do RVs have air brakes?

Most RVs do not have air brakes. Air brakes are typically only found on large Class A RVs that are diesel-powered, over 26,000 pounds, and often these are between 35 and 40+ feet in length.

But that’s just a quick answer and doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story.

So in this article, we’ll explore some specific models of RV that do have air brakes, and we’ll talk about whether you need a special driver’s license to drive one of them.

But we’ll also talk about why you still might need a commercial driver’s license (CDL) even though most RVs are not used as a commercial vehicle, or whether a regular driver’s license is good enough.

Lastly, we’ll talk about the types of RVs most likely to have air brakes and whether you would ever see them in something as small as Class B RVs or Class C RVs.

Let’s get into it!

What are air brakes and how do they work in an RV?

Air brakes are a type of braking system used in many large vehicles, including RVs. They work by using compressed air to apply pressure to the brake pads, which slows down or stops the vehicle when the brake pedal is pressed.

In an RV, air brakes are typically used on the rear wheels, while hydraulic systems are used for the front brakes. This combination allows for better braking performance and helps prevent the RV from swaying or fishtailing while stopping.

One of the main advantages of air brakes is that they are more reliable than hydraulic brakes, as they are less likely to overheat or fail due to prolonged use. They also provide a smoother braking experience, as the pressure is applied gradually and evenly, rather than all at once.

In terms of legal requirements, the use of air brakes in an RV can vary depending on the weight and size of the vehicle, as well as the laws in your state. In some states, an endorsement or special license may be required to operate an RV with air brakes.

If you’re new to driving an RV with air brakes, it’s important to take some time to familiarize yourself with the system and how it works. You should also perform regular maintenance and inspections to ensure that the air brakes are functioning properly.

Are diesel RVs the only ones with air brakes?

While diesel engine RVs are not the only RVs that have air brakes, air brakes are most commonly found on diesel RVs. This is because the primary type of diesel RV is Class A, and with some Class A motorhomes exceeding 35 feet in length, air brakes provide greater stopping power.

When you hear diesel RVs, you’re going to think about larger motorhomes, probably anything over 26,000 pounds.

A large RV like a Class A RV comes in between 13,000 to 30,000 pounds. Meaning if you get a larger Class A, you’re going to need the air brakes to help slow down this powerhouse.

My RV is a Newmar Baystar that is 34 feet long. It’s gas-powered, not diesel. It’s also only 21,000 pounds. So I didn’t have to get a special driver’s license for it. It also does NOT have air brakes.

Air brakes are most commonly found on very large diesel RVs because these vehicles need more help slowing down.

Think of it like this; hydraulic brakes perform really well when it comes to lightweight cars and lightweight motorhomes. When it comes to heavy RVs, they need more braking capacity.

That being said, unless you’re going to drive the largest Class A RV out there, you won’t have much problem with driving one.

Once you have gotten used to them, the air brakes will actually be better and safer for you and your RV.

Do you need a CDL to drive a motorhome with air brakes?

CDL stands for commercial driver’s license, and it is required when driving any Class A RV that weighs over 26,000 pounds, which typically will have air brakes also.

However, the license requirements may be different in your state. So always check with your DMV.

But does this include all types of RVs? This depends on what you plan to use your RV for. For the most part, you will not need a CDL to drive most types of RVs. This even includes some Class A RVs.

Though you may not need a CDL, you have to pay attention to specific special license requirements.

Vehicles under 26,000 pounds generally don’t require a special commercial or non-commercial license. Most RVs fit this description; including Class A, C, and B.

But see my state-by-state guide below.

That’s because some Class A’s only weigh as much as 13,000 pounds and wouldn’t require this special license. It may depend on what state you’re in, though too. And as I mentioned, my Class A Newmar is 34 feet long, but only 21,000 pounds. So I did not have to get a CDL.

But some Class A RVs are slightly bigger, though.

A Class A motorhome over 26,000 pounds is the only RV you’ll need a special license for. Often these RVs will be closer to 40 feet in length, have air brakes, and are also often diesel-powered.

But for the most part, having a standard Class C driver’s license is enough for 95% of the RVs out there. But the weight of your rig, and sometimes length, are the biggest factors in determining that.

What states require a CDL or endorsement to drive an RV?

  • California – You need a non-commercial Class A license for RVs over 10,000 lbs or fifth wheels over 15,000 lbs. A non-commercial Class B license is needed for RVs between 40′ and 45′
  • Connecticut – You need a Class II license to tow travel trailers greater than 10,000 lbs
  • Georgia – A Class E or F license is needed for any RV weighing over 26,000 lbs
  • Hawaii – Any RV weighing between 15,000 and 26,000 lbs requires a Class 4 license
  • Illinois – Requires a non-commercial class A, B, or C license to drive any RV over 16,000 lbs or to tow any recreational vehicle greater than 10,000 lbs
  • Kansas – A non-commercial Class A or Class B license is needed for any RV larger than 26,000 lbs
  • Maryland – Requires a non-commercial Class A or Class B license for any RV larger than 26,000 lbs
  • Michigan – Requires a special “R” endorsement when pulling two trailers. This applies to towable RVs with a toy hauler which pulls recreational gear behind the RV
  • Nevada – A “J” endorsement is needed for towing a trailer that weighs more than 10,000 pounds. You’ll need a non-commercial Class A or Class B license for any RV heavier than 26,000 lbs
  • New Mexico – A Class E license is needed for recreational vehicles larger than 26,000 lbs
  • New York – While Class C licenses were removed in 2005, people driving RVs over 26,000 lbs are now required to get an “R” endorsement
  • North Carolina – A non-commercial Class A or Class B license is needed for RVs weighing greater than 26,000 lbs
  • Pennsylvania – A non-commercial Class A or Class B license is required for RVs weighing over 26,000 lbs
  • South Carolina – A Class E or F license is needed for RVs larger than 26,000 lbs
  • Texas – A non-commercial Class A or Class B license is required for RVs larger than 26,000 lbs. Class A or B licenses are also needed for towing any RV over 10,000 lbs
  • Washington D.C. – Must take a written CDL test to drive a vehicle weighing more than 26,001 lbs
  • Wisconsin – A CDL is required for any RV that is over 45 feet in length
  • Wyoming – A Class A or B licensing is needed for RVs greater than 26,000 lbs

Bear in mind that state laws change often, and this list can become out of date (although I will endeavor to keep it up to date). Always check with a local dealer or your DMV.

But you hear the terms RV and motorhome thrown around interchangeably.

If you’re interested in learning the differences between an RV and a motorhome, I have a recent article that covers it. I get into all types of RVs, sizes, styles, and the pros and cons of each.

Just click the link to read it on my site.

Frequently Asked Questions

How to drive an RV with air brakes

To drive an RV with air brakes, allow greater stopping distance as it takes longer for the brakes to be applied when using air brakes. There will also be an air gauge on the dashboard showing the available air pressure. Never drive an RV is the air brake air pressure is low.

So air brakes have a slight delay from the time your foot hits the pedal and when the brakes actually react.

This delay also means it will take you longer to stop. To best prepare for any emergencies or anything happening on the road, it’s best to drive slower than most people. This gives you extra time to slow down and observe what is going on around you.

Honestly, I do that in my RV even without air brakes.

I like to drive my RV about 5 mph below the posted speed limit. Slow down and make sure you give yourself enough space between you and the car in front of you.

Now to further understand that driving slow and braking sooner is essential, imagine it’s snowing out, and you got ice on the road.

You’ve still got places to be, but your air brakes are less likely to be effective because of the size of your rig. Drive slow in slippery conditions such as rain or snow as you are more likely to slide.

While these all seem relatively obvious, there is one thing to make sure you look out for when driving with air brakes.

Your air brakes can leak, and if a leak develops, this can cause a major problem. The air in the brake is meant to keep the brake from applying itself. If the air leaks, then the brakes will apply immediately.

If the brakes apply while driving, this can cause a significant accident and make a major dent in your wallet when you have to replace the brakes.

There should be a gauge on your dashboard that shows if the air pressure is low and if it is pulled over as soon as possible. I mentioned wallets hurting earlier, so let’s take a look at how much it would cost to get a brake job with air brakes.

How much does an RV air brake job cost?

When you need to service brakes on your RV, the cost of an RV air brake job can vary widely depending on several factors. Those include:

  • The make and model of your RV (motorhome or towed vehicle, but also some brand’s parts will cost more)
  • The type of air brake system it uses (spring brakes, electric brakes, drum brakes, disc brakes, hydraulic, air, etc)
  • The extent of the repairs needed

But an RV air brake job will cost about $1,500 in total. Labor will be about $600, and the parts will be about $800. But different RV makes and models may see those costs vary slightly.

The parts involved in an air brake job typically include brake pads or shoes, brake drums or rotors, brake calipers or wheel cylinders, and various hoses, valves, and fittings. The cost of these parts can vary depending on the brand and quality of the parts, as well as the specific needs of your RV’s air brake system.

In addition to parts, the cost of an air brake job also includes labor charges, which can vary depending on the hourly rate of the mechanic or shop performing the work, as well as the amount of time it takes to complete the job.

On average, an RV air brake job can take anywhere from 4 to 8 hours to complete.

When determining the cost of an RV air brake job, it’s important to get an estimate from a qualified mechanic or shop that specializes in RV repairs. They can provide a more accurate estimate based on the specific needs of your RV’s air brake system and the cost of parts and labor in your area.

Overall, while the cost of an RV air brake job can be significant, it’s important to prioritize the safety of your RV and those on the road. Regular maintenance and repairs can help ensure that your air brake system is functioning properly and can prevent costly and dangerous accidents.

By comparison, the cost of a hydraulic RV disc brake job can range anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 or more.

Most motorhomes will use hydraulic brakes if they don’t use air brakes.

The parts involved in a hydraulic disc brake job typically include the brake pads or shoes, brake rotors or drums, brake calipers or wheel cylinders, brake lines, and hydraulic fluid. The cost of these parts can vary depending on the brand and quality of the parts, as well as the specific needs of your RV brakes.

The cost of labor for a hydraulic disc brake job is generally higher than for an air brake job since the work is more complex and requires more specialized expertise.

On average, a hydraulic disc brake job can take anywhere from 6 to 12 hours to complete, depending on the specific needs of your RV’s brake system and the experience of the mechanic performing the work.

But the type of brake can vary by type and brand, so check your manual, with your dealer, or Google your make and model.

Can I park an RV with air brakes in a neighborhood?

Many neighborhoods do allow RV parking. However, some do prohibit the use of air brakes during certain hours, but this will be posted on signs. Also, some neighborhood HOAs prohibit any type of RV.

When it comes to parking your RV anywhere, whether it is in a neighborhood or not, you need to understand how to park your air brake RV properly.

Your RV mustn’t roll away from you and cause accidents on other sites.

If your rig is too long, look for another site where you can stay. The most ideal spot, of course, will be along the curb, in front of your house, ideally where you can just pull right in and out.

Do make sure to never extend slide-outs towards the street. But it may also get you a ticket if you extend them over a sidewalk too.

Always make sure you are on a level surface when you park a larger RV. Engage your parking brake, and you should always carry a few wheel immobilizers. Or just lower the leveling jacks.

This way, you have peace of mind while being at peace in nature.

How Do You Get a Special Endorsement or CDL to Drive an RV?

In general, if your RV meets certain size and weight criteria, you may need a special endorsement or CDL to legally drive it. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) sets guidelines for CDL requirements, and each state has its own set of laws regarding CDLs and RVs.

For example, in California, you need a non-commercial Class B license to drive an RV over 40 feet in length or weighing over 26,000 pounds. In contrast, in Texas, you only need a regular Class A or B license to drive an RV of any size or weight, as long as it’s not being used for commercial purposes.

It’s important to note that even if you don’t legally need a CDL or special endorsement to drive your RV, it’s still a good idea to have some training or experience driving large vehicles, depending on your rig’s size. RVs can be challenging to maneuver and require a different set of skills than driving a passenger car.

If you do need a CDL or special endorsement to drive your RV, you’ll need to follow the guidelines set by your state’s DMV or licensing agency. This may include passing a written knowledge test, a skills test, and a medical exam.

In conclusion, whether or not you need a special endorsement or CDL to drive an RV depends on the laws in your state and the size and weight of your RV. But if you have a large motorhome, it’s worth double checking.

It’s important to check with your state’s local DMV or licensing agency to make sure you’re following the legal requirements. Even if it’s not legally required, getting some training or experience driving large vehicles can help you feel more confident and safe on the road.

But what if you do need a CDL? Does that mean you have to stop at weigh stations with your RV?

Luckily in a recent article, I get into the specifics of how and when an RV might be required to stop at weigh stations. But I also give you a state-by-state guide and what to look out for, and what the risks are of NOT stopping.

Just click that link to read it on my site.

How To Perform An Air Brake Check On A RV Or Motorhome

Final thoughts

RV living is popular, and the ease of being able to drive one makes this lifestyle more desirable.

Just remember not to use your RV for commercial use and pay attention to the weight of your vehicle. Air brakes help you stay safe when operating a more massive RV, and you should take the time to learn about them and get used to them.

Try practicing in an empty parking lot and practice you’re parking and checking your brakes before going. Drive safe and have fun camping!


Photo which requires attribution:

Bounder Command Central by jbolles is licensed under CC2.0

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