How my Airstream lost its mojo in the carport

December 29th, 2014 by Rich Luhr

Next week I’m going to camp in the desert in California, and so I’m getting the Safari ready now. I’ve learned that anytime the Airstream has been sitting for a while, it’s best to start checking all the systems at least two weeks in advance.  That way the little problems that sometimes crop up during storage can be resolved without a last-minute panic.

I figured I’d find something that needing doing, but was completely surprised by what turned up.  The Tri-Metric battery monitor was reporting the batteries were at 73%. Since the Airstream has been continuously plugged into power since late August, this was clearly suspicious. The batteries should have been at 100%.

The Tri-Metric 2020 (by Bogart Engineering) is one of several amp-hour meters you can install in place of the existing battery monitor that came with your travel trailer. I recommend this upgrade to everyone, for reasons I’ve outlined previously. It’s about $200 plus installation, and well worth it for anyone who ever camps off-grid, has solar panels, or just wants to know what’s really going on with their batteries.

The Tri-Metric is highly accurate. It “counts” every bit of power (in amps) that goes in or out of the batteries, so when it reports 73% charge, it’s pretty darned close, like within 1-2%. We’ve had that Tri-Metric running in the Airstream for nine years and it has always been reliable.

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So the first thing I checked was that the Airstream was in fact receiving power.  That was simply a matter of looking at another meter in my case, but if you didn’t have one, turning on an AC-powered appliance would verify power as well. Just plug in a lamp or something.

The second thing I checked was that the power converter/charger was doing its job.  You might recall that earlier this year I switched from the factory-installed converter/charger to an Intellipower 9260 with Charge Wizard. This was in order to get better battery charging when we were plugged in. The factory put in a 2-stage charger, and the Intellipower has three stages, plus somewhat more “brain” so it doesn’t overcharge the battery, and the option of manual overrides using the Charge Wizard.

The Tri-Metric answered this question too. It was showing that the batteries had a tiny rate of discharge, about -0.05 amps. Turning on additional DC power consumers (lights, fans, water pump) revealed that the rate of discharge never changed.  That’s because the Intellipower was doing at least part of its job, stepping up the power input as needed to compensate for DC power draws. If the Intellipower wasn’t working at all, the Tri-Metric would have shown a dramatic increase of discharge.

Now, to understand what’s coming next, you need know something about the way batteries charge. A fully charged “12 volt” battery really runs about 12.7 volts.  (This varies by the type of battery chemistry used, but here I’m referring to the typical “wet cell” lead-acid batteries that come with your Airstream.)

Think of volts as electrical pressure. In order to get 12.7 volts into the battery, you have to “push” power into the battery a little harder than 12.7 volts. The harder you push, the faster the power goes in.  But there’s a limit to how hard you can safely push, so for this typical sort of battery the manufacturers usually recommend about 13.6 volt for a normal charge. When the battery is really empty you can push a little harder (meaning more volts), and when it is nearly full you have to back off and push more gently (less volts).

The Intellipower, like many other RV converter/chargers, has pre-set levels at which it charges the batteries. If the battery is full or nearly full, it charges at “storage mode” rate of 13.2 volts.  This keeps the battery topped off, compensating for a little “self-discharge” that naturally occurs with lead-acid batteries.

If the battery is somewhat discharged, the Intellipower steps up to 13.6 volts.  This is the “normal mode” of charging.

If the battery is really discharged and needs a bulk charge quickly, the Intellipower goes for broke and pushes hard at 14.4 volts. It will only do this for a little while before returning to the normal mode of 13.6 volts.

Those are the “three stages” that I was referring to earlier, and it works just great for conventional batteries.

With the trailer plugged in, the Tri-Metric was telling me that the battery voltage was steady at 13.2 volts.  That’s not the actual voltage of the battery, because it was receiving some input from the Intellipower. To get the true voltage, I disconnected the AC power and waited for the battery to have a chance to “settle”.

Ideally I should have let it settle for 24 hours with no charge or discharge (e.g., disconnected), and then measured at 77 degrees, but I was impatient and didn’t want to disconnect the battery at that time, plus it was cold outside. So I waited six hours with a very small load on the battery (from the refrigerator’s circuit board and a few other small “parasitic” drains), and checked the voltage again.  It was 12.7 volts, which in a conventional battery would indicate that it was about full.

If this had been the end of the story I would have concluded that the Tri-Metric had somehow lost calibration and wasn’t counting the amps correctly. But that just didn’t sit well with me.  The Tri-Metric seemed to be acting normally.  After six hours of the trailer being unplugged, the Tri-Metric was reporting a 70% charge, which seemed about right. Something else had to be wrong … but what?

The answer surprised me.  Long ago we replaced the original Airstream batteries with an Absorbed Glass Mat (AGM) battery. These are sold under various brand names, such as Optima. Ours happens to be a Lifeline 4D model. I looked up the charging requirements for this battery and discovered that it has entirely different voltage requirements, as follows:

Absorption Charge voltages (“normal mode”): 14.2- 14.6
Float Charge voltages (“storage mode”) 13.1 – 13.4

Although the Intellipower charger was supplying power to the battery, it just wasn’t enough. When the battery wanted 14.2 to 14.6 volts, the charger gave it 13.6 volts. Sitting in storage, the charger gave it only 13.2 volts, which was fine for a while, but not enough to maintain the AGM’s rated “full” level of 12.9 volts. The battery gradually lost power.

The upshot for you is that there’s a dirty little secret about most power converters: they aren’t optimized for charging AGMs, at least not the Lifeline ones.  In our case, the Intellipower documentation doesn’t address this, and factory voltage output settings can’t be changed. I checked a few other popular brands and found they are exactly the same. Only a few brands, like Xantrex, have the built-in capability to push the correct voltages needed for AGM batteries. If you have switched to AGMs and haven’t upgraded your converter/charger to the right brand, your battery is going to have reduced capacity as well.

The really peculiar thing about this is that it took eight months for my problem to crop up.  Why didn’t I notice a charging problem before?

Because we have solar panels, and a separate solar charge controller (a Blue Sky Solar Boost 2000e). The Blue Sky charger can be programmed to output a range of voltage, so you can optimize it for your batteries. The factory default on that device is 14.0 volts (compared to 13.6 volts on the Intellipower), and that makes a huge difference. So when we were parked outside, our batteries were getting their last 27% of capacity courtesy of the sun and the Blue Sky—and I didn’t realize it until now.

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At home, our Airstream lives under a carport, so the solar panels don’t produce any power. And, in colder temperatures, it takes a little more power to charge the batteries—about 0.5 volts more. (This is just a weird battery chemistry thing.) So after four months of sitting in the carport with slowly declining temperatures and inadequate voltage from the Intellipower, the battery slowly lost power and the solar panels weren’t there to save the day.

It’s possible the battery still is underperforming. I’m going to test it this next week when I take the trailer out of the carport and go camping for a week.  If I’m right, a full charge should be possible in the sunshine, and then I can “equalize” the battery using the solar charge controller (which goes to 15.2 volts in equalization mode), and exercise it through a few charge/discharge cycles.

I may also adjust the BlueSky charger for slightly more output voltage. I’ll have to do that after the battery has reached full charge. It may already be at an optimal setting, but since I don’t know, it will be a good exercise to check it once we have full sun.

If the battery is fine and it comes to a full charge next week using solar power, I’ll have to start looking for a better converter/charger. It’s a bummer to have to replace that unit again, but with the right unit in place the battery should charge faster when plugged into AC power—and most importantly maintain its state of charge all winter long.

Things polishing taught me

December 22nd, 2014 by Rich Luhr

For years I’ve seen the amazing mirror shines that people have put on their vintage Airstreams, and I’ve thought, “I’ll never do that on my ’68 Caravel.” My impression of polishing was that it was an exercise for (a) people who are trying to pump up the re-sale value of a trailer. i.e., flippers; (b) people who think a day spent detailing a car for a show is a day well spent, i.e., (to my point of view) masochists.

Well, there I was on Friday and Saturday of this past weekend, in the driveway spending most of the daylight hours with a rotary buffer in my hands … and so I have to admit that my assessment was far too harsh. There are good reasons to polish a vintage Airstream that go beyond financial profit or masochism.

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As I said in the previous blog entry, the impetus for this project was Patrick’s offer to come down with a batch of Nuvite polishes and tools, and show me how to do it. It was impossible to say no to that.  So despite my earlier prejudices, I’m now one of those guys who has polished his Airstream—and you know, it’s kind of cool.

In the course of the two days, I learned many things, such as:

  1.  Polishing isn’t as hard as I thought.  I had imagined severe muscle strain from holding a heavy rotary buffer, and excruciating effort to reach every little crack and seam. Actually, the buffer did all the work and even the edging work wasn’t that bad.
  2. It’s not as messy as I thought.  I suited up with a long-sleeved shirt, vinyl gloves, and a baseball cap, so my skin was barely exposed. I thought I’d end up covered in black aluminum oxide, but it wasn’t much at all and it washed off easily. Even the driveway cleanup was easy: just a push broom to sweep up all the little black fuzzies that came off the buffing pads. However, I’m glad I chose to wear my cheap sneakers.
  3. Polishing actually “repaired” the surface of the Caravel’s metal body, at least at a microscopic level.  After nearly fifty years, the skin had a lot of pitting and scratches. The polish moves the metal around so that pits and scratches get filled.  I was amazed to see lots of little scratches disappear.
  4. The neighbors love it.  I was concerned that two days of buffer noise, flecks of black polish getting flung around, and the sight of us working on a vehicle in the driveway in defiance of our neighborhood’s antiquated deed restrictions, might cause some of the neighbors to get a little upset.Far from it—people who were passing by paused to wave or give us a thumbs-up. Yesterday a neighbor dropped by to say how amazed she was with the shine. Turns out that polishing a vintage Airstream is kind of like having a baby. Everyone praises you, even though it’s noisy and messy. Now my Airstream has been transformed from a kind-of-cool “old trailer” to a showpiece.

The only unfortunate part of this is that we ran out of time.  Patrick came down from Phoenix on Friday so we didn’t get started until noon, and both Friday and Saturday we had to stop around 5:30 because we ran out of daylight.  It’s hard to get big outdoor projects done near the Winter Solstice. (I suppose I shouldn’t complain—many of you are buried in snow right now.) On Sunday we both had other things to do.

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We got as far as polishing every section of the trailer two or three times in Nuvite F7 (with F9, a more aggressive grade for a few heavily pitted areas). We also managed to do about 90% of the trailer with the next grade, Nuvite C. Realizing we would run out of time, we finished just one panel with the final grade (Nuvite S) using the Cyclo polisher and some towels, just to see how it would look. That’s what Patrick is doing in the photo above.

It’s fantastic. The shine is definitely mirror grade. The metal still has lots of blemishes (deep scratches, minor dings, and pits) but from more than five feet away all you see is a reflection of the world around the Airstream. Click on the photo for a larger version and notice how well you can see the palm tree in the reflection. You can even me taking a photo.

Compare that section to the panels above, which have been done up through Nuvite C but haven’t had the final step yet. The blackish smudging on the upper panels is just some leftover polish that we haven’t cleaned up with mineral spirits yet.  It wipes right off.

Since we are both tied up with holiday and year-end stuff, and then I’ve got Alumafiesta prep to do, Patrick has offered to come down for a day sometime in January to do the final work on the Caravel. That should take him about 4-5 hours. If I can help, I will.  In any case, the Caravel will be on display at Tucson/Lazydays KOA during Alumafiesta in late January 2015, so if you are coming to that event you can see for yourself what we did.

The polishing project

December 12th, 2014 by Rich Luhr

Although the North has been dealing with winter storms and the usual inconveniences of winter, down here in the southern Arizona desert it’s the best time of year for outdoor work. For the past couple of years I’ve taken the opportunity to do major Airstream maintenance between mid October and January, taking advantage of the cool and generally dry weather we get at this time of year.

This time around it looked like I might get away with just chilling out, but then Patrick called and prodded me about getting the Caravel polished. He’s The Guy from Nuvite Chemical Corp., and if you have a vintage Airstream you probably know the name Nuvite.  It’s the premiere polishing compound used to make Airstreams shine like mirrors.

Now, Airstreams never came out of the factory with “mirror shine.”  They generally had a sort of matte shine, the color of factory-fresh aluminum (which of course is exactly what they were.) You could see yourself in it, but not very clearly.  With time, the aluminum would gradually oxidize to a dull battleship gray color, not particularly attractive, which is why Airstream began applying a clearcoat in the 1960s.  The clearcoat delayed the oxidization so the trailer looked new longer.

But eventually the aluminum oxidized anyway, and so vintage trailers owners have a choice: live with the dull patina, or get to work with some polish.  Polishing is a labor-intensive job, so for my 1968 Airstream Caravel I chose the path of least resistance for many years.  I had the clearcoat chemically stripped off back around 2005 when Colin Hyde was doing some sheet metal replacement on it, and then around 2010 my buddy Ken took it upon himself to do a polishing pass on the trailer, to even out the differences between new metal and old.  But the Caravel has never really been super-shiny, and lately it has oxidized back to a patina that belies the trailer’s 46 years.

The photos below show what I’m talking about.  The first photo is a 1953 Airstream Flying Cloud that we used to own. It is fully oxidized. Once a layer of oxidization forms on the trailer, it protects the rest of the aluminum and doesn’t deteriorate further. So there’s no harm in leaving it like this, but it’s not very pretty.  (The streaks below the reflectors are from rusting steel trim around the reflectors. This trailer had been sitting for over twenty years when we bought it.)

The second photo shows another 1953 Airstream Flying Cloud, but nicely polished.  (It belongs to Dicky Riegel, former president of Airstream and more recently the founder of Airstream2Go.) Hard to believe that the metal can go from one state to the other, but it’s absolutely true.  This is what you can do with a few cans of Nuvite and some work.

1953 Airstream Flying Cloud patina1953 Airstream Flying Cloud polished

Enter Patrick.  He is The Guy who goes around the country demonstrating how Nuvite works. I can’t figure out how he does it, since polishing is a demanding task that involves holding a heavy power tool against the trailer body for hours. The black aluminum oxide stains your clothes and skin too.  Yet Patrick is always smiling when I see him, and his fingernails always seem to be clean. He seems to think he has the greatest job in the country.

That must explain it, because he called me and reminded me that months ago we talked about polishing the Caravel.  He certainly could have let it go, since I wasn’t chasing him, but instead he’s going to drive down from Phoenix on December 19 and spend a day or two in my driveway showing me how Nuvite can turn the Caravel into a mirror-like “jewel.”

I’m going to help him, or at least attempt to.  I’m pretty sure he can finish the trailer before I figure out how to get my gloves on, but he’s a good sport and willing to give me lessons on technique. I’m also inviting some local friends to drop in and observe or help. With luck this might end up as a Tom Sawyer-esque episode where all my friends help do the work.

If you are in Tucson or willing to drive down on Dec 19, ping me and I’ll give you directions to the fun (email: my first name at airstreamlife.com).  If you want to observe from afar and keep your clothes clean, I’ll post photos here of the process.

I also hope to learn more about the chemical process of polishing.  It’s interesting in a geeky way. From what I know so far, we aren’t removing anything from the aluminum, but rather “turning over” the surface material chemically.  I’ll ask Patrick for details. And if you want to see the trailer in person, drop by Alumafiesta in late January.  I’ll have it on display in the campground or inside the Event Center.

 

A Walk on The Wall

November 19th, 2014 by Rich Luhr

For the first time visitor to China, seeing the Great Wall is usually near the top of the list, and we were no different.  After having a fun meeting with the Airstream dealer (“Leo”), we had exactly one full day in Beijing for sightseeing. We could easily have spent the day just walking around central Beijing (with a little help from the subway, because this is a big city) but as Eleanor said, “How can you go to China and not see the Great Wall?”  I couldn’t argue with that.

The trick with visiting the Great Wall is that it is not close to Beijing, so any visit will consume most of your day.  The closest segment is about two hours drive away, and that part is overrun with tourists. If you can, imagine a fully reconstructed section of Wall, jam-packed with people, with snack bars and souvenir shops, queues and people dressed up as “Mongol invaders” who will pose with you for a tip. There’s even a cable car strung along it so you don’t have to do any actual walking.

I suppose this is great if you want the Epcot Center version of the Great Wall, or if you have mobility problems, but we were seeking a quieter experience and so it seemed worth while to hire a guide and travel 2.5 hours to the Mutianyu section. Once we escaped the traffic in Beijing, the drive became almost bucolic, along narrow roads that wander through the countryside and cleave tiny villages. The terrain starts to resemble the hills near California’s Bay Area, until you get to a village where the road drops to a single lane and you have to dodge a cluster of pedestrians who don’t seem to care at all that there’s a van coming.

For me, the best part of this was that for this one day–out of 15 days spent in China, Korea, and Japan—we were at last away from crowds and noise. (One of the reasons I like living in the desert southwest is that there’s lots of open space.) Being in major Asian cities was starting to get to me, but here in the foothills north of Beijing I could have a moment to absorb the scenery and soft sounds of the rural countryside.

Zhuangdaoku Village hike

Near our destination of Zhuangdaoku Village, I noticed cement koi ponds beside many of the houses, fed by streams running through, and asked our guide about this.  She said the people were accustomed to having fish because historically the village had a small river fishing industry, and now they kept koi ponds for a source of fresh fish.  They aren’t pets here.

Before our hike, we stopped to use the “country toilet” next to the restaurant where we’d be having lunch. We were prepared for this experience so it wasn’t too shocking, but I think most Americans would be horrified. It was outdoors, basically a partly-roofed cement bunker with three narrow chutes in the floor. Through the chutes we could see daylight.  You squat over the chutes and hopefully whatever you put in them slides down and into an open sewer below. There was no running water to flush it, and like most public toilets in China there was no toilet paper, but there was a garden hose outside nearby.

Often however, the air is far more scary than the toilets. Air pollution in Beijing is some of the worst in the world, second only to Delhi.  I was aware of this and had loaded an app on my phone which showed the real-time air quality ratings in and around several major Asian cities.  In the week before our arrival, the ratings for Beijing were phenomenally bad, reaching well over 500 micrograms per cubic meter of fine particles (“PM 2.5″) for several days.  This receives a “HAZARDOUS” rating, the worst rating possible, and was far beyond anything we wanted to breathe.  So I was packing a few 3M air filtering masks (with the “N95″ rating, available at hardware stores) just in case.

Mutianyu Great Wall

But we were incredibly lucky. The dense air pollution that normally obscures views had blown out the day before, and left us with a light breeze in cool fall temperatures that made a perfect day for hiking. The Mutianyu Great Wall is a scenic ribbon of pale stone running up and down the ridges of the foothills, and on this day the views were outstanding. It was so nice that even our guide, a woman who hikes the Great Wall five days a week, brought her camera along to capture the scenery.

Best of all, we were the only people there until we got to a particularly nice high vista and found a Chinese man and his son relaxing there. There is something really inspiring about walking on the stones of a Ming Dynasty-era wall on a beautiful day, with hardly another soul around. I stopped for a rest on the steps next to the older man, and he smiled at me and said “Tired!” in Chinese.  I could only smile back and nod, which is often all you need to do in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language.

We didn’t want to end our hike after about a mile on the Wall but because the Wall is so steep in places it had taken us a couple of hours to get that far, and it was time to break for lunch.  We hiked back down a dirt trail to town. Along the way I was stung by a Chinese bee or wasp near my elbow. Not far after on the dirt trail we walked past a sort of inn, really just someone’s house with rooms for rent, and the proprietors gave me a bottle of aromatic green lotion to smear on it. It didn’t do much for the pain but it smelled interesting.

Cang Fo Pu restaurant China

We had lunch alone in the restaurant that featured the country toilets from earlier. As patrons of the restaurant we were offered use of an outdoor cold-water sink and some soap to wash our hands before lunch–a considerable upgrade from the garden hose of earlier. I mentioned this meal in my previous blog about “Meals As Memories,” so I won’t recount it here, but suffice to say that it was a fitting end to a memorable day, and left us ready to doze on the 2.5 hour ride back to crowded Beijing.

I can’t speak for anyone else in my family, but this is why I travel.  Everything: rural scenery, ancient masonry, modern air pollution, rustic toilets, koi fish and bee stings, local people, and yes—a simple Chinese lunch, all offer the chance to grow and learn.  Most people aren’t happiest when they are relaxing. They are happiest when they are growing.  The Wall was the inspiration, but as you can see, it was not the destination.

Meals as memories

November 6th, 2014 by Rich Luhr

One of the great pleasures of traveling, for us at least, is eating. I feel sorry for timid eaters who seek out McDonald’s as they roam, because food is a great adventure.  We explore through food. We’ve discovered clotted cream on scones in the Cotswolds of England, dry-rub barbecue in Texas, shrimp & grits in South Carolina, fresh soft tacos in Mexico, green-lipped mussels in Newfoundland, and many other tasty wonders.

Human brains have a strange affinity for remembering foods (whether we like them or not).  One whiff of a unique dish can instantly bring you back to the place you first tasted it, and that stirs up the rest of your memories. Moreover, Eleanor has a strangely photographic memory for food, and an unusual talent that comes from decades of serious attention to the art of cooking: she can dissect a meal just by tasting it, revealing every spice and ingredient for later re-creation at home.  Sometimes in the dark winter months when not much is happening, Eleanor will bring back an old favorite that we found during travel, and eating it will be almost as good as the original trip.

My memory is poorer but a photo or two will help, so when we go somewhere I bring my camera and an appetite. On our recent trip to China, South Korea, and Japan it was a quest to eat whatever came our way, in the hopes of building a few more culinary memories, and we were not disappointed.

Each country yielded a wonderful surprise. In China on the day we hiked the Mutianyu section of Great Wall north of Beijing, our guide “Sonia” took us to a local place where a five-course meal was laid out for us: Kung Pao, scallion pancakes, fried rice, a savory eggplant dish with sweet brown sauce, green beans with spices, and potatoes. Sonia put everything on one of those rotating platters in the center of our table and we all ate family-style.

Most of it was familiar to us from eating in Chinese restaurants in the US, but not everything. I was well into the spicy hot green beans when I noticed that my tongue was going numb. About that time Eleanor asked Sonia, “Do you eat the spice seeds in this?” Sonia said no, and added that if we did eat them our tongues would go numb.  A bit late for me, but we all picked around that spice thereafter. Even then we got a little tingle like licking a 9-volt battery. Eleanor asked for the name of the spice, and Sonia pulled up a translation on her phone. It came up as “Szechuan peppercorn,” and looks like a gray version of the black peppercorns we use in the US.

The restaurant was just a minimally decorated room with an open door, but through the windows we could see the Great Wall snaking its way along the ridgeline of the foothills.  And as we ate we knew we’d just hiked that amazing wall, virtually alone, in China. You don’t forget a meal like that.

Mutianyu Great Wall Beijing

The night before our friends Leo and Shirley took us out for a walk down Wangfujing Street in Beijing. This is a westernized boutique street full of famous brands, glitz, and lighted signs. Most of that wasn’t really exciting for us, since it looked much like any number of high-end shopping districts in America, and at times we had to remind ourselves that this was China. Emma and I even found ourselves noticing a piece of Chinese traditional architecture and thinking, “Oh look, there’s a Chinatown here.”

But there was a side street, or hutong (narrow alley) called the “Snack Street” that looked promising. We shoved and squeezed our way through a dense crowd to find dozens of food vendors selling all kinds of interesting things, and this became dinner.  We’d pause in the slowly moving sea of humanity and point at some dumpling, crepe, candied treat, bottled yogurt, or pastry, and for a few yuan it would be ours. If it wasn’t something that had to be made in advance like the yogurt, they’d cook it to order in just a minute or two while we waited, so most of what we ate was very fresh.
Rich eating scorpion

Most items were 10 or 15 yuan ($1.60 – $2.40) and I think the most expensive thing we bought all evening was the fried scorpions for 25 yuan. The scorpions were for me, because I’d been challenged by my barber back in Tucson to eat a scorpion on a stick. (I sent him this photo as proof.) They were quite tasty and now I wish I’d also tried the fried grasshoppers.  Another favorite was a huge sort of scallion pancake with egg that Eleanor ordered and we all shared.  My favorite thing was a whole fish on a stick, about 10 inches long, fried and sprinkled with spices. Absolutely delicious, but it took a while to work around the little bones.

You don’t forget a meal like that quickly, either.

Korean barbecue

In Seoul, South Korea, our host Sungsoo took us for Korean barbecue. You can get something like that in the US, but it’s really great the way they do it in Korea. The meal starts with the waiter bringing over some damp towels and a huge array of small dishes.  Our table was covered with kimchee with octopus, seaweed salad, green salad, marinated onion salad, hot bean paste, cellophane noodles, and some green vegetables in a red broth.  Sungsoo ordered two kinds of beef for the barbecue, plain and marinated.

After the table is packed to the very edges with all the side dishes, the waiter brings over a steel bin with hot coals, which are dumped into the stove at the center of the table.  A small hood hanging from the ceiling collects the smoke. The waiter brings over the beef, which is sliced thin, and cuts it up into bite-sized pieces with kitchen scissors. These go on the fire, and the waiter returns periodically to turn them over and cut more beef. As patron, your only job at first is to eat the beef and side dishes in any combination you like, perhaps smearing a little hot bean paste on the beef and rolling it in a lettuce leaf. The waiter returns less frequently as you get the hang of grilling the beef yourself, but the side dishes get replaced whenever you ask for more.

Sungsoo felt we should have the full experience, so after we’d cleared most of the table he ordered cold noodles in broth with rice vinegar and hot mustard. The broth was so cold it had chunks of ice in it, another thing we’d never experienced.  It reminded me of eating maple sugar on snow as a kid. It was all wonderful.

We liked the Korean barbecue so much that we had it again the next day on our own.  Thanks to Sungsoo’s lesson the day before, we were able to navigate the process by ourselves, even though each restaurant does it a little differently and our resident Korean translator (Emma) only knows the words that she needed to learn for karate class. This made the second meal nearly as memorable as the first.

Yokohama noodle lunch

Finally, in Japan we had one meal that really stood out over all the others in Japan. It’s an expensive country, and it was a daily struggle to find restaurants that wouldn’t blow the budget. On our final day in Yokohama we discovered a noodle place that was buried in the lower level of a shopping center. I loved this place. We were seated at a large rectangular table with eight other diners, all Japanese. In front of us were containers with chopsticks, kimchi, pickled ginger, sauces, and a large jug of cold tea. We each picked out a noodle bowl and we ordered sides of rice and dumplings to share.

It was fantastic. I wish I could go back. The noodle bowls came topped with a melange of floating spices like nothing I’ve ever had before. The iced tea had a certain astringency and flavor that was the perfect complement to the spicy broth in our bowls. The dumplings were perfect: not greasy or bland, but lively and fresh. I peeked over at the other diners at our table to get some hints about the proper slurping etiquette, and then we dug in with our chopsticks. While we ate, a huge line began to form outside. Apparently we had found the good place to get lunch, and arrived just in time.  The bill was about $26 for all three of us. Considering prices in Japan I would have considered it a bargain at twice the price.

So you see what I mean.  There was a KFC and Starbucks on every corner in China, but any meal we had there would have been a non-event.  We were traveling to find something different and exciting. Choosing to push your own boundaries in any way is a path to growth (even if you hate the result, you’ve learned something). Expanding your food resumé is one of the most rewarding and memorable ways you can do it.

How does this relate to Airstream?  Well, one of the great things about traveling by RV is that you can prepare your own meals.  But sometimes it’s also the worst thing, because it is so seductive to cozy up inside and miss out on the fresh experiences outside your door. Once in a while, it’s important to get out of the comfortable bubble that your motorhome or travel trailer allows, and have a taste of something else. I predict the successes will far outweigh the disappointments.

Airstreaming in Asia

October 31st, 2014 by Rich Luhr

We are back in the USA after three weeks of travel in China, Korea, and Japan (and a stopover in Hawaii).

I had contemplated posting a series of day-by-day blog entries, but even then it would be hard to capture the breadth of the experience.  Traveling to places that are utterly foreign is at first intimidating, then exhilarating, occasionally overwhelming, and finally satisfying.  Much like other things in life that are outside one’s comfort zone, it will take time to process and absorb.  So instead of describing everything we saw and did, I’m going to put together a few essays about specific aspects of the trip.

Airstream-wise, the most obvious thing I learned is that Airstreamers don’t know how good we have it in North America.  Cheap fuel, open spaces, endless camping, minimal legal barriers, dealerships and service centers everywhere, and a large community of fellow travelers.  In Asia, Airstream is a luxury brand like Land Rover, affordable and practical only to a very small percentage of citizens.  Imagine if you had to pay $181,000 for a 23-foot Airstream, another $100k for the tow vehicle, $6 per gallon for fuel, and after that you found there were virtually no campsites in your country, nobody else to meet, and you had no room at your home to park it.

The Asian Airstream dealers have brought in Airstream as a luxury import, to places where there is little understanding of “RV culture.” As a result, they have to work hard to market Airstream and the concept of RV travel/recreation.  They can’t just sit at their showroom and expect customers to come in with much knowledge of Airstreams or what you do with one of them. It’s a tough challenge and I admire the effort that the dealers are putting into this. They bring Airstreams to events all over their region, spending the day showing the product and explaining what it does. The Beijing dealership has even opened a “try before you buy” camping facility in Inner Mongolia with six Airstreams parked near a golf course and ready for use. It’s the only campground in Inner Mongolia.

Incheon Korea Airstream Eleanor Emma

I was surprised to learn that the dealers hadn’t seen Airstream Life magazine yet, nor did they have much of a grasp of the strong Airstream communities that exist in North America and Europe. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been. Airstream Life is not published in their language, and the nature of the Asian Airstream community, if one ever develops, will undoubtedly be something unique rather than a copy of American culture. Airstreams have been sold in Japan for over a decade so there is a small owner community there, but it’s not much like ours.

One thing that is the same: the enthusiasm.  Everyone loves Airstreams. I’m sure that the dealers are gradually building an audience of people who now aspire to Airstream ownership, and that will serve them well over time.  The problem is that it will take a lot of time.  Wally Byam solved that problem by running high-profile caravans, which generated far more positive publicity for the brand than he could have done by any other method.  I think that if Asia is to become more than a niche market, caravans will become a key part of the marketing strategy eventually.

I knew that this trip would include just about every form of travel other than Airstreaming, but looking back on it I’m still amazed at the crazy procession of planes, trains, automobiles, and ships that we had to take to get around.  In sum, six flights, numerous taxis and shuttle buses, one ship, the Shanghai Maglev, bullet trains in China and Japan, subways in four cities (Shanghai, Beijing, Kobe, Tokyo), and light rail. (It would have been only five flights but leaving Honolulu we got a three hour tour of the Pacific and then returned to Honolulu due to a hydraulic problem with the Boeing 767.) And for the most part, we saw only the metropolises, rarely the beautiful countryside.

While riding the bullet trains and especially the Shanghai Maglev was exciting (the Maglev gets up to 288 MPH) I would have enjoyed the trip more if we were able to tow an Airstream around. Asia’s just not quite ready for that yet.  Massive traffic in the cities makes towing a trailer impractical, and in the country there’s not much infrastructure to support RV travel.  You can’t hope to find service centers conveniently, and the dearth of campgrounds means you have to be creative about finding places to stay.  (I am told by “Airstream Leo” in Beijing that he has sold one Airstream to a customer who is full-timing. I have no idea how that is working out.)

Each country has its own challenges. South Korea is essentially an island, cut off from the rest of Asia by that backward mess called North Korea, so while Korea has the most parks and campsites, road travelers are limited to a country only the size of southern California, with 50 million people to share it with. China is huge but good luck finding any sort of established RV campground. There’s also little precedent for licensing and regulating travel trailers in that country. Japan is the most organized and has the longest experience with Airstream, but it is also crowded and expensive. You’d want to think twice before towing in any major Asian city.

My assessment overall is that Airstream travel in most of Asia is practical only for the adventurous, self-supporting, and wealthy. But that will change. I’ll be keeping an eye on things to see how that’s evolving, with the hopes of being able to return and really see the countries the same way we’ve been able to see America. Despite the challenges, I don’t think that day is too far in the future.

Traveling to a new world of Airstream

October 8th, 2014 by Rich Luhr

Wally Byam never led a caravan in Asia as far as I know, but since his time Airstreamers have roamed around that continent a few times.  There was a very notable exchange program with China in the 1980s, where Americans were able to travel in the country by Airstream and some Chinese came here, but otherwise not much has happened there, Airstream-wise.

That has been changing recently. Airstreams have been sold in Japan in small numbers for over ten years, and in the past two years Airstream has opened dealerships in Shanghai, Beijing, and Seoul.  They are also selling Interstate motorhomes in Thailand, to wealthy types who spend a lot of time in traffic. Korea is interesting because there’s already an established RV culture in that country, but of course even though China has virtually no RV infrastructure you can’t disregard it. With billions of people and centralized policy-making, you never know. Tomorrow they could announce a huge initiative to build 100,000 campgrounds.

To me, the really interesting part of Airstream in Asia is that anything might happen.  Applying North American or even European expectations to Asia is an exercise in futility, so undoubtedly we will all be surprised by how the Asians interpret our “American icon.”  Already a high-end Airstream glamping site has been built in Inner Mongolia (next to the only golf course in Inner Mongolia, I’m told), and none of us saw that coming.

I decided last winter that this was the year to go to Asia and see the early sprouts of a new Airstream culture emerging.  We are leaving on Friday. I will meet with two or three of the Asia dealers and pick their brains about what is happening.  I’ll take photos and notes, and slurp noodles while contemplating it all.  I don’t yet know what I’m going to do with this knowledge (politicians call this a “fact-finding mission”) but I don’t think that matters.  Sometimes you have to go seek answers even when you don’t know the questions yet.

Planning this trip has been without a doubt the most intense trip-prep we’ve ever done as a family. It has been months of scheduling, saving, and research.  Our itinerary calls for seven major stops including Shanghai, Beijing, Incheon/Seoul, and Tokyo, plus lesser stops in Kobe Japan, Vancouver Canada, and Honolulu Hawaii.  And for most of it we’ve had to arrange planes, trains, automobiles, and ships from 12 to 13 time zones away.

I’ve got instructions for taxicabs in three different languages and hotel reservations in three different currencies, plus subway and rail maps for five cities, and meetings set up with people I’ve never met.  We’ve got new Passports, new luggage, Chinese Visas, trip insurance, an envelope full of renminbi (Chinese money) many useful apps on the iPhone, and typhoid vaccine in our tummies.

We didn’t do this much work getting ready to travel full-time for a year in our Airstream.  But I expect it will be worth the effort.  (I plan to keep telling myself that as we bounce through four airports for about twenty hours this weekend.)

People have been giving me lots of advice and warnings  for this trip.  I’ve been warned about protests in Hong Kong, typhoons in the Pacific, malaria in the countryside, dishonest cabbies in Seoul, air pollution and traffic jams in Beijing, crowded subways in Tokyo, and the importance of bringing one’s own toilet paper. Toilet paper, mosquito repellant, air-filtering mask: CHECK!

Some of the most useful advice has been regarding gifts, which are an important part of business in Asia.  After careful consideration, we are bringing some nice art for the people we meet.  I’ve selected some cover art from prior issues of Airstream Life and asked the artists to provide matted prints, which fit well in our luggage and are relatively light & unbreakable.  Eleanor wrapped them in red paper in such a way that border agents can examine them if needed without tearing them open.  I’ll be bringing works by Michael Depraida, Michael Lambert (below), and Don Lake, and they will be hanging in Airstream offices in Asia after we leave.

We chose red wrapping because it’s considered an auspicious color.  And speaking of colors, one tip that kept me out of trouble was about green hats.  Apparently there’s a saying in Chinese about a man who wears a green hat, which implies his wife is cheating on him.  Before I heard that I was very close to bringing a few Airstream Life hats (some of which are green), and even wearing mine while traveling, but I guess I’ll choose headwear that doesn’t malign our marriage.

It’s all very interesting to me.  The hassle of setting up the trip is really already worth it, because I’ve learned so much.  There will be much more to share as we go.

Internet will be at a premium during this trip, so my blog entries will be infrequent, but I do hope to at least post once or twice.  If that doesn’t work, I’ll post after the trip is over and pre-date all the entries as I did on last summer’s motorcycle trip.  I hope you enjoy following along!

Special thanks to Wally Byam

October 3rd, 2014 by Rich Luhr

That Interstate trip I took last July in California wasn’t just for fun.  At the time I mentioned that one goal was to write a guidebook for Interstate owners, much like the Newbies Guide To Airstreaming.  Well, I’ve finally done it. It took a few months of research to put everything together, and another couple of months for Jennifer to complete the illustrations and layout, but I think the result was worth the time.

Airstream Interstate motorhome coverThe Interstate motorhome is a tricky machine. Not only is it packed with a zillion features that all need explanation, but Airstream continually modifies it during production, so it’s very hard to make blanket statements about anything. So once I started driving it around, I realized I was going to need to tread very carefully in order to explain it properly. That’s why the book has over 40 illustrations just to cover the basics, plus six essential checklists, and many more hints and tips. (Yes, that was a sales pitch, but hey, I’ve got to make a living.)

Even with the learning curve, the Interstate is really very easy and fun to use. I borrowed one for 10 days to do some first-hand research, and I found that it only took a week to get comfortable with it.  With this book in hand, I probably would have been up-to-speed in a day or so—which of course, is why I write these things.

The book is now published on Amazon Kindle and Apple iTunes, so you can get it as an e-book from either of those sources. (I’m not yet sure if it will be available in print format, but hopefully that will happen early next year.)

Newbies Airstreaming cover croppedWhile Jennifer was working on the illustrations, I was making final updates to The Newbies Guide to Airstreaming, so the Second Edition will be coming out in a week or so on Kindle and iTunes, and we should have printed copies later in October.

Lots of little things have changed about Airstreams since I wrote the first version, but I was surprised (and pleased) to see that most of the essentials haven’t changed at all.  If you’ve read the Newbies Guide, you might have noticed that it’s almost as much about the philosophy of Airstreaming, as it is about the practicalities.  In other words, it’s just as important to understand the “why” or even the “zen” of Airstream travel, as it is to know which valve to pull when you are dumping the tanks.  That zen of Airstreaming has remained constant since Wally Byam’s days. In short, relax, and explore.

Wally expressed this as his “Four Freedoms.”

  1. Airstream travel keeps you free from reservations and inconveniences of modern travel because you can make your own schedule and travel in your own vehicle.
  2. You are free from many of the limitations of age, meaning that young children and elderly people alike (and of course all us Baby Boomers in between) can expand their horizons and live healthier lives.
  3. Airstreaming gives you what Wally called  “the freedom to know,” meaning that you can explore the world intimately, meeting real people and experiencing things in a way the average tourist never gets to do.
  4. And finally, they all add up to “the freedom for fun.” If you adopt the principles of Airstream travel fully, you can’t help but have a good time.  You are freed from your worries and ailments and schedules, so that your mind opens to new possibilities and new opportunities.

I’m glad none of that has changed.  I put a lot of effort into writing guides that help remove your worries about the mechanics of Airstreaming (whether trailer or motorhome) so you can relax and get the real benefit of traveling this way. But Wally Byam did the real work when he invented the philosophy.

 

 

 

The Performance Towing Experience

September 23rd, 2014 by Rich Luhr

A stretch of non-Airstream time and no blog entries can only mean one thing:  plotting the next adventures.

For months I’ve been chafing to write about one of the most exciting projects our event team has ever attempted.  This is something entirely new, which we are calling “PTX,” for “Performance Towing Experience.”   And now, since it’s coming together, I want to give you advance notice of it.

Next July 2015, we are going to take Airstream trailers to the race track—and you can drive them!

PTX logo

We’ll have three courses: a dragstrip run for demonstrations by our instructors, a low-speed cone course for beginners to towing, and a closed road course where experienced drivers can pull their Airstream through a slalom and practice maneuvers like emergency braking.

Whatever your level, PTX is going to be the place to learn more about towing, get your hitch optimized, get a safety check, practice things you hope you never have to do on the road, and compare different towing combinations by actually driving them.

This has never been done before, as far as we know.  That’s a big part of why I’m so pumped about it.

PTX will include three days of educational seminars and practice on the courses, plus three days where you can watch others race (on vintage motorcycles and other vehicles), and up to seven nights of camping!

We’ll be camped at the Grand Bend Motorplex, in Grand Bend Ontario.  It’s just about two hours drive from Detroit, or about 4-5 hours from Buffalo NY.  Camping will be mostly boondocking but there will be water available, a dump station, bathrooms, showers, and you can bring a generator.

We are anticipating that the event will have three levels of participation:  Spectator, Driver (beginning towing), and Advanced Driver (experienced towing).  Even Spectators will have a lot to do. We’ll have several off-site tours and events for Spectators, as part of the program.  The Motorplex is very close to the white sand beach at Lake Huron, and there’s a surprising amount of things to do in the area. And of course we’ll have the usual Happy Hours, catered dinner, social events, door prizes, and fun that we have at all our other events.

I’m really hoping that, besides being fun, this event helps improve safety.  Instead of relying on “rules of thumb,” and anecdotal reports on the Internet, and outdated advice, participants will have the chance to learn what works first-hand.  I’m hoping they actually feel the differences brought on by proper hitch tuning, tire choices, and tow vehicles.

No matter what you tow with, PTX will be an opportunity to make it tow better … and that should improve safety!

If you want to learn more about it, check the PTX website and sign up for our new Aluma-events newsletter, called “Outside Interests.”

By the way, the newsletter is another new project I’ve very excited about.  We just launched it last month.  Outside Interests comes out every three weeks, and shares news about Airstream, tips, profiles, and special deals on upcoming events—including PTX.  It’s sort of a companion to Airstream Life magazine, but entirely free and delivered by email.  Give it a try if you are curious; you can always unsubscribe if you want.

100,000 miles on the GL320

August 29th, 2014 by Rich Luhr

We’re at home between trips, and it’s time to take care of our trusty steed, the silver Mercedes GL320 that has hauled us across the country and back at least seven times (plus many other trips).

I learned many things when we were full-time travelers, and one of them was that you don’t skimp on vehicle maintenance.  When you’re on the road, that car or truck is literally your lifeline.  When the tow vehicle ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. So I tend to scrupulously maintain it and almost obsessively observe it (look, listen, sniff) for any hint of a problem brewing.

The GL is coming up on a milestone: 100,000 miles, to be specific.  This year in May the extended warranty expired too. This all means that the car is  transitioning from being a highly reliable creampuff, to being subject to the quirks and complaints of middle age. Without the warranty I’m now less insulated from the financial hits of future repairs.

This is exacerbated by the fact that the 97,600 miles on the odometer today are mostly the result of towing work—meaning that we’ve asked the car to do a lot more than the average commuter.  So when I brought it to the dealer this week for a routine service interval, I asked them to check out a few specific things.

There was “no cause found” for the strange power loss we experienced last week, but a software update was indicated which may alleviate the issue.  I’m not really terribly optimistic about that, because the car has had many such updates and not one of them has ever solved a problem. This is usually the first step in a series of “let’s try this and see if it helps” solutions.

But in the careful inspection the dealership did turn up a few things which are typical for a car of this mileage and use. One of the rear shock absorbers is leaking. They should be replaced in pairs, so that’s really two rather expensive shocks. One of the bushings in the right lower control arm (a front suspension part) is cracked and nearly worn out. The engine mounts, which on a Mercedes are filled with hydraulic fluid, have begun to leak and so they must be replaced too. And the battery is coming due for replacement.

The dealer of course uses Mercedes OEM parts and charges full retail for them, plus fixed labor rates, so the estimate for all of the above (except the battery) was a whopping $3,800.

I will not be paying that amount.  I will use Mercedes parts despite their rather high cost, because my experience has been consistently that they function better, fit better, and last longer than most of the aftermarket options. As a car reviewer once wrote, this is because “Mercedes parts have been dipped in gold and polished by trained unicorns.” But I will buy them through online parts stores at a discount and have my friendly neighborhood independent mechanic install them.  This will make the bill about $1,700—still far from cheap, but within the budget I’ve set for annual maintenance.

So far this year the car has consumed about $1800 in other repairs. The air conditioner compressor, which has been intermittently failing to cool for the past five years, finally failed sufficiently that we could diagnose the fault. We replaced that in July. The blower motor shorted out the month before, which caused it to keep running even when the car was off, and so that got swapped out too.

Annoying, yes, but not unexpected.  When I bought the car I had a plan to get it paid off before the warranty expired, because that’s when it could be expected to start getting expensive in repairs.  When the loan was paid, I immediately re-allocated the money that had been going to the car payment, to a savings account for future repairs. So at this point despite the expensive repairs, we’re still ahead financially (compared to a new car payment) and I expect that to continue to be the case for several years. When the equation shifts the other way, or when Tesla makes an electric car that can pull my Airstream at least 250 miles on a charge, it will be time to leave the old steed behind.

That’s not anytime soon, I think.  I like the GL better than the Nissan Armada we had before, even though it’s less roomy and costs more.  It took me five years and 97,000 miles to come to this conclusion, but at last I can say, “Yes, I recommend the GL as an Airstream tow vehicle” —as long as you actually maintain it.  It has proven to be a very capable tow vehicle. And it’s really fun to have people asking us “Does that little car tow that big trailer alright?” every few days. So we’ll keep it as long as it makes sense.

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Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine