Archive for September, 2011

It’s cool in Paradise

Friday, September 30th, 2011

It was hotter than Hell yesterday, but today it’s cool in Paradise (Texas).  Not only did the heat wave end, giving us a beautiful day, but our new 15,000 BTU air conditioner was installed and is now chilling out the Airstream.

We don’t really need the AC today, but hey, we’ve got it finally and I want to make sure the unit is solid (not about to have a “crib death” as electronics sometimes do) before we drive away.

The refrigerator, however, is another story.  No “smoking gun” issue was found.  It seems to be slowly failing for an unknown reason.  We found no sign of leaking coolant, no blockage in the vent, no ammonia smell, and it works equally badly on electric and gas.  This points to internal blockages in the cooling unit, which are not repairable.  The cooling unit has to be replaced, or the entire refrigerator.

Since it’s working a little (the freezer still makes ice but the refrigerator warms up to 50 degrees during the day), it was reinstalled for the trip home.  We’ll use it with some bags of ice to complete this trip, then figure out how/when it will be replaced later.

The new AC comes with a high-tech looking thermostat which basically does what the last one did but looks cooler doing it.  It reminds me of a Samsung front-loading washer.

Since we don’t trust the freezer entirely, Eleanor has embarked on a mission to cook up a bunch of the frozen stuff.  Last night she made dinner for seven (Paul, Anne, Marvin, Annie, and the three of us) which we ate in Paul & Anne’s house.  Tonight we’ll have dinner for five, since Marvin & Annie are leaving soon.  Tomorrow, it will be IKEA day: Swedish pancakes and meatballs for brunch before we hoist our moorings and point the ship west.

Struggling with the dual appliance failures and talking to Paul, Denver (tech), and Marvin has gotten me thinking about other upgrades and fixes for the Airstream.  Marvin & Annie are using a very interesting composting toilet in their 30 foot Argosy trailer, which they are enthusiastic about. It has several advantages:  no more black tank, no smell, and the ability to boondock for long periods of time.  On the other hand, it’s expensive at about $1k, does require you to empty a urine cartridge regularly, and requires a little user education.  You can’t just turn someone loose in the bathroom with this thing and expect good results.  I read the manual that comes with it and the manufacturer clearly has a bit of fun with the explanations of What To Do, and Where To Do It.

Eleanor and I had a chance to go inspect the Caravel, which is parked nearby, and see the work Paul did on it.  It looks great.  We asked for a few additional tweaks to the gaucho and battery mount, but nothing major.  It will be great to break the Caravel out this winter and perhaps take it to a vintage rally (if we can find one in a reasonable distance) or do a weekend at some tiny campground like the one in the Chiricauha National Monument.  It has been great visiting with Paul & Anne, so in a way I’m glad I’ll be making the 900-mile trip back soon to pick up the Caravel in the next few weeks.

Not cool

Thursday, September 29th, 2011

Things looked hopeful in the morning when our refrigerator was reading 42 degrees, but as the morning sun rose, so did the interior temperature.  By 11 a.m. I had conceded that it wasn’t cooling properly on gas yet, and Paul switched it over to electric to see if that worked better.  I also turned on our fridge vent boost fans, which we normally use whenever the ambient temp is above 90 degrees.

No joy.  By 2 p.m. the refrigerator had risen to 52 degrees inside, which suggests the worse possible scenario.  These units don’t have a lot of failure modes. When the fridge won’t cool on electricity or gas, and the circuitry has been eliminated as a cause (as proven by use of Paul’s testing device), it usually means the cooling unit is a goner.  They aren’t field serviceable, so the only solutions are either a replacement cooling unit or a whole new refrigerator.  Either way, it’s bad news.

Before we go to the replacement scenario, we’re going to try “burping” the fridge, which basically means turning it upside down for a while to try to work out an internal clog of the gasses and liquids that are essential to the cooling process.  That’s a desperation move.  We’ll also remove the topside vent cover to see if perhaps something nested in there during our stay in Vermont.  The refrigerator will be removed during this process.  If this doesn’t work, we’ll have to consider various replacement options, which are dependent upon shipping and availability.  We might have to go home with no refrigerator and donate all of the frozen goodies Eleanor has collected over the summer to Paul & Anne.

To add to the fun, this is the hottest day we’ve experienced in the trailer without air conditioning since we dry camped in Death Valley in May 2006.  (In fact, that was the trip that inspired us to later install a pair of boost fans in the refrigerator vent, which have worked very well since. Until now.  There’s no compensating for a dead refrigerator cooling unit.)

It’s 100 degrees outside as I write this.  Because we have no air conditioning, the trailer interior is also 100 degrees.  It would be hotter but our three vent fans running at full speed are keeping us on par with the outdoors.  Eleanor had the excuse of grocery shopping for tonight’s dinner as a reason to drive off in the air conditioned Mercedes to an air conditioned store, but Emma and I just toughed it out.  Emma worked on math, and I worked on Airstream Life.

When the interior of the Airstream reached 100 degrees, Emma and I went into full-blown Death Valley Cooling Mode.  It’s dry here, so evaporative cooling is the trick.  We took cold showers and then put on wet cotton t-shirts.  I wiped down the dinette seats with wet cloths and rigged up a makeshift evaporative cooler for my laptop too, using a wet rag and a plate.  All of this made the heat somewhat tolerable.

Good thing, because it would be easy to lose my cool given two expensive appliance failures.  The air conditioner is gone after six years, and now the refrigerator is gone after just three years.  This will be our third refrigerator.  I’m not impressed with the quality of RV appliances — never have been, but this really seals it.  I said earlier that they don’t make ‘em like they used to, and I meant it.  We replaced the original refrigerator in our 1960s-era Caravel after 37 years, and it was still working. (We replaced it only to get a larger modern unit with better cooling control, but now I’m wondering if we made a big mistake.)  It’s not uncommon at all to find vintage Airstreams with original refrigerators in them.  In twenty years, will anyone with an early 2000s-era RV or travel trailer have an original appliance left?

This afternoon we relocated all of our refrigerated items to a spare refrigerator Paul & Ann have in their house.  We were too late for a roll of biscuit dough, which popped spontaneously in the refrigerator, and our milk is also history.  But at least we are in a friendly place with resources.  Eleanor is making dinner for Paul & Anne in their kitchen, which will use up some of our food.  I know for sure we are having biscuits with dinner.  Meanwhile, we’re working on Plans A, B, and C for the next few days, dependent on whether we fix the fridge, replace the fridge, or skip it until later and head home with an ice chest.

Fahren fahren fahren

Thursday, September 29th, 2011

Remember that 1970s-era Euro-pop tune by Kraftwerk?  “Wir fahren fahren fahren auf der Autobahn”  (English: We drive drive drive on the motorway) That pretty well sums up the past two days.

We just needed to get the Airstream from the panhandle of Florida to north Texas as expediently as possible, and for that job there’s nothing like a nice boring Interstate highway.  Load the snacks, the podcasts, and some books and and the Gameboy for Emma — we’re going to check out half a dozen Interstate rest areas along I-10, I-49, and I-20!  Woo-hoo!

After an unremarkable overnight in Alexandria LA, where the height of excitement was discovering that we had accidentally spent the night parked next to a sign that said “NO OVERNIGHT PARKING,” we plowed up through Louisiana and across north Texas into the dark heart of the Dallas/Ft Worth metroplex.  The Louisiana roads were fine, quiet and even a bit scenic, but I do not enjoy the D/FW traffic nightmare when towing.  We encountered about 40 miles of construction zones (narrow lanes, signs missing, Jersey barriers) and the usual maniacal drivers making high-speed radical drifts across three lanes right in front of us while texting.

Twice we were forced off the road by a combination of “Exit Only” lanes that weren’t marked in the construction zones and drivers who would absolutely not let us enter “their” lanes.  At one point I decided to assert the mighty power of a 48-foot rig and almost literally crushed a small econobox that was being obnoxious.  He got the message. But most of the time we played nice and tried to be steady and smooth as much as the twisting and crazy construction zones would let us.

We survived D/FW once again and eventually emerged on the northwest side near Decatur.  We are now parked at Paul Mayeux’s home, where he is running his own 2-man Airstream service center.  Long-time readers will recall that last April I left our Caravel here for repairs and never got back to pick it up. So now we have two Airstreams here at Paul’s, 900 miles from home.

Our primary reason for coming here was to get a new air conditioner installed.  We’re going with a 15K BTU model (high capacity than the 13.5K model it is replacing).  We’re skipping the expensive dual AC/heat pump unit because we hardly ever used the heat pump and we have two other sources of heat anyway (furnace and catalytic heater).  That saves about $450.  Paul and Denver (who used to work on our Airstream when Roger Williams Airstream in nearby Weatherford was in business) will install the AC on Friday.

It always seems that when we get to a service center we find a bunch more things to fix or check.  During our last two days of roadtrip we’ve noticed that the refrigerator has climbed up to 52 degrees during the day.  That’s very bad, because it could indicate a failing cooling unit, which is very expensive.  The fridge has been running on gas during this time, so Paul checked the gas pressure with a manometer first and found that our pressure was below spec.  We adjusted the regulator and left the fridge running in a test mode (basically at top cooling capacity) all night to see if it would cool down.  This morning it is showing 42 degrees, which is better but not yet good enough.

Since it was packed full of food (thermal mass), it may be that a few more hours are needed to reach optimal temp (somewhere in the low 30s).  These gas absorption-type refrigerators are very slow to remove heat relative to your home refrigerator that uses an electric compressor.  That’s why you have to start them the day before you go on a trip.  Today we are expecting highs in the upper 90s, so it’s a good test day. If the fridge continues to cool, we’re fine, but if not, we’ll have to dig a little deeper to find the root cause.

We’ve also noticed that the bathroom vent fan seems to drip a little in the rain even when closed.  It probably has a crack in the plastic, so we’re anticipating replacing it on Friday as well.  That’s not a major job.

Parked next to us is a Canadian couple in an Argosy who are here for installation of solar panels, Marvin and Annie.  We’ve met before, way back in 2005 when Project Vintage Thunder was first displayed (unpainted and incomplete) at the Florida State Rally in Sarasota.  They remembered us and Vintage Thunder.  So it’s like being in a little campground here at the shop.

The best news we’ve had so far is that nights up here are cooling down nicely.  We’re getting 65 degrees by daybreak, and the humidity is low, so even without AC at the moment it’s very comfortable.  We finally used a blanket on the bed last night.  And added to that, we zipped up to Decatur last night and got our first Texas barbecue dinner of this trip, which is always something that makes us all happy.  I don’t know why, I guess it’s just a tradition now.  Memories of other great trips.

Showering with tree frogs

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

Life in Florida is very colorful.  The brilliant white sands of the panhandle make a perfect backdrop to emphasize the vibrancy and exotic aura of the subtropical things that live there.  And of course, when camping you are close to the earth, facing nature at almost every step, rather than being insulated from it by man-made structures (hotel rooms, concrete walkways, swimming pools).  On our last day we started to count up the colorful things we had encountered — for good or for ill.

Item #1:  Emma took a break from homeschooling on Monday afternoon to visit the beach one last time.  The waves were still moderate, but at little higher than on the previous calm days.  The red-fringed jellies we had noted earlier seemed to be absent, but while splashing around she got stung by jellyfish tentacles and in that moment discovered just how much that can hurt.

We never saw the jellyfish that did the deed, and fortunately Emma got only a glancing swipe that left three 2-3″ marks on her leg — enough to get her attention (she likened it to a bee sting), but not enough to do any serious damage.

Item #2:  In the campground shower we’ve noticed a few peeping Toms, or to be accurate peeping Green Tree Frogs.  They sit up above the showers on a shelf, or stick to the walls with their three-toed suction cup feet, and just silently stare at you while you are showering.  They’re sort of cute, benign little companions, and we favored their participation in the shower since (we theorized) it helped hold down the mosquito population.

Item #3:  Right across the bay is the Naval Air Station where the famous Blue Angels are based.  If you are camped here during the week there’s a good chance you’ll see them practicing overhead.  We got a free air show on Tuesday morning while packing up to depart.  If you aren’t a fan of jets streaking overhead and nearby, you might want to consider someplace else, or find a week when the Blue Angels are doing a show away from home.

Personally, when I hear military jets practicing I’m reminded of the comment I heard in England from an old guy who remembered the Blitz during WW II.  A British jet tore by, making an enormous racket, and I said something like, “Wow, that’s loud.”  The old guy smiled and said, “That’s the sound of freedom.”

So that’s green tree frogs in the shower, red jellies in the water, and blue angels flying overhead.  Florida was a magical place even before Walt made it official.

With Pensacola behind us, we’re obligated to make some miles now.  Our goal is near Ft Worth, where we have arranged to have a new air conditioner installed on Friday.  So for Tuesday it was drive-drive-drive, with only one significant stop, at the new “Airstream of Mississippi” dealership in Gulfport MS.  We parked the Airstream in their lot next to inventory of about a dozen new Airstreams, and met president Rick Foley and sales rep Gillis Leger.  Both of them are great guys, very friendly.  Gillis and I bonded a little when he learned I was an LSU grad, since he’s from Baton Rouge.

Being new, they haven’t gotten full up and running for service (otherwise we’d have had the new AC installed there) but it’s obvious that Rick means to have a top-notch Airstream dealership.  Once they are fully ready, I expect we’ll see Airstream of Mississippi in the pages of Airstream Life.

We made it Alexandria LA on Tuesday (417 miles) and spent the night tolerably well given that the daytime high here was 94 degrees.  You can do amazing things with three vent fans.  Still, it  will be nice to have our air conditioner fixed soon.  Since the forecast along our route is for temperatures in the mid-90s, we’ll spend today in the air conditioned car and stop only after the heat has begun to abate.

Nothing to do … isn’t that great?

Monday, September 26th, 2011

I deliberately booked four nights here at Ft Pickens State Park so that we’d have time on our hands to do nothing.  A two or three-night visit is always busy; setting up, seeing the local sites, running an errand, making dinner, etc., until the final tear down, which always comes too soon.  With four nights I knew we’d have time to visit the downtown, spread out, see most of the state park, and visit the beach … and then have another day with “nothing special” planned.  That’s today.

It would be better if today weren’t Monday — the day my phone is most likely to ring and the day I receive the most emails — but the people who really might need to reach me all know better than to expect an immediate response.  My motto has always been that there are few true emergencies in a quarterly magazine schedule.  Whatever it is, it can wait until Tuesday, when I’ll have lots of time in the car as we tow the Airstream westward along I-10.

Sunday was our day to visit Fort Pickens, which is only a mile from the campground and technically part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore rather than the state park.  I think I was last here in 1983, as a senior in college.  Pensacola was one of my favorite hangouts, four hours drive from Baton Rouge in my heavy old hand-me-down 1977 Camaro.  I loved coming down here and seeing the dazzling white sands and the long empty stretches of dune covered with sea oats, along Santa Rosa Island.

The island has of course changed with the tropical storms and hurricanes that stretch and replenish the island, but Fort Pickens is still the same as I remember.  It was fun to show it to Emma and Eleanor, with the ghostly dark passages and dramatic brick arches.

The interpretive museum adjacent to Fort Pickens is currently empty, having been devastated by Hurricane Ike, and so all we saw there was a 25-minute video and the historical buildings that now house the park staff.  Nearby on the bay side is a small fishing pier, and further along toward the west end of the island is apparently a popular diving spot.  We saw families surf fishing, people zipped past on jetskis and in larger boats, aircraft practicing approaches from the Naval Air Station across the bay, and schools of fish jumping all at once. Yes, it was hot (86 degrees) and humid (don’t ask), but I can see why many people pay the $8 entry free to the National Seashore — there’s so much to do, and the park is beautiful.

More than once we were asked by someone where we came from.  To keep things simple, we usually just say “Arizona,” rather than try to explain the complexities of our current tour.  Then they say, “Oh, well you’re used to this heat!”  or “So this is nothing to you!”  I guess they think that Arizonans don’t feel the heat.  We do; It’s just that we don’t stand around in the direct sun for long when it’s 108 degrees, even if it is only 6% humidity.  Since we were out walking in the sun most of the day, we had broken out the same gear (clothing & sunscreen) that we’d wear in Tucson in June.  When it came time for our picnic lunch, we chose a fine spot in the shade of a grove of Live Oak trees.

Afternoons like this were made for the beach, or perhaps the quartz-white sand of Florida’s panhandle were made for hot days.  The sand never gets too hot for bare feet, and it squeaks as you walk on it.  The water was crystal clear and bathtub-warm.  The water’s edge at first seems sterile, with few shells to collect, but when Emma and I waded out we made some little fish friends, who circled us curiously and seemed to be wondering if we might be carrying a bit of seaweed that they could nibble off.  Tiny schools of fish wandered by, and there were occasionally clear jellies with pinkish edges floating by (all dead for reasons unknown to us) many of which were hosting cute little scavenger fish taking their lunch from the tentacles.  We were three of perhaps 20 people spread out over a half-mile of beach.  There was nothing to do but make sand castles and play in the water …

Having learned from prior nights, we wrapped up at the beach an hour before sunset so that we never saw a mosquito.  That left plenty of time to rinse off in the campground showers and enjoy a moment of coolness.  We were lucky last night; our neighbors’ charcoal fire was carried off in a different direction by the wind, so we finally got that blissful evening of fresh breezes in the trailer while Eleanor made a fine dinner for all.

That brings us to today, the Monday that we will pretend is Sunday, part 2.  We have no plans.  We may go somewhere, we may not.  Looking ahead on the travel schedule I see many long days of driving and absolutely no beach time, so this is our last chance to soak up la dolce far niente and we will make the most of it, or perhaps more accurately, the least of it.

Ft Pickens State Park, Pensacola, FL

Saturday, September 24th, 2011

We arrived in Pensacola to a light rain, which is always a drag when you’ve got to set up camp and even worse when there’s a a tricky back-in to the campsite.  A few mosquitoes add zest to the whole procedure, since someone (Eleanor) has to be out there to guide the trailer in while someone else (Rich) sits in air conditioned comfort to turn the power steering wheel.

My experience is that if you have to set up camp in the rain, the rain usually stops right after all the work is done.  This is exactly what happened last night.  But at least we were rewarded with the first great sunset of our visit to Florida and a rainbow over the Airstream.

We are near the tip of a long (25 miles or so) and narrow barrier island.  Our elevation is approximately three feet above sea level, and due to the narrowness of the island, the sea is only a few hundred feet away both in front of us and behind us.  Even when driving it is hard not to be aware that we are existing on a relatively delicate deposit of sand that is subject to the vagaries of weather, and which moves in every major storm. Signs along the roadway in the Gulf Islands National Seashore area warn that the road is subject to flooding and a phone number to call for current status is posted.  This weekend, the flood risk is considered “low” since no appreciable weather is expected.  It’s going to be upper 80s by day, about 70 degrees by night, with lots of sunshine.

The campground has been rebuilt since various major storms, but still the new asphalt sites are generally short and the turns are tight for longer rigs.  A tree across the road from our site limited my turning radius as the Mercedes slowly nudged the Airstream into the site, so it took a little longer than usual.  Also, the park is very strict about staying on the parking pads — no wheels on the grass, under penalty of fine — so I took the mandate seriously and got the Airstream into its assigned space without even briefly dropping a wheel off the asphalt. Eleanor suffered only one bite during this procedure, but as it turned out, many more were to come.

I was surprised to encounter the mosquitoes.  We’ve never had a bug problem at the beach before, but then I realized that normally we visit Florida in the winter.  Last year we went to Destin in November and the park was stunningly gorgeous, under-utilized, and bug-free.  We’re earlier this year, which means it’s a little hot, very humid, and the Floridians are still looking for ways to beat the heat so it’s crowded in the campground.  We had a few minutes to run out to the gulf seashore after sunset, and we all quickly got a few mosquito bites.  No wonder the people on the beach cleared out at sunset.

Being flat and low, the campground also doesn’t have much drainage, so the rain of yesterday flooded some sites.  It’s more of a novelty than a problem, as the parking pads are above the rest of the ground, and the water just sinks into the sand eventually.  I told Emma there were alligators in the puddles but she’s now too old to fall for my lame tricks, as you can tell by her pose.

By morning all was dry again — or at least, as dry as it ever gets here.  The last of the summer humidity is still evident and (let me remind you) we don’t have air conditioning at the moment.  We’re doing fairly well with fans, but we do need to get out of the trailer all afternoon.

So with that rule in mind, we took off about noon to check out the Pensacola Seafood Festival in the downtown historic district, which was great.  We split a platter of fish, shrimp, salad and paella, and then went back (because being full is no excuse to stop eating awesome seafood) for a soft shell blue crab sandwich.  The crab was a special mission.  Many years ago I convinced Eleanor to try a soft shell crab sandwich up on Tangier Island in Virginia, but we were not at the best restaurant for that, and the result was disappointing.  The Pensacola Seafood Festival was her chance to try again with a better example, and it worked.  Soft shell crab is not for everyone, as the crunching sound when you eat it sometimes reminds you of things you don’t want to know. But she loved it and so did I.

We got back to the Airstream early enough to change into beachwear and hit the pure white sands of Santa Rosa Island.  The white sand and bathtub-warm clear water are always the best here in the Florida panhandle.  I’m looking forward to more of that tomorrow …

The only bummer about being here is the abundance of campground smoke.  I’ve noticed that in some state parks everyone seems to act as if it were legally required that they have a campfire, and the smokier, the better.  In other campgrounds, campfires are a rarity.  This one seems to be in the former category, and it has made evenings almost unbearable.  Normally a great pleasure of camping near the ocean is the constant sea breezes that smell of salt and trigger thoughts of ocean vacations past.  Here, all we can smell is wood and charcoal smoke, as if we were camped in the midst of a forest wildfire.

We can’t close up the windows to avoid the plumes of drifting smoke, so we have to just breathe it until late at night when the last fire is out.  There’s been no breeze at night to take it away, either.  I am hoping that tomorrow, being Sunday, the campground will empty out and we’ll have a night of blessed fresh air to match the purity of the sunny days.

Oak Mountain State Park, Pelham AL

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

Birmingham is a city we’ve never visited before, which by all rights should be a good enough reason to come here.  Added to that, we had a mission — to visit the Mercedes Benz factory in nearby Vance.  I’ve been trying to get there for two years and it hasn’t worked out despite multiple attempts. With the SNAFUs on this trip (orthodontics, air conditioner) it would have been easy to skip the plant tour this time as well, but I really wanted to make it happen.

So we dropped in on Oak Mountain State Park, which is just south of Birmingham, and made camp for two nights.  This is a large park, with a 5.5 mile drive from the entrance to the campground along a scenic and pleasantly meandering road.  At the end of the road is a good campground by a lake with lots of fragrant evergreens and even full hookups in Loop A.

This morning we managed to get the whole crew into the car by 7:45 a.m., in time to make the 50 minute drive to Vance AL and make the first scheduled tour at Mercedes Benz US International ($5 per person, reservations required). The factory campus looks very clean by design, with stark white buildings set among a green, almost golf-course-like rural setting.  They boast that 100% of the factory’s waste is recycled, and I’m sure the exterior design is intended to help give the appropriate impression.

This is where our tow vehicle, the GL320, was made.  It’s the only plant that makes the GL, ML, and R-class vehicles, so here you’ll see cars with right-hand and left-hand drive on the same assembly line, destined for export all over the world.  Even Germans buy Mercedes Benz SUVs made right here in Alabama.  Yes, in America we still do make things that people in other parts of the world want to buy, and this one huge plant accounts for a billion dollars or so worth of exports all by itself.

As with the other car factory tours we’ve done (Corvette in KY, Nissan in MI), photos are not allowed so I’ve got nothing from the inside to show you, but I can say that the tour is really interesting if you’re into that sort of thing.  Which obviously, I am.

This was also the first auto plant tour that Emma has been able to do, and she didn’t die of boredom during it, which counts as success given her pre-teen status.  The photo above (from the Visitor Center, where photos are allowed) shows one of the things she was mildly interested in, an ML-class Mercedes from one of the Jurassic Park movies.

I was so excited about the tour that I had made no plans for the rest of the day, so we just swung into downtown Birmingham to see whatever it had to offer.  Turns out that Birmingham has a pretty interesting downtown, with tons of Civil Rights-era history, great architecture, and much more that deserved a bigger investment of time than we gave it.

Besides, we were hungry, so the first stop was a Cajun restaurant on 20th Street.   I wanted to get some Cajun in Louisiana, but now with our abbreviated trip plan a good stop seems unlikely there.  This was a surprise find in Alabama, which is not Cajun country.  We went nuts and split a half-muffaletta, blackened red snapper, a few side dishes, and a double order of beignets.

The staff, all related by marriage and coincidentally all escapees from other careers, were over the lunch rush and had time to chat us up about our travels.  We were as interested in how they got from jobs like building contractor and CPA to restaurateurs, as they were in our nomadic life.  They definitely were doing an excellent job, as the taste of everything they made was equal to places in the heart of Cajun country.  They were a little disappointed, I think, that our 30-foot Airstream was not parked somewhere on the downtown streets of Birmingham for them to see.

Of course after that were weren’t in a great condition to do a ton of walking in the downtown (full stomachs), but we managed to browse a bit and run into some interpretive signs about Civil Rights era history.  This gave us a chance to talk to Emma about what it all meant, which was actually kind of fun.

Back at camp this evening we were running all three roof vents to combat the mild heat and humidity when a massive line of thunderstorms came upon us with no warning.  It was a real gully-washer storm, with several near lightning strikes, but we were high, dry, and safe in the Airstream, watching a movie as the storm played itself out.

This reminded me that we really do have to resolve our AC problem soon.  I’ve got a plan in development now that looks like it will work out, although once again our route is going to change, to I-20 through Texas instead of I-10.  Once I’ve got that nailed down I’ll post it here and try to figure out a few good stops along the way so it isn’t just a maintenance run.  Fortunately, we have friends along the way and even if nothing else fun pops up it will be nice to see them again.

Taillight warranty

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

I don’t blame Super Terry, really.

He tried his best.  He spent hours replacing the burned out motor in our air conditioner, and it seemed to work in heat pump mode when we tested it.  But as he joked, it had the “taillight warranty” — when he can’t see my taillights anymore, the warranty is over.

We’re 489 miles from his view now, near Birmingham AL, and I just turned on the air conditioner to remove some of the intense humidity we are feeling tonight.  It blew warm for a few minutes, cooled down a little, and then started blowing very warm humid air.  … sigh…

We did a quick telephone consultation but the consensus is:  “He’s dead, Jim.”

(note to non-geeks and those under age 45: That’s a Star Trek joke)

The full post-mortem hasn’t been done but it doesn’t matter, because I’m out of cheap options.  We aren’t going to repair this air conditioner at shop rates. At six years old, it has gone Tango Uniform. Farewell, Dometic Penguin — you are already missed, on this humid night in an Alabama state park.

I would like to wait until later this winter to replace it, but we also use the Airstream as a guest apartment and we have people slated to arrive in October, which is still air conditioning season in Tucson.  Somewhere in the next 1,900 miles I’ll find a good deal on a replacement unit (probably a 15k BTU air conditioner without heat pump) and we’ll do a swap.  That’s a topic I’ll start researching in the next few days.

Maintenance done & rolling again

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

I hope that this will be the last maintenance post for a while.  It’s good to have gotten things tweaked and fixed but I’d rather write about our travels.

Just to wrap up the repair saga, Super Terry came through with an amazing job on the Dometic AC/heat pump.  He salvaged the 1/4 hp electric motor from another unit and installed it in ours starting at about 6:30 Monday evening.  The job, conducted entirely atop the roof of the Airstream, took until about 9:30 pm, so mostly in the dark by flashlights.

I went up and down the ladder a dozen times to fetch tools as requested, and otherwise just stood at the top of the rungs admiring a mechanic with 30 years of experience solving what appeared to me to be an insoluble problem. That unit is not designed for easy serviceability, and the motor didn’t come out without a fight.  But at the end it was in, the whole thing went back together and upon testing it ran like new.  I’m amazed and grateful that this effort allowed us to avoid an expensive replacement, which is normally the only option.

For those who suffer this issue, believe your mechanic when he says the best fix is a whole new air conditioner.  Counting the time it took to salvage the motor from another unit, Super Terry put in a solid five hours on the job.  He did this as a friendly favor, but if I were paying shop rates it would have been probably $500 plus parts, and I’m left with a 6-year-old unit that probably will have some other fatal issue in a few years.  At the risk of sounding like an old RV codger, they just don’t make ‘em like they used to.  Hopefully ours will hold on for a few more years but I’m not expecting decades of service.

With the late dinner and the usual post-dinner conversation it was a late night, and then this morning we had a slow-motion getaway.  It was 11 a.m. before we got on the road, westbound for Alabama.  We got as far as 30 miles past Atlanta (hit downtown right at rush hour, which was challenging), then stopped for dinner and overnight parking in a private lot. It’s pouring rain tonight, so I’m very glad we resolved the leak in the Fan-Tastic Vent.

Our goal tomorrow is Birmingham.  It’s a city we’ve never visited, and there are a few sights we want to see there, which I’ll write about in future posts.  From there, our travel plan is basically to head back to Tucson in two weeks or less.  We’re going to leave the exact stops loose, but this is familiar territory so if we want something different we’ll have to divert plenty from the beaten path.  There are a few days built into the schedule for that.

The big splurge of our two-week return budget is going to be this weekend.  I’ve actually made reservations — a rare thing indeed — for a park in the Florida panhandle for four nights.  We all want beach time, to fill that piece of our souls and sustain us through the dry interim in the southwest this winter.  Detouring to the panhandle will add 300 miles to our route but I’m sure it will be well worth it.

So that’s the sum total of our remaining travel “plan.”  Not much, really.   Rather than figure it all out, we’ll let circumstances and whimsy suggest the opportunities.  In the nearly 1,900 miles ahead, I have a feeling we’ll find more than a few interesting things.

Mysteries from the roof side

Monday, September 19th, 2011

Believe it or not, a day spent on the roof of an Airstream can be kind of fun.  That is, as long as the news from roofside isn’t too bad.

We had left off yesterday with a few mysteries up above: a rain water leak and a non-functional air conditioner/heat pump.  With perfect fall weather and no rain, Sunday was the best opportunity for me to climb up onto the roof with Super Terry.

We had thought the AC problem was likely to be a control board, and in fact already had the spare part on hand.  But it wasn’t.  A few minutes after removing the shroud and firing up the unit, we noticed a burning smell and then the blower motor began to slow down.  It’s burned out.  That’s really bad news, since the motor is not designed to be replaced.  The typical “fix” is to replace the entire unit.  A quick check of prices for this combination AC/heat pump shows that it runs about $1200 plus shipping (nobody has it in stock locally).  An AC-only unit would cost about $850.  Not psyched.

Fortunately, he isn’t called Super Terry for nothing.  Just because the blower motor isn’t designed for easy replacement doesn’t mean it can’t be.  The job requires ripping up glued insulation and other bits, so it won’t be a pretty process but I expect the result will work out fine.  The real problem was that we didn’t have a spare blower motor and it was Sunday.  So, we set aside the problem until Monday and planned to extend our visit here so Super Terry can find one with his x-ray vision.

The other mystery was The Case of the Dripping Speaker.  The ceiling mounted speaker above the kitchen area was dripping rain water on Saturday.  I suspected the center Fan-Tastic Vent.  This vent has a bit of a history.  It’s original to the trailer, and I had re-caulked it 11 months ago in Florida.  At the time I couldn’t find the right caulk and eventually used some common “self-leveling RV caulk” that was sold by Camping World.  I was not happy with the stuff but it appeared to still be OK when I inspected yesterday (photo below).

Super Terry pointed me to a tube of Sikaflex 221, which is a very good polyurethane sealant, basically white Vulkem.  You know it’s great when a tiny smudge is absolutely impossible to remove from your clothing even after multiple washes. I have a pair of pants with a gray Vulkem smudge that is still pliable and sticky after several years.  For this reason I never start a caulk job without sacrificial clothing.

I took a few minutes to strip and re-seal some of the older caulk points on the roof (the FM antenna, the cellular antenna) but couldn’t find a smoking gun.  I was looking for an obvious caulk failure, which is indicated by the caulk peeling up, gapping, or starting to break down in the U.V.  Eventually S.T. found a small crack on the corner of the plastic flange that surrounds the Fan-Tastic Vent that wasn’t covered with caulk, and we had the culprit red-handed.  It doesn’t take much of a crack to let in a lot of rainwater.  The crack was in exactly the right spot to be allowing water to run to the ceiling speaker, given the tilt of the trailer.

Once we pulled off the caulk to inspect, we discovered that the entire flange surrounding the fan body was badly cracked.  The caulk was holding, but the multiple cracks were creating water entry points.  About half the screw heads were rusted underneath the caulk.  At this point there was not much hope for caulking our way out of the problem — the best solution was a replacement fan body.

We’ve got some time pressure, so although the warranty on the fan would allow us to request a replacement body from the company, I chose the more expedient option of going to the store and buying a basic model of the same fan to replace this one.  Super Terry transferred the advanced features of our old fan to the new one (rain sensor, power open/close, smoked cover), and so the $100 basic fan we bought became the equivalent of a $300 model, and we installed that with the Sikaflex.

It won’t be leaking again for quite a while.  From my personal observations, the OEM caulk will last 5-6 years under average conditions, but as little as 3-4 years if left full-time in a sunny environment like the desert southwest.  A good quality polyurethane caulk like Sikaflex or Vulkem stays good and pliable for a much longer time.  I’ve seen Vulkem on vintage trailers that is decades old and still holding tight.  It pays to use the good stuff, but you do have to hunt for it a bit.

Now that we knew we’d be spending at least another night here, waiting for the replacement blower motor, it was time to discuss our future plans.  Since we left Vermont we had expected this stop in North Carolina to be a literal fork in the road, and we’d have to make a choice:  go for an extended trip with several weeks in Florida, or hang a right and start west toward home.  The difference was basically $1,000 in camping and fuel, and 1,000 miles, which would get us three or four weeks of Florida fun.

But our decision has been made for us.  Late last night Emma’s orthodontic appliance failed again — for the third time — and after consulting with her home dentist we have come to the conclusion that the best choice is to head home.  The appliance will be disconnected by a local orthodontist in Winston-Salem today.  To avoid a major setback in her treatment, we will aim to get back to Tucson in less than two weeks, which means no long visit to Florida.

We knew this might happen, and even discussed the possibility months ago.  An orthodontic problem (or really any sort of medical problem) can easily derail a long trip.  Sometimes there’s no choice but to go back to home base.  The important thing is that everyone rolls with the punches and there be no recriminations.  Today it was Emma’s issue, but tomorrow it might be mine.  At least traveling by Airstream gives us the flexibility to re-arrange our plans without paying penalties for cancellation fees or last-minute airfares.

So, starting Tuesday we will be heading westward.  There are still several interesting stops to be made along the 2,000 mile journey back, so it won’t be a waste.  I’ve started mapping out possibilities and will work up a fairly definite plan as soon as we button up the air conditioner.

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