Mysteries from the roof side

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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Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine