Archive for April, 2013

Weight distribution

Monday, April 29th, 2013

Today I’ve got to talk about towing.  I’m sorry if the mere thought causes your eyes to glaze over.  There’s just too much dangerous misinformation out on the Internet, even coming from RV salespeople and people who should know better, and it’s going to get people killed.

If you don’t read Airstream Life, you’ve missed out on a great series about towing issues that is authored by Andy Thomson of Can-Am RV.  Andy is a second-generation Airstream dealer who specializes in setting up trailer hitches for best performance, and he does a lot of testing with his own vehicles to figure out what works.  The series he’s writing for the magazine has gradually built up a case for optimal hitching, which involves a lot more than just “buy a bigger truck.”  He’s gotten into the details like the overhang and angle of the tow ball, sway control, aerodynamics, engine power, suspension components, steering, and much more.  Some of what he says is controversial but I think all of his points are very important to consider.

So if you really want to understand towing at the engineering level (and get past all the ridiculous pseudo-knowledge that you’ve probably heard), you should gather up as many of the back issues as you can find and read all the articles.  (The series started in the Summer 2010 issue.)

I can’t begin to reach Andy’s expertise level, but I can talk about one simple piece of the towing puzzle today: weight distribution.  Weight distribution is the idea that the tongue weight of the trailer should be evenly distributed across both axles of the tow vehicle.

It’s horrifying that so many people don’t understand this concept, because it’s absolutely crucial when towing a trailer with a heavy tongue weight. By “heavy” I mean any trailer with over 500 pounds or so on the tongue.  It doesn’t matter how big your truck is.  It doesn’t matter if you “can hardly feel the Airstream,” or if you “never had a problem.”  You need to get this right.

Why?  Because one day it will make a difference.  That will be the day that you have to do a panic stop, or a sudden avoidance maneuver on the highway, or when the wind is blowing 30 knots off your starboard bow, or when you accidentally let the trailer drop a wheel off the edge of the pavement … and I could go on further with reasons why.  One day, you’ll have to do ask your rig to do something extraordinary, and you’ll want it to behave.

Without proper weight distribution, that rig you thought was so great towing straight down the road might do something really unexpected.  Perhaps the rear brakes will lock up prematurely in a hard stop.  You might not be able to control a sway, or stay on the road in a turn.  You might feel the trailer “wag the dog.”  Quite likely you’ll have an accident and afterward only know that something bad happened and you’re not sure why.

The catch is that you can’t tell you’ve got a problem until one of three things happens:

  1. You weigh the truck and trailer combination, and then the truck separately, to see how weight is being distributed across the axles.
  2. You take the rig on a closed course and drive it to the limits.
  3. You crash.

I prefer option #1.

The other day I saw some CAT scale readings from a fellow who was very confident about his truck and Airstream setup.  By common knowledge, he was all set: big truck, no problem.  But the CAT scale told a different story.  When he hitched up his trailer, the rear axle of his truck got 1,900 lbs heavier.  The front axle got 760 pounds lighter.  That’s very bad but not unexpected.  It means the weight of the trailer’s tongue, pushing down on the tow ball at the back of the truck, was actually lifting the front of the truck.

Imagine a teeter-totter.  The Airstream is pushing on one end, the rear axle of the truck is the center (fulcrum) of the teeter-totter, and the front axle is going up. When you lighten the front end that much, the steering geometry is affected.  Now you’ve got understeer.  You turn the steering wheel, but the truck doesn’t turn like it should.  It’s like driving on ice.  It’s insidious because you might not notice until you have to make an emergency maneuver at speed.

A light front axle also affects the braking adversely, giving the front tires less ability to grip the road and slow you down.  So bad steering, bad braking—you can see how this is really undesirable.

With weight distribution applied on the same truck and trailer, the problem appears to the casual observer to be corrected.  With the weight bars in place, the CAT scale shows that the rear axle is now only 1,000 pounds heavier than the axle was without the trailer (which is well under the manufacturer’s axle rating), and the front axle is now lightened by only 100 pounds.   Everything meets the manufacturer’s specifications.

That will work, but it’s far from optimal.  The truck started with a nice 49/51% front/rear weight distribution.  With the Airstream and weight distribution, the ratio has gone to 44/56%, which is not so great.  It will drive OK under un-challenging circumstances, but it’s not set up well to deal with a bad day.  Imagine a sports car with a huge lump of concrete in the trunk.  Go around a sharp corner, and what happens?  The sports car spins out.  The truck with poor weight distribution may be more prone to the same thing.  Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, the driver may not “feel” anything adverse until it’s too late.

So how do you fix this?  It’s actually quite easy to even out the load on the axles.  The exact mechanism depends on the hitch system you’re using, so it may be a matter of just going down a link on the weight bar chains (on a Reese), or tightening the strut jacks (on a Hensley), or angling the tow ball rearward, or shortening the receiver to get the ball closer to the rear axle, or any combination of these things.  The goal is the same: get those axles back to as close to 50/50 weight as you can, with the trailer hitched up.

If you find that you’ve tried everything and can’t get the weight distribution any better, don’t give up.  Hensleys are not great at weight distribution, but regardless of the type of hitch you use, check with someone who knows hitches.  Sometimes the hitch receiver on your truck will flex so much that it acts like a spring, bending rather than distributing the weight stress.  Reinforcement or repair may be necessary.

By the way, if you followed the manufacturer’s instructions when setting up your hitch, and used the old technique of measuring the corners of the truck to see how much each dropped, you still need to go to a truck scale.  That method is really obsolete today, with modern vehicles that have different suspensions front and rear, air bags, or even full air suspensions.  At best, it’s a rough estimate.  For about $10 at a CAT scale you can get the real story.

If you didn’t know any of this, don’t feel like a noob.  I’ve talked to RV salespeople who send people out the door every day with new rigs, who don’t understand the basic principles of weight distribution.  I just hope I’ve impressed upon you that most Airstream owners need to check their weight distribution on a truck scale, because what you don’t know can definitely hurt you.

Grease is the word

Saturday, April 27th, 2013

I haven’t been looking forward to this most recent Airstream job.  For a couple of years the A-frame on the Airstream (the front part, for those of you who don’t have a trailer) has been looking pretty ratty.  Paint chips from rocks have turned into unsightly spots of surface rust, and the orange paint of the Hensley hitch has faded, then gradually fallen off, leaving large patches of rust.  The paint on the top of the power hitch jack has chipped off too.  It’s getting embarrassing, like the interior floor was before we replaced it last month.

The problem with the job of repainting the hitch and A-frame is that there’s a ton of prep work and it’s messy.  The Hensley is loaded with grease, which over the years has congealed with dirt and coated not only underside of the hitch itself but also the chains, coupler, and about a third of the A-frame.  After removing all the hitch parts with the assistance of Mike, we dumped them into a large tub and degreased everything with industrial-strength degreaser and heavy brushes, then washed everything.  This job took about an hour, and by the end of it much of the black grease was transferred to our bodies and clothes.

Then we scraped the loose paint off with metal scrapers, and got the surface rust off with a wire brush attached to the power drill, leaving a surface of remaining paint that resembled a cracked dry lake.  It was not pretty, but it was already an improvement over what was there.  It really needs a good sandblasting and powder coating, but I’ve decided I will do this quickie scrape and re-paint just to get another year or two, and then I’ll take the whole thing into a professional shop for a proper & smooth job.

The A-frame was less of a problem because Airstream used real paint (rather than that orange stuff that Hensley uses).  It held up very well over eight years of heavy use and many miles.  We only needed to touch up spots with the wire brush (after washing), and then wash again to remove all the dust.  It should paint up nicely.

IMG_2131After a lot of consideration, I’ve decided to paint the entire A-frame area in flat black.  The Hensley parts will also be black, except the part that was orange which is now a metallic pewter.  Black hides the grease a little better, and it’s an easy color to match for touchups.

Those of you who own Hensleys might be wondering if I’m going to put the stickers back on.  I have an entire set of replacement stickers, including the serial # label, but I’m going to keep them on hand and install them after the hitch is professionally stripped and coated.

You might recall that I complained of our LED lights flickering when the water pump was running.  I had considered several possible causes and solutions, including using heavier gauge wire to the pump, and adding a capacitor.  I realized that all the solutions were aimed at the same symptom: voltage drops when the 12 volt electrical system was heavily loaded.  And since nobody else with the LED lights seemed to be having the problem, it seemed most likely that I should try to find the cause of the problem rather than trying to patch it.

IMG_2132With that in mind, the most obvious place to look was the main trailer 12v ground, which is (on my trailers) is located under the main frame on the street side, just in front of the spare tire.  There’s a fat bare copper wire that runs to a little copper clamp that is in turn bolted to the frame. Since we were in that area with the wire brush, I disassembled the clamp and found quite a bit of corrosion on the copper and the steel frame.  I brushed everything back to shiny and reassembled, then tested, and voila!  no more flickering lights. I’ll coat the area with dielectric grease to reduce future corrosion.

We used to know when the main ground needed cleaning because the Actibrake disc brake actuator would suddenly stop working.  This happened a couple of times (Four Corners)  (FL panhandle) and I got used to doing roadside clean-ups of the ground wire.  The replacement Dexter brake actuator we have now doesn’t seem to be as sensitive to low voltage.  So now the LED lights are our warning signal. I think as warning signs go, flickering lights is far better than having no brakes.

The next job will be to paint everything.  This time of year we get a breeze almost every afternoon, so we’ll either paint this evening around 6 p.m. if things have calmed down, or early tomorrow morning.  Then, re-assembly, re-greasing, and adjusting of the Hensley.

In between major jobs like this I’m working on the cabinetry and other small tweaks too.  For example, yesterday I replaced four bellypan rivets with the big “buttonhead” ones because the pan was starting to come loose in the back. I also fabricated a small plumbing chase from leftover pieces of black walnut, to replace the factory one.  The list of Airstream jobs that was a page long is slowly shrinking, and two of the four “big” jobs are nearly complete, so although time is short I think we’ll be ready to go to Alumapalooza in three weeks.

A sticky subject among Airstreamers

Thursday, April 25th, 2013

In the Airstream universe you will find a curious phenomenon: passionate debates about caulk.  That’s because the constant movement of all parts on the road causes all travel trailers to leak eventually, and a good caulk is our first line of defense against rain penetration.  Rather unfairly, Airstreamers get more of this debate than owners of other brands, mostly because Airstreams have been around for so long, and so many of them remain on the roads after decades of use.

An Airstream might easily be re-caulked a dozen times over its lifetime.  In contrast, “disposable” cheap travel trailers tend to get chucked into a landfill when they start to leak because they’re starting to fall apart too. You don’t hear the owners of those talking quite so much about re-caulking. They’re busy re-financing.

Another reason Airstreamers love to talk caulk is the aluminum construction of an Airstream.  Silicone caulks don’t adhere as well to aluminum, so we tend to go for polyurethane caulks that are more expensive but stick like crazy and stay gooey for a long time. But what caulk is the “best”?

For decades, the gold standard of caulk for silver trailers was some gray stuff called Vulkem.  These days Vulkem is just a brand name, applied to various formulations of polyurethane caulk made by Tremco.  I use Vulkem 116 but you can also get TremPro 635 from the same manufacturer, and a few variants. Either way, it’s great stuff.  It’s sticky like hot salt-water taffy and adheres to aluminum like glue, once cured it flexes a lot without breaking its seal, and it’s designed for exterior use (only) so it’s UV-resistant and completely waterproof.

Finding the stuff is the problem.  Lots of online sellers offer it but since a tube is anywhere from $6-14 and shipping tends to add $7-9, you want to get it locally or combine it with another order to duck the shipping charge.  Locally it’s sometimes available through Home Depot or Fastenal, but here I couldn’t find it stocked anywhere so I had to order it.

OEM caulk starting to break down after 8 years?

OEM caulk starting to break down after 8 years?

You can always go to the local RV store and find products that claim to be roof caulk.  I’ve tried a few and had uniformly disappointing results, especially the “self-leveling” type.  Those RV-store caulks seem to be made for the disposable RV market, because they all break down in a few years under sunlight and start to crack, then leak.  You can go on the roof of my Airstream and see what things (vents, antennas, etc.) have been caulked with the standard products; they’re drying out and starting to crack around the edges.  I will have to go up on the roof sometime, scrape all that stuff off, and re-caulk.  It’s not a job I’m looking forward to.

You can also see the things that were caulked with Vulkem or TremPro.  They’re still soft and pliable, even sticky, after years of UV exposure.  When I removed the old cellular antenna a couple of weeks ago, the caulk exposed to the UV was hardened but intact, and still waterproof. Around the base of the antenna the caulk was still gooey.  Think about that: the antenna was installed in 2005 and the caulk on it stuck to my fingers like fresh glue after eight years!  I’ve got it sitting here on my desk, just because I like to pick it up and marvel at it once in a while.  (Yes, that’s super-geeky but hey, it inspired this blog you’re reading.)

And eight years is nothing.  I’ve taken apart sections of my 1968 Caravel and found Vulkem contained inside joints and seams that was still good.   That Vulkem was probably decades old.

So that explains why I was willing to wait a week to get a tube of Vulkem 116 from an online seller. I used it to seal up the antenna hole for the cellular Internet booster.  The hole was 3/4″ and the cable was only 1/4″ so I used a set of rubber grommets to fill in the gap, plus a 2″ tall rubber “boot” that I found at Ace Hardware.  This formed a small tower on the roof, from which the new antenna cable emerges. Then I caulked the beejeebers out of the whole thing, sealing it completely.

IMG_2120Two days later, the caulk still feels like it was fresh from the tube, and since it cures very slowly (just 1/16″ of an inch per day at 75 degrees F & 50% humidity) I expect it will take at least a week due to our low humidity.  Fortunately, the Airstream isn’t going anywhere for four weeks.  I’ll get back on the roof in late May to check on the antenna cable again, after having towed the Airstream 2,000 miles to Ohio, just to confirm that the seal is flexing appropriately at highway speed and not developing any gaps that could cause a leak. I’m pretty sure it will be fine.

There are a few challenges with using this stuff.  First off, the fumes are stinky and toxic, which may be why it’s not approved for indoor use.  I would not use this in a workshop without having windows open and a fan.  Second, it’s trickier to shape and smooth than silicone caulk, because it sticks to everything.  The old “wet finger” trick that you use with silicone won’t work—it’ll stick to your wet finger.  I strongly suggest wearing disposable vinyl gloves when you work with it, and bringing along a bunch of paper towels for cleanup.

IMG_2116Third, saving the leftover tube is a bit of a pain.  It’s hard enough to obtain that you don’t want to lose the leftovers between jobs.  Some people put it in the freezer, which I think is a bad idea because the smell of the caulk can ruin your food, even through a plastic bag.  I like my ice cream to taste like Oreo Mint, not vanilla Vulkem.

We’re trying an experiment instead.  We wrapped the nozzle in plastic kitchen wrap, and then vacuum sealed the entire tube with Eleanor’s Food Saver.  (Eleanor wants me to mention that this was her brilliant idea, and I’m glad to do so.  If I open the tube in a year and find it congealed then it will be Eleanor’s terrible idea.  But it should be fine.)

Don’t buy this product

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013

Today I’m going to have another minor rant, and probably on a topic you don’t care about.  I’m going to talk about advertising. But before I continue I should probably put that warning in multiple languages:

For my Mercedes fans:  Achtung! Dieses Weblog ist nicht etwa Mercedes!

For my Twitter followers: #notaboutAirstream #boringtopic #rantalert

For people on smart phones:  Hard 4 U 2 read. Tiny txt. Catch U later k?  BRB

For the Facebook crowd:  This blog contains no cute pictures of animals with inspirational phrases, so why would you read it?

For my daughter and her pre-teen friends:    Biggest.  Epic.  Fail.  Ever.

OK, now that we’ve covered all the bases, let me tell you something that should be self-evident.  Taking a “Wal-Mart shopper” approach to advertising your business is not a good idea.  You can’t buy creative work, good marketing, or good design by the pound, and it’s not a good idea to outsource it to China.

As the publisher of Airstream Life it’s my job (in concert with my Marketing Director, Brett) to sell advertising and help small businesses grow.  I’ve been in this business, in one form or another, for a long time. My first job after college was as a copywriter in a small ad agency, and so early on I was involved in rescuing small business owners who tried to sell their products or services without spending any money, and who were suffering as a result.

For over 25 years I’ve seen that mistake repeated.  My job, whether as an in-house or external consultant, has been to steer people gently back to the right side, so that they can present their ideas, businesses, or messages so that other people will actually pay attention to them, and then act on them.  It doesn’t matter if your message is “Buy my Airstream” or “Don’t use Vulkem as toothpaste,” it’s always more effective when the ad looks good.

We recently had a client come through with an ad that was made in-house.  This client used to pay an ad agency to develop their marketing materials, and the results were superb but perhaps a little expensive.  Somewhere along the line the client decided to just make their advertising themselves, and so somebody in the company got the job—but didn’t know what they were doing.

The difference was astonishing.  I wish I could show you the ad, but I don’t want to embarrass the advertiser.  Let’s just say that just because you own Photoshop doesn’t mean you know how to use it.  Just like owning a copy of Microsoft Word doesn’t mean you know how to write.  Imagine a photo of an Airstream with the bottoms of the tires cropped off, and the reflection of a fat man on the aluminum.  Monolithic blocks of text, no “call to action,” wrong ad size proportions, and grainy low-res images with poor lighting.   That’s what we received to run in the magazine.

I can tell you what will happen with an ad like that.  People don’t just read ads.  In fact, many of them never read ads at all.  They glean an impression from ads.  Rightly or wrongly, people use that impression to determine if the company is trustworthy, quality-focused, and friendly.  A badly designed ad tells a story that goes beyond the words: it says, “We’re cheap and amateurish about this, so guess what our product is like?”

As I said, it’s our job to make sure our clients succeed.  Certainly we’ll kick an ad like that back to the client rather than run it and do damage to their reputation. But merely rejecting an ad isn’t enough.  Many of our advertisers are small businesses, and they don’t have the budget to hire a good designer.  Even if they have the budget they often don’t know where to start.  It’s also commonplace that many people are unaware of bad design when they see it, much like someone can be tone-deaf about music.  They might think they have a great designer producing solid work, but are in fact shooting themselves in the foot.

So we step in.  For long-term advertisers, I have no problem putting our team on the job at no cost to the client.  That means three people working for the client: our in-house Art Director, me (as copywriter), and Brett (as Marketing Director, advising on client-specific issues).  In this case we were working against the deadline for the Summer magazine to go to the printer, and so I had to rush to re-write the text and find some photos, Brett had to locate the client after working hours and tell them we were taking over to revise the ad (we didn’t ask permission), and Lisa the Art Director ended up working on the weekend to get it done.  She put in a total of nine hours between Friday afternoon and Sunday morning, and delivered the finished ad at 4:51 a.m. Sunday.

The final product is, if I may say so, a very solid ad.  It’s visually attractive, easy to understand, and should “pull” well for the client.  It’s also an ad that I will be happy to run in Airstream Life.  If we were an agency we’d probably charge about $1500 for this work, but in this case it’s all free because … well, it’s a small community and we need to support our advertisers.  If they do well, we will do well too.

Replacing the Hehr window operators

Sunday, April 21st, 2013

I did warn you that the next few weeks would be mostly about Airstream maintenance, didn’t I?

The job list on the Safari is pretty long, so I’m trying to tackle at least a piece of a project every day.  The past few days Eleanor has been helping me with preliminary bits of the rest of the storage cabinets I started before our last trip.  We’ve figured out how we want to assemble the cabinet and glued up some trim pieces with aluminum strips, as Kyle and I did before.

I’ve also had the countertop made by a local wood shop. It’s black walnut, measuring about 18″ x 69″.  You might think that would be monstrously heavy, but I had it planed down to 5/8″ thick so it’s just 19 pounds.  Not lightweight, but reasonable for solid wood. We think it looks fantastic, even before final shaping and finishing, and I am really looking forward to seeing it finally installed. I’ll post pictures in a future blog.

One of Saturday’s little tasks was to tackle one of those common annoyances in the Safari-class Airstreams.  Those trailers used a type of Hehr window that opens at the bottom third of the glass.  The window operators (cranks) are made of cheap pot metal and they eventually strip and fail.  We’ve got two failed window operators in the trailer and a few others showing signs of imminent failure.  (You’ll know because you have to spin the window crank quite a while before it finally “catches” and starts to move the window.)

This is a job that the dealer will probably charge an hour’s labor to do, but you can do it yourself in less time.  The trick is finding new replacement window operators.  They’re called “torque operators” and they are Hehr part #008-192 if you’ve got the window knob on the right (as seen from inside the trailer).  I found them online for about $8, and bought three figuring that we’d need a spare soon.

Replacing the torque operators only requires two tools, a Philips screwdriver with a narrow handle and a regular (flat-bladed) screwdriver.  The job is a little tricky, and I was wishing someone would document it, so photos are below to illustrate most of the steps. In short:

  1. Inside the trailer, open the window fully if it still works.  Remove the black knob by removing the screw in the center.
  2. Outside the trailer, remove the two small black screws in the hinge just above the movable part of the window glass.
  3. Open the window (if it didn’t operate by the knob) and pop out the C-clips on the arm hinges (one on each arm).
  4. Pop the arms apart using the flat bladed screwdriver (one on each side).
  5. Now you can lift the window all the way up and either pop it out of the hinge or slide it sideways until it comes out of the hinge.
  6. Again using the flat screwdriver, pry the lower end of the spring off the upper arm so that the arm can move freely.  Be careful not to puncture the screen with the spring.  Do this on each side.
  7. On the right side, remove the screws that hold in the mount for the round bar.  The top one will be hard to get to, so this is where the narrow handle of your screwdriver is crucial.
    replacing Hehr window operatorOn the left side, remove the three screws that hold in the torque operator.  Again, the top one is a pain to get to.
  8. Drop the round bar down on the right side, then the left.  It should come out now, with the torque operator attached.  Might take some wiggling and cursing.  Don’t let the springs and arms fall off, because that will just make your life harder.
  9. Remove the torque operator and note what a piece of crap it is.  Scratch your head and wonder why they didn’t make it out of more durable material.
  10. Replace with a new torque operator, and wiggle the whole assembly of bar, springs, arms, and operator back into place.
  11. As they say, “installation is the reverse of removal.”  Riiiiiight.

Getting the top screw back in on each side is a pain. I taped the screw loosely to the driver and that helped, or you could use a magnetic bit.  Getting the window back in the hinge is a hassle too.  It takes a little force.  A helper would be useful here, although I managed to do it myself in a few minutes.  The rest is pretty easy.

I’ve still got one more torque operator to replace on the other side, but with the Airstream in the carport I can’t get to it right now.  That will be an on-the-road repair sometime in May or June.  The third operator will sit in the box of spares until the Window Failure Lottery is complete and we have a known loser.  And now we can open up a window in the bedroom and let in the air again!


Kitten season

Friday, April 19th, 2013

While the Airstream sits dormant, we completely switch gears and concentrate on the elements of a traditional suburban life.  Well, at least a few of them.  Because we come and go frequently, we can’t participate in many of the common preoccupations that require a continuing presence. I haven’t joined a gym or auditioned for a dramatic production, nor have I enrolled in any classes at the university or joined the board of the local home owners association.

To tell the truth, I’m glad for that.  A good friend just confessed that (being a good natured person who wants to make the world a better place) he recently accepted committee or leadership roles in three different organizations and now has little time for himself.  One of those commitments is for a three year sentence, um, I mean “term”.  I don’t mind getting involved in things, but I’ve got a business to run too.

Also, it bothers some locals when they discover our odd nomadic ways.  A local club co-opted me to their board of directors a couple of years ago, and my frequent & long absences quickly became the topic of some discussion.  I don’t want to be a distraction, so I resigned after a year. Even our neighbors who have known us for years still occasionally wrestle with the fact that we might at any moment vanish for weeks or months.  It seems to be unsettling.

So there are only three local activities we maintain long-term:  orthodontia (just me now, as Emma got her braces off a month ago), karate class for our future black belt, and volunteering at the local Humane Society.

Eleanor and Emma volunteer because Emma has long wanted a pet.  We haven’t been able to find one that could keep up with our travels, and not die of heat stroke when we are boondocking in a national park somewhere that doesn’t have hookups and doesn’t allow pets on the trails. Dog, cat, rat, snake, various birds and reptiles—all have been evaluated and found wanting.  So in compensation for being such terrible parents, we came up with the idea of volunteering to foster kittens for the local Humane Society.

This is ideal, because we only have to commit to a pet for a few weeks at most, and then it goes back to be adopted.  It’s a great opportunity to teach Emma the rewards of volunteerism and also to experience the responsibility of taking care of a fellow creature.  We’ve fattened up and socialized kittens so that they are adoptable, we’ve visited quarantined cats so they don’t go crazy waiting to be let out of their cage, and most recently Eleanor and Emma took on four very young kittens that required bottle feeding.

four unnamed kittens bottle feeding, from Humane Society of Southern Arizona

The 11 p.m. feeding

You see, this is “kitten season” in Tucson.  It’s the time when litter after litter of kittens is  dropped off at the Humane Society, often without mothers.  When they are very young, they have to be fed by syringe or bottle every two hours, around the clock.  As you might guess, there is a very limited pool of people who are willing to do this, and so the staff is stretched to find foster homes for all those kittens.

Last Friday we got a call from a desperate staffer who had run down the list of volunteers and was on her penultimate phone number when she reached Eleanor.  By that evening we had four little mewlers in the house, each requiring feeding, burping, and assistance with bodily functions.  Those of you who had colicky babies can easily recall the sleep-deprivation that results.  It’s the same with kittens, except they cry quietly enough that Daddy can sleep through it.

Kitten bottle feeding, from Humane Society of Southern Arizona

Hey, this is good! What’s in this stuff?

The feeding process for all four kittens, including clean-up, took about 45 minutes, which means you have just 1 hour 15 minutes before the timer goes off and it’s time to get out of bed and do it all over again.  I helped with one or two of the feedings and realized that motherhood is not for me.  But I think I knew that already from the experience when Emma was a sleepless creature herself.

Roaring kitten

I am kitten, hear me roar!

I thought by the end of the weekend we’d thoroughly hate the little buggers, but I underestimated the cute factor.  This is nature’s way of preventing us from eating our children, I think.  When they really got a rhythm going on that bottle of milk, their little ears would start to flap in time with swallowing, making the grey kittens look like cute fuzzy Dumbos with tiger faces.  Then, with a big beard of milk on their faces, they’d collapse gratefully into a “milk coma,” lying atop their litter mates in the box.

Emma’s technique was praised by the local Society volunteer coordinator and I’m told a picture of her “perfect” bottle-feeding position will be part of the training program for future bottle-feeding volunteers.

We couldn’t keep the kittens as long as we’d like, because homeschooling and other critical daily functions were just not feasible around the kittens’ schedule, but at least we had them for three days and bought the staff a little time to find them a longer-term home.  I would like to think that Emma learned something about the realities of babies, too.

We have about a month before we need to saddle up again.  In those weeks, if we can snag a few kittens who aren’t bottle-feeding, we will.  It feels like having furry foster children is now a fundamental part of our “home base” experience, and we may as want get the full benefit of it while we have the opportunity.  Soon the Airstream will be rolling and when it does, this aspect of our life will go back on hold until next fall.

Mobile Internet, part II

Monday, April 15th, 2013

OK.  I’m sitting here looking at my fingers as I type.  I see three small cuts (nicks from sharp aluminum edges), three broken nails, and one knuckle scuff.  I have been fighting the mobile Internet installation, and finally won.

When I started on the project Saturday I figured it was a two or three hour job:  pull out all the old gear, run a new antenna cable, mount the new antenna, and then install the new gear.  No big deal.  But every step of the way, I was tested.  This was an exercise in beating frustration, which is part of why it took two and a half days to complete.

Nothing would go right the first time.  Now, I can admit that some of the trouble was the result of my inexperience with some things, but I’m not a total noob, so there’s a piece I can attribute to some other force:  bad karma, juju, luck, biorhythyms, alien influence, whatever.  Nothing was as easy as it was supposed to be, and when I realized how things were going to be, I decided I would stick it out even if it took all week.

The big problem was the antenna.  The old antenna was something called an NMO Mount, which means that the installer made a 3/4″ hole in the Airstream’s roof that I would have to plug.  The new antenna requires a side mount (it was designed for buildings rather than RVs) and so I had a very limited range of places I could put it, unless I wanted to fabricate a custom aluminum bracket. I very nearly did, but then found that the bracket upon which the TV antenna rests made a perfect mount.

[NOTE added 5/14/2013:  I’m an idiot.  I should have just returned this antenna and done some more looking.  Since I went through this nightmare install, I discovered a replacement that would have just screwed right onto the existing NMO mount, avoiding the need to run a new antenna cable and seal up the old hole.  I would recommend this antenna to anyone who wants the same 4G performance but with a much lower profile:  Laird Phantom.]

Airstream antennaThis location was ideal:  away from metal objects on the roof that might block the signal (such as the solar panel and air conditioner), low enough that the antenna will clear the carport entryway, and right where I can easily inspect it.  I had to run the coaxial antenna cable through the base mounts that hold up the front solar panel.  That was actually one of the easy problems, solved with the purchase of a 1/2″ drill bit and two rubber grommets.

Antenna closeup

The simplest path to the electronics cabinet was through the existing 3/4″hole in the roof.  I thought I was being clever to use the old antenna wire to pull through the new one, but the old line kept snagging.  So I used the old antenna wire to pull through a few feet of slick & smooth plastic vacuum line (left over from the Mercedes 300D renovation), and then used that to pull the new antenna line through–and discovered that the new one wouldn’t quite fit through an internal brace inside the Airstream’s ceiling.

I tried everything to get that wire through, wiggling it, greasing it, pushing it and pulling it, but it just wouldn’t go. I even drilled little holes behind the overhead cabinet to try to locate the problem.  By the time I had exhausted every possible approach, the entire overhead cabinet and doors were completely removed along with one of the ceiling mounted JVC speakers, the curtains, one power outlet, a 12 volt outlet, the coaxial cable outlet, part of the white vinyl wall covering, and (just for good measure) the obsolete DVD changer.  With the tools burying the dinette table and bits of fiberglass insulation, sawdust, and aluminum shavings everywhere, the Airstream looked like it was still on the assembly line.

Airstream wire chaseIn the end, there was nothing to do about it.  The new antenna cable was just too large to fit through that hidden constriction. After sleeping on it, and consideration of the idea of relocating the entire electronics cabinet, there was really only one practical solution left.  We drilled a fresh hole in the ceiling and ran the wire down the ceiling about four inches to a point where it could disappear again.  A plastic wire chase helps minimize the visual impact.

There were many more challenges, but I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice to say that nothing could be taken for granted.  Every splice was suspect, every hole was in the wrong place, every trick I tried was confounded, and in the end the job took about eight hours, not counting three stops at the hardware store.

Airstream Internet install completeBut finally, it works.  The picture shows the install. It’s a little cluttered looking in the photo.  In reality we have more useful space in the closet than we had before, because I neatened up a lot of the DC wiring and tied up the excess.  That little plastic bag at the bottom contains a 12vDC + wire that is leftover from two installations ago and is still hot.  I’m keeping it in case I need more power in this cabinet later.

There’s a little more work to be done on the roof.  I still have to seal up the rest of the 3/4″ hole from the old antenna, where the new antenna line emerges. I never did find the right caulk locally, so I’ve got a tube on order from an eBay seller.

I’m in the Airstream now, using the new wireless Internet system to write this blog.  The reception is fantastic even in the brick carport (router reports -53 dBm).  I can’t wait to try it out in a remote place during our next trip east.

Since I started this project, I noticed that Kyle and Kevin both went with similar equipment.  Since Kevin is an engineer/publisher who must get online daily when he’s traveling, and Kyle is a full-timer who does Internet consulting, I figure we are in good company.  The transition to 4G technology is raising a lot of questions for people, so I may do a seminar at Alumafandango (Oregon, Aug 6-10) on that subject.  (By the way, if you’re planning to come to Alumafandango, now’s the time to register.  Spaces are filling up quickly!)

Updating the Airstream’s wireless Internet

Saturday, April 13th, 2013

As soon as we got  back from our trip I started ordering things for the coming Airstream maintenance and upgrades.  So beginning on Friday, interesting boxes have been arriving at our doorstop.  Many more are due this coming week.

The first package contained a new cabin air filter for the GL320.  That dust storm really got into everything, and so I decided I’d change the cabin air filters and check the engine air filters.  They were all better than I expected but the cabin air filter was definitely due because it wasn’t changed at the last service.

Today’s package contained my new wireless Internet kit.  As I mentioned, our Cradlepoint CTR500 has been obsoleted by the manufacturer and isn’t reliable with the new 4G networks, and the roof antenna on the Airstream goes back to the 2G days (and isn’t compatible with the frequencies Verizon uses today for 4G LTE, which are in the 700 MHz band).  Plus, I got tired of not being able to get online in fringe areas, especially when everyone else seemed to be getting along fine.  Turns out they are all using “boosters,” and so I finally broke down and got one, along with everything else.

Airstream wireless InternetI spent about 20 minutes on the phone with Vanessa from the 3G Store to work through the technology needs and make sure everything I was going to order would be compatible.  I already had the core of the system, a Verizon wireless data card capable of using the new 4G LTE network (specifically, a Pantech UML-290). The bottom line for everything else was about $360, including:

  • Cradlepoint MBR-95 wireless router.  This is the device that takes the signal from the Pantech UML-290 and makes a private wireless hotspot that all our devices can use.
  • Wilson Sleek 4G-V signal booster cradle (thanks to Jay & Cherie for the tip).  This amplifies the signal from any device you put into the cradle, 3G or 4G. It’s really designed for car use but will work fine for our purposes.  The Pantech will get strapped into the cradle with a rubber band.
  • SureCall omnidirectional fiberglass antenna with ten feet of low-loss cable, and an adapter to connect to the Sleek.  This antenna is a bit of a monster, 9.5 inches tall and about 3.5 inches wide at the base.  It’s much larger than the antenna it is replacing (which was the size of a shot glass) but hopefully offers better performance too. The specs call for a 2-3 dB gain.

All of this stuff will get wired up in the cabinet that we have reserved for electronics and DVDs, near the TV set.  I’ve already got a 12v connector that fits the Cradlepoint, leftover from a previous installation, and a 12 volt socket which will take the cigarette lighter adapter for the Sleek, so we’re all set for power.

The antenna will be mounted to the side of an aluminum leg of one of the solar panels.  Clearance is a challenge:  I bought this 9.5″ antenna because the Wilson RV antenna that most people use is 18 inches tall and won’t clear the entryway of our carport.  This one will just barely make it.  It will be interesting to watch as it comes out of the carport the first time.  If I’ve miscalculated, we might lose a Spanish tile or two in the process.

Before going to all the trouble of running the new antenna wire and putting mounting screws in place, I hooked up the full kit in the house, and dropped the antenna out the window.  After the usual firmware upgrade and some configuration, the first test, using only the Pantech without the Sleek booster, yielded a good signal of -69 dBm, which is not surprising since we are in a city.  Then I put the Pantech card into the Sleek cradle, which boosted the signal and sent it out to the external antenna, and as I watched the signal improve to -43 dBm.  That’s a really good increase, and better than what Wilson promised for the Sleek booster with its standard antenna.

The actual installation will be in the next few days.  I’m looking locally for the appropriate polyurethane caulk (Sikaflex 221, Vulkem/TremPro 635, or similar) to seal up the antenna wire where it passes through the aluminum, and so far am striking out.  I can order an $8 tube of it with $10 shipping from many places, but that’s annoying so I’m trying to find an acceptable substitute in Tucson.  I suppose I can always go over to the local RV store and get something that will work, but in the past the “white box” caulks they tend to sell have been disappointing.  They just don’t last, and I’d rather not have to get up on the roof next year to do this job again.

The real test of this new gear will be this summer when the Airstream is in Vermont.  Reception at our parking spot has always been marginal, to the point that I have to borrow a friend’s office to get work done efficiently.  It would be nice to be able to work from the Airstream as I’m accustomed to doing. And when we are traveling, it looks like the addition of the big antenna and booster will help me get online in more places, and I’m all for that.


Airstream LED lights and European tow vehicles

Thursday, April 11th, 2013

Since we’re back at home base for a while, I’m going to be posting mostly about Airstream maintenance stuff.  Those of you who are looking for pretty pictures and stories about the family might want to avert your eyes for a while.

Several times a year I get inquiries from new Airstream owners who have European tow vehicles (mostly Mercedes, but also BMW, VW, Audi, Porsche, etc) and are having trouble getting straight information about hitching the two vehicles up properly.  I can’t cover the entire topic because it’s quite complicated but I’d like to cover at least one common problem.

The Europeans have been using clever computers in their cars, which measure the resistance of the trailer lights to determine if there is a trailer attached.  If there’s no trailer, the computer turns off the 7-way plug.  I don’t know why this matters, since American tow vehicles leave the plug constantly powered and it doesn’t seem to cause problems.  It may be a case of being just a little too clever, because this resistance-sensing scheme is baffled by trailers that have LED tail lights, as all new Airstreams do.

So imagine the happy new Airstream owner with a fancy BMW/Mercedes/whatever to pull it, and you’d think he’d be on Cloud Nine but when he goes to hitch up, the brake lights don’t come on and (on some vehicles, like Mercedes) the brake controller has no power.  The darned computer has turned off the power because it thinks there is no trailer.  All that money spent on a nice car and a nice trailer, and yet it’s stuck in the driveway with no lights.

LED lights on trailers are nothing new, so you’d think that the European vehicle manufacturers might have figured this one out by now.  Indeed Volkswagen has.  They sell a special patch cable that contains a resistor, which you can buy (if you search carefully on the Internet or have the part number at the dealer) for about $40.  This works, and it’s stupid.

It’s stupid because the resistance cable adds in a couple feet of length, so the cord is now too long and must be secured in some kludgy way.  Secure it incorrectly and one day you’ll find it dragging down the road.  And the patch cable is stupid because it adds another point of connection, and the connectors on 7-way cables are famous for corroding in the weather, so you’ve just lowered the reliability of your lights and brakes.

IMG_2078Andy Thomson at Can-Am RV helped me out with this one when we bought our Mercedes GL320 in 2009, and I’ve passed on the knowledge many times since then.  His solution is the best one, I think: just wire in some incandescent lights into the system.  (You could use resistors but light bulbs are easy to mount, and easy to find and replace on the road if needed.)  Andy uses the clearance lights that were found on older Airstreams, because they have two bulbs.  If one goes, there is some redundancy and you can swap a bulb from another light for a while.

The photo above is from our trailer.  We just mounted the clearance lights right on the floor in Eleanor’s closet, with all the other main 12-volt junctions.  This is normally covered with a box so you can’t see it.  Because the lights are kept out of the weather, they should last a long time.  We’ve been using this system for about four years.

LED Lighting FixThis solution is really easy for the DIY’er to install.  You just wire the lights into the relevant circuits.  The easiest place to do this is in the “rats nest” of wiring where the 7-way connector enters the trailer. This is usually in the front closet or under the front sofa, or behind an access panel in the front storage compartment, on the street side of the trailer.  (The diagram above is by Andy Thomson of Can-Am RV.)

Once you’ve made this simple modification, your Airstream lights and brakes should work with any tow vehicle.  If you ever have a problem on the road, check the 7-way connector for corrosion first, because the LED lights and this modification should be highly reliable.

Wind & dust

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013

We’ve encountered a lot of windy days when towing the Airstream.  I even documented one of them on YouTube (see “Windy Day Towing in Nebraska“) to show how well an Airstream pulls through wind when it’s properly hitched up with a good tow vehicle.  Crosswinds have not been a problem for us, even when other vehicles are being pushed around and threatening to sway, so the major issue we have with wind is the poor fuel economy that results from plowing through it.

The warning we got on Sunday about high winds in the desert finally came true on Monday.  The tow down from Burro Creek on the Joshua Tree Forest Parkway (93 in AZ) to Phoenix was marked by blustery winds.  I watched as the fuel economy plummeted down to 11.5 MPG.  My general rule of thumb is that when it hits 10 MPG it’s time to quit driving for the day.  We’ve had that happen twice:  once in west Texas on I-10, and once in South Dakota on I-90.  Unless you absolutely have to be somewhere, there’s not much point in buying fuel to fight Mother Nature.  Better to take a night off and park somewhere.

This time it didn’t get that bad, but in Phoenix the side effect of heavy wind started to show in the skies.  Sustained winds lift dust from the valley floor and carry it long distances, covering everything and obscuring visibility.  Light dust looks sort of grayish, like haze, and we see that often, but on this day we discovered that heavy dust looks orange.  Eventually everything begins to appear as if you had accidentally detoured to Mars. (Photo by Mars Curiosity rover.)


It was obvious we weren’t going to be spending the day outside, so we bagged our plan to spend a night at Lost Dutchman State Park, and instead turned toward home, pausing to visit IKEA in Tempe.

Inside IKEA it was easy to forget that outside the winds were gusting to 45 MPH.  We picked up an LED light set (DIODER) for the Airstream, something which had been recommended to us by Kyle, and some aluminum hooks (BLECKA), and a few other things.  I’ll be installing the DIODER & BLECKA in the next few weeks.

But once outside again, we had to face the reality of the wind.  The next 100 miles of I-10 passes through a stretch of wide-open desert ready-made for dust problems, partially because of agricultural clearing.  It’s famous for sudden total loss of visibility, and so we decided we would bail out & spend the night parked somewhere if conditions started to deteriorate.

Fortunately few people on the highway were in a hurry.  The speed limit is 75 MPH, but we and the trucks were all comfortable at about 60.  Those who zoomed ahead despite the buffeting and dust blowing across the road definitely were taking a huge risk.  At least seven carloads of people lost the gamble: we passed two accidents on both sides of I-10 involving multiple cars and trucks.

Finally we got caught up in some terrifically bad dust, not coincidentally at the scene of the accidents, and that was enough for us.  Watch the YouTube video here.  You can hear dust and gravel pelting the car, in the video.  Once we got past the accident, we took the next exit at Picacho Peak.

We also needed more diesel to get home, but the fuel pumps were offline at the local stations because the power was out.  We added it up:  high winds, accidents on the Interstate, low fuel … and we didn’t need to get home on Monday.  When that many factors pile up on you, it’s time to listen.  So we parked the Airstream facing downwind, dropped the stabilizers and tongue jack, and settled in to wait it out.

Even with the stabilizers down, the trailer was rocking slightly in the heavier gusts, which were reaching 45-50 MPH.  We haven’t felt such wind in the Airstream, or had to wait out a windstorm like that, since we were at Cedar Island NC in 2008.  I had to go out in the truck stop parking lot and capture a rolling 55-gallon drum that was blowing our way. It was definitely an “exciting” wind.

Parked in Picacho to wait out dust storm on I-10But really it wasn’t a big deal for us.  The Dairy Queen next door was shut down for lack of power, but we were in a rolling emergency shelter.  We had a full tank of fresh water (as we always do when traveling), empty black & gray, a refrigerator full of food, lots of battery power, solar panels, Internet, phone, movies, etc.  What did we need?  We were entirely comfortable and could have stayed there for days if we needed to.  So there was not much stress involved, other than making sure the Airstream didn’t get hit by a rolling object in the parking lot.

Eleanor made up spaghetti with meatballs and I had a couple of hours to catch up on the blog.  I took a shower to get refreshed, and then after dinner the power came back on at the fuel station so we were able to tank up with diesel.

Then we considered our options.  #1:  Stay put.  #2:  Go across the Interstate to Picacho Peak State Park.  #3:  Go home (50 miles away).  It was dark but that’s when the winds tend to die down, and the Interstate seemed to be moving well, so I decided to give it another try.  It worked out.  By 8:30 we were backing the Airstream into its carport spot at home.

At that point neither of us wanted to go through the Airstream unloading procedure, even just to move our toothbrushes, so Eleanor suggested we just stay in the Airstream for the night.  That sounded perfect to me.  I plugged in the trailer, dropped the stabilizers, and settled in for one more comfortable night.  Thus, despite arriving home early, we didn’t end our trip early.

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine