Archive for the ‘Airstream’ Category

I got a little heated about a cooling unit

Sunday, March 15th, 2015

It was well before dawn when I started searching with my laptop on the dinette table. The day before, in the midst of Alumafiesta, the Airstream’s refrigerator had packed up, leaving behind only a trace of greenish-yellow coolant spilled at its base–a sure sign of complete failure. I was in a bind with no refrigeration while running an event with over 100 Airstreams.

There was no hope of fixing the refrigerator during the event, so I moved all my food to a drink cooler located in the main event area, and my frozen stuff went into Brett’s freezer for the duration. But when I woke up early the next morning I resolved that I would buy a replacement cooling unit and learn how to swap it out myself.

The cooling unit is the guts of your refrigerator; basically a sealed unit that includes all the machinery that actually produces coldness. It’s everything except the refrigerator box and the control panel.  After a few minutes of searching, I found several companies that specialized in making or rebuilding cooling units, and one company in particular stood out for its aggressive pricing, by the name of RV Fridge House.

I picked up the phone and called them, and was impressed that on a Saturday morning someone answered, took my order and answered basic questions. Not only that, but for an additional $25 they’d extend their two year warranty to six years.

I bit. When I said I was ready to order, I was switched over to another person who said they didn’t take credit cards, but would do an “e-check.”  An e-check is somewhat like a debit card payment, except that you provide your checking account and bank routing number, and authorize the seller to debit your account for that amount, for one time only. This made me pause, and it should have been a warning sign. Looking back on it now, I should have hung up and thought some more, but I was eager to get this task done so I could move forward with the business of running an event.

The question I should have asked myself was, “Why doesn’t this vendor take credit cards?” In this era, anyone can accept a credit card thanks to services like PayPal, Square, and others. You don’t need to go through the background checks and hoops that were the norm just a decade ago. The fees that a merchant pays to accept an e-check aren’t much different from the fees of credit card processing, so the excuse that “credit card fees are too high” doesn’t hold up.

There’s a very good reason why some vendors don’t take credit cards: they’ve had a terrible history in dealing with customer complaints, and they’ve been effectively blacklisted by the credit card processors.

What happened next followed a pattern that I’ve seen before in businesses that have long experience at scamming customers. I received no receipt, no tracking information, and no followup except for a line on my checking account statement indicating that NuCold Refrigeration Inc debited my account for $524.00.  A week later I called to find out what happened to my cooling unit, and got a very personable and cooperative man who said it had been shipped via FedEx, and that he’d look into it and call back.

You can guess what happened after that if you read up on this business. Their local news station KATV has done two stories on RV Fridge House, one back in October 2, 2013, and a followup on December 14, 2015.  There is a Better Business Bureau alert out about NuCold aka RV Fridge House aka Tate Welding advising of “a pattern of complaints concerning non-delivery of products that ordered and paid for. Consumers typically complain that they order and pay for cooling units from the business, but that the units are never delivered or money returned, and that the business will not answer or return phone calls.

How many complaints?  The BBB currently lists over 100.

A competitor notes that they have operated under the names RV Cool Fridge, Freez-It, and RVIceBox, and warns in no uncertain terms that they aren’t the only ones in the industry who follow the pattern of promising cooling units and not delivering.

I’ve seen businesses like this before. The lead operator, who I think I was dealing with on the phone, is usually smooth and convincing. At first I bought his line about FedEx “losing” my cooling unit, and even felt sympathetic as he explained how much the loss of that newly-rebuilt unit would hurt his business. He politely and calmly promised that as soon as they could rebuild another one, they’d ship it to me, even going to the extent of “checking records” to see how many rebuildable units they had in stock while I waited on the phone.

When I called back on other days to follow up—since the promised callbacks never happened—he mentioned how it was an inconvenient time to talk because (a) they were on their way to a parent-teacher conference; (b) he was driving to another location and was 100 miles away from the office; (c) the staff were busy unloading a truck and so he couldn’t get an answer right away. It’s much more convincing to go into unnecessary details when you’re weaving a story.

And he was still polite, thanking me for my patience, and saying “Have a blessed day.” (Using religious or patriotic phrases is also a good way to build trust with some folks, although personally I always get a little more suspicious when people do that in a customer service situation.)

When I had to leave for Alumaflamingo in mid-February, I thought I had this worked out. I was still drinking RV Fridge House’s Kool-Aid. I was told that my second cooling unit was ready for shipment. (The one FedEx “lost” never materialized for some reason, but I did hear about how “this has never happened before,” and “they don’t even have it in their system, so they are going to have to do a search,” and “I don’t know how it happened—it’s a big box.”)

Since I wasn’t going to be home for a week, we arranged that the “second” cooling unit would be shipped on February 27, so that it would be here waiting for me when I got back. Of course it wasn’t, and after two weeks, four more follow-up calls, and four more failures to call back, RV Fridge House aka NuCold Refrigeration Inc simply stopped answering my calls. (Caller ID is very handy for people who want to duck a customer.)

And there’s the pattern. Essentially, people like this are running out the clock.  They’re dragging it out until you give up, and then they’ve got your money. You can ask for a refund, but it’s hard to do that when they don’t answer your calls anymore.

Many of the reports I read online (after I realized what was happening) revealed that many people think an e-check is money forever lost; that it can’t be reversed. They think that their only recourse is to complain to the BBB, the Arkansas Attorney General, or the business itself.  When nothing happens, they bitterly give up and figure that money is gone.

The good news is that you actually can reverse an e-check, just like the way you can dispute a credit card charge. E-checks are governed by the Electronic Funds Transfer Act of 1978 and the rules are documented in “Regulation E” (which is a dense pile of financial babble that I actually took the time to download and read), and in that regulation is the provision that e-checks can be disputed and reversed if you notify your bank within 60 days of the bank statement that shows the transaction.

Best of all, it’s basically “no questions asked.” You don’t have to prove anything, just affirm that you are disputing the charge. It’s fraud if it was a transfer “initiated by a person other than the consumer without authority to initiate the transfer and from which the consumer receives no benefit.” I’m no lawyer, but to me, if you didn’t get your promised refrigerator cooling unit from someone like NuCold Refrigeration Inc, and you didn’t get your money back, that meets the definition of “without authority” and  receiving “no benefit.” They were authorized to make the transfer on the contingency that they’d deliver a product in a timely fashion. E-checks are not a license to steal.

The bank is required to investigate within 10 business days (essentially to confirm that the charge occurred), and return your money within 1 day of completing their investigation. The vendor cannot charge your account again without your express approval.

So you’re not getting away with my $524, RV Fridge House.

If you got ripped off in the last 60 days for a cooling unit that was never delivered, call your bank now and get your money back.

And I hope more people complain about NuCold aka RV Fridge House aka Tate Welding aka Freez-It aka RV Cool Fridge aka RVIceBox to the Better Business Bureau in Arkansas, the Arkansas Attorney General’s office, and in online forums.  Bringing bad actors into the spotlight of public opinion is the best way we have to identify them and warn other people.

Of course, after all this I still needed a replacement cooling unit for my Dometic refrigerator.  This time I searched more carefully, and checked references online, and looked for the little indicators that suggest a shady operator. For example, the legitimate operations don’t hide their names and addresses—they’re proud to say who they are and help their customers. If you have a problem or a warranty claim, you’re going to want to know how to reach the people in charge, and you can’t do that effectively if you only have a URL and a toll-free phone number.  I was surprised to find that several companies in this industry obscure their contact information. I won’t buy from them.

I also decided I would only work with a company that accepted credit card payments. I’m not afraid of e-checks now, but I prefer the consumer protections that come with credit cards.

After ordering, I expected (and got) a receipt within 24 hours, documenting my purchase and projected delivery date. The receipt also showed the names of the people I’m working with and their email addresses.

This week I expect to get a tracking number for the shipment.  If I don’t, I’ll follow up and demand one—and if I don’t get it promptly I’ll start a dispute via my credit card issuer so that I won’t be liable for the bill until the company resolves the problem.

The new cooling unit is going to cost me about $100 more than the one I was promised from Fridge House. But this time, I think I’ll actually get it. Once I do, and I’m satisfied, I’ll post the name of the company I bought it from here.

Postscript:  A few days after initiating a chargeback, I received a message from Jerry Collins of Fridge House, saying that my cooling unit was on the way, complete with a FedEx tracking number.  Too late.  Since I didn’t trust the vendor, already had a chargeback in process, and had already ordered a cooling unit from another vendor, I simply refused the shipment when it arrived.

Oh no, it’s the UPS truck again

Thursday, February 12th, 2015

I have spent several hours this week stripping the old “Tour of America” graphics off our Airstream. This is something I really should have done long ago, perhaps even in 2008 when we officially ended our full-time travels and settled into a house without wheels, but for sentimental and laziness reasons I kept putting the job off.

We loved the graphics.  They made our Airstream unique and a reminder of the 1,000 happy days we spent traveling America.  People would ask us where we got them, or if they indicated that our trailer was a rental (apparently confusing Airstream and U-Haul).  Many others would say nothing but take pictures when they spotted it.  Emma confessed that while attending rallies as a small child she would use the decals as a way to find her home among dozens of other Airstreams.

The graphics were custom-designed by Brad Cornelius for us when we launched in 2005, and at the time I expected they would be on the Airstream for less than a year.  The people who applied them assumed the same, and so I have nobody to blame but myself for the fact that ten years later the decals had fused to the Airstream’s clearcoat in a very stubborn way. The final impetus to remove them came last year, when the two decals that faced south began to crack and peel off like a bad sunburn.

I knew that getting them off would be a problem, because I had removed the largest decal back in 2010 and it took several days.  Back then I was going the chemical approach, using all kinds of nasty carcinogenic goop, none of which worked particularly well.  I tried a heat gun and plastic scrapers and all sorts of things, but it was still a huge hassle—and in the process I managed to scrape off the Airstream’s clear coat in two places.

This time I tried a 3M Adhesive Eraser Wheel, and it was a huge difference.  It’s basically a polyurethane grinding wheel that you put on a drill.  The wheel cost me $32.99 locally, which turned out to be money well spent.  The wheel strips off the vinyl and the underlying adhesive without damaging the clear coat at all. You can see how this works in my short YouTube video.  Then I followed up with a few applications of Goo Gone to clear up the remainder.

Unfortunately, you can also see how the graphic in the video demo is leaving behind a “ghost” image of itself.  That particular bit of vinyl was facing southwest while the Airstream was in storage, and it got the most sun damage. The vinyl actually embedded into the clear coat and caused permanent damage.  If I had removed it a couple of years ago it would have been fine—I just waited too long.

Oh well.  Now that I’ve got the entire graphic off and cleaned up the surface, it actually looks kind of cool.  From some angles it’s like a silver image cast into the aluminum.  I may eventually have that panel stripped and re-coated by P&S Trailers the next time we are passing through Ohio, or maybe we’ll just design a new vinyl graphic to cover up that spot.  One other graphic also left a mark. The others (which were in shade during storage) came off cleanly.

It’s hardly “stealth” with  AIRSTREAMLIFE.COM still emblazoned on either side and the rear, but the Airstream is much more subtle now. I think we’ll operate like this for a while, until we decide what personalization we might like next.

Fiddling with the graphics is a prelude to much bigger things.  For weeks I have been amassing equipment for a minor renovation and upgrade inside the Airstream.  Since I’ve got to head to Florida soon for Alumaflamingo, I might start the project in the next few days but won’t finish until probably late March.  The list includes:

  • replacement of the refrigerator cooling unit, with a rebuilt one
  • replacement of the Intellipower charger with a Xantrex that can handle our AGM batteries
  • replacement of the kitchen countertop
  • installation of a water filtration system including two cartridge filters and UV sterilization
  • installation of a NuTone food center
  • various other small tweaks

It’s a lot of stuff, but it looks like we will continue to use our Airstream heavily for many more years, so I’m glad to make the investment. If you’re interested in upgrade stuff, stay tuned. Every time the UPS truck pulls up at my door, another project will begin …

Caution: low hanging valves

Monday, February 2nd, 2015

Yesterday we wrapped up Alumafiesta in Tucson, and so now we’re in the “recovery” phase, just trying to get back in sync with life and unwind after a hectic week. For me, it’s time to get a few Airstream projects done.

In the first week of January I decided to do something I’ve never done before: take a friend out in the Airstream for a week-long trip, instead of my family. It might seem odd that I’ve never done that, but those of you who own travel trailers or motorhomes can testify that they become very personal. I always associate our Airstream with our family. I rarely even take the Airstream out alone.

But my buddy Nick was a pretty safe bet. He’s low-maintenance, easy-going, and a decent cook. We work on our old Mercedes cars together on weekends, and have spent many a Saturday morning digging around the junkyard, so we’ve bonded over greasy parts and underneath diesel engines. At one point Nick mentioned that he and his wife would like to own a small travel trailer someday, so I figured he was ready to get introduced to the world of Airstream.

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We took the Airstream out to the southern California desert, where we met up with a bunch of other desert rats/technomads, went hiking, and ate apple pie from Julian. Then we hopped over to Quartzsite to see the spectacle of cheapskate boondockers and endless flea markets, and we wrapped up the trip with a hike up Picacho Peak in Picacho AZ. It was all brilliant except that the Airstream kept giving us little problems, signs of advancing age and frequent hard use.

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I already wrote about the battery charging issue, and that will get addressed later this month when the new charger comes in. During the California trip, I found a few other glitches, most of which I fixed on the spot.  One interesting problem was the sudden failure of the P/T valve on the water heater.  This valve is supposed to relieve excess pressure in the water heater (it’s a safety device) but mine decided after ten years it was done holding back, and so it began to gush water.  One trip to the local hardware store later, Nick and I had it swapped out for a new one.

All of the repairs were small stuff like that, hardly worth breaking out the tool kit for, until the aluminum bracket that holds up the dump valves broke loose.

Even this wasn’t a major problem.  The bracket is riveted into the belly pan, which is thin aluminum, and the rivets had finally torn out after 100,000+ miles of bumping along North American roadways. The dump valves hung a little lower than usual, but everything still worked.  My only concern was that eventually, without the bracket, the connections on the plastic pipes might eventually start to leak.

Normally I’d fix this with bigger rivets—which I carry around at all times, as well as a rivet tool—but in this case there wasn’t enough intact metal in the belly pan left to make a bond I could trust.  It needed a reinforcing sheet of aluminum.  I browsed around the junk piles at Quartzsite and found an expired California license plate that was the perfect size to serve as a reinforcing plate.

I was feeling rather resourceful until it became obvious that the entire dump valve assembly would have to be removed in order to get in there with the drill and rivet tool to rig up my field repair.  This was more of a job than I wanted to do in a Quartzsite campground (we had opted for full hookups rather than boondocking again), and it seemed like an opportunity to order a new set of dump valves to swap in at the same time.  So after getting home, I placed an order for the new valve set and went off to Alumafiesta for a week.

Alas, the day before Alumafiesta I heard a strange hissing noise from the refrigerator, one I’ve never heard before.  The refrigerator used in RVs is normally silent. There wasn’t any obvious ammonia smell (a definite indicator of a major failure), nor any sign of coolant leakage, and the fridge was still working so there wasn’t anything I could so at that point.  A few days later, the fridge stopped cooling and a tell-tale puddle of greenish-yellow coolant oozed out.  RIP refrigerator #2.  It lasted just six and a half years, one of the 900,000+ victims of Dometic’s unfortunate refrigerator manufacturing fiasco from June 1, 2003 to September 30, 2006.

The immediate solution was to find another refrigerator to store my food for a few days until the event was over.  The long-term solution was to order a new cooling unit for the refrigerator.  The cooling unit is the guts of the fridge, and it’s entirely replaceable.  We could get a new refrigerator, but we really like the Dometic NDR-1062 that we have, and it has been discontinued.  It’s the only model we’ve found that yields 10 cubic feet in the space of a typical 8-cubic foot refrigerator box.

The dealer quote was $1,560 to replace the cooling unit.  I ordered a new cooling unit for $524, to be delivered by truck freight to my door with a 6-year warranty, and I will replace it myself sometime next week. I’ve never done this job before, but it doesn’t look terribly difficult, and I’ve got friends who can help. As a few people have said to me, “If you can do your own work on that old diesel Mercedes, you can do this.”

Meanwhile today, I got under the Airstream and swapped out that dump valve set, and riveted that bracket up. It was a good warm-up for the work yet to come this month.

At times it seems like I’m constantly working on one Airstream or another. This can be frustrating at times because there are other things in life. On the other hand, each repair is an opportunity to get to know the Airstream better, learn new skills, and improve things beyond the original factory spec. There’s something very satisfying in doing it yourself.  And I can assure you that those dump valves will never drop low again, thanks to ten huge rivets and a California license plate.

How my Airstream lost its mojo in the carport

Monday, December 29th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things polishing taught me

Monday, December 22nd, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The polishing project

Friday, December 12th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

1953 Airstream Flying Cloud patina1953 Airstream Flying Cloud polished

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

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

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

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

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

 

Airstreaming in Asia

Friday, October 31st, 2014

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

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

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

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

Incheon Korea Airstream Eleanor Emma

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

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

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

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

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

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

Special thanks to Wally Byam

Friday, October 3rd, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wally expressed this as his “Four Freedoms.”

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

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

 

 

 

The Performance Towing Experience

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

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

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

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

PTX logo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The things you take home

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

We are home after a little over two weeks of traveling from Vermont to Arizona, and for the past week we have been slowly unpacking the Airstream and catching up on the obligations of daily life. It has been four months since the Airstream was at home base, so there’s a lot of cleaning and tweaking to be done.

The first week at home can be tough. I think that for a lot of people it is easy to sink into a sort of semi-depression after a great trip, as they are forced to re-enter the “real world” of work.  This is really unfortunate.  Obviously it’s kind of counter-productive if you go out on a trip and get refreshed, then come back to home base only to promptly lose all that fresh energy.

Since we are out traveling often (and so have to make the re-adjustment back to home life just as often) I’ve developed some personal strategies to ensure that that depression doesn’t strike me. It never consciously occurred to me that this was something I needed to do, but gradually over the years it just felt better to do certain things to soften the transition from footloose travel to homebound routine.

One of the things I try to do is to anticipate the return with joy rather than dread, while we are still traveling. If you truly dread your home life you probably should make some changes, but I think for most people it’s just a few obligations or the fear of losing the pleasant mellow of vacation, that has them down. They try not to think about “the real world” because they are afraid it will overshadow what they’re experiencing at that moment, even if the real world isn’t really that bad.

I look at it another way. I think about the things that I like about being home, and the things I want to do once I get there, in the days leading up to the end of a trip. This way the arrival back at home is just another fun stop along the way. For example, while were in Colorado and New Mexico I was also mentally preparing a list of things to do in Tucson: a old favorite restaurant to re-visit, showing Eleanor the new Tucson streetcar, checking out some venues for next year’s Alumafiesta, going to Scottsdale for a car show, finishing a Mercedes project with my buddy across town, Dad’s night with the guys, sunrise in our bedroom, and seeing our stray cat “Priscilla” again.

Writing up that list, it looks mundane and even silly to me now, but long ago I realized that it’s important to appreciate the little things that fill your life with bits of joy. I could have thought of the crummy stuff that is coming, like a series of dental appointments and expensive car maintenance, because that’s part of life too—but why go there?  Those things will get worked out eventually whether I worry about them or not.

Another thing that we all like to do is collect things along our travels that we can enjoy after the travel is over. I don’t mean antique furniture or souvenir snow globes, because those just add to our clutter and we don’t really need them.  I’m talking about intangibles and consumables, like new ideas and food.  Ideas in particular are the real riches of life (at least to me). They add to our store of knowledge and our internal diversity of thought, constantly expanding us into more interesting people.  (Food is also constantly expanding us, especially now that we are over 50, but that’s an argument for moderation rather than avoidance.)

While we were at the Lincoln Cabin historic site in Illinois, I watched the historical interpreters making a wonderful Irish Soda Bread in their Dutch Oven. It looked so nice and smelled so good that we all stood around and admired it while I asked questions about how they made it. This idea lodged in my head, and so it became once of the things that I looked forward to doing once we got back to home base.

Yesterday Eleanor picked up some ingredients and verified we had the rest: buttermilk, flour, Baking Powder, salt, raisins, brown sugar. She researched various recipes and we discussed them together.  I wanted one that was simple, so I could easily make it when camping, and yet reasonably tasty. And today, with the help of both Eleanor and Emma, I made my very first Irish Soda Bread in the new aluminum Dutch Oven that I’ve been hauling around in the Airstream for the past year.

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It’s not perfect bread, but that’s not even close to the point. What really matters to me is that I was looking forward to doing this, and the anticipation of this simple act was enough to soften the landing. It even got me happy about the chore of clearing out the front compartment of the Airstream, because that’s where my Dutch Oven was.

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And of course, the idea of making a Soda Bread became the other kind of souvenir that we like to bring back from a trip: food. So in a way, it was perfect.

There’s one more strategy that I use when a trip is winding down, or just ended.  That’s the one we all do. I think about future trips, and talk to my family about them, and pretty soon we have something else to anticipate while we are getting on with whatever has to be done. As they say, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”  Enjoy life.

 

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine