Archive for the ‘Maintenance’ Category

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.

Notes from the mid-west

Tuesday, August 19th, 2014

After writing the previous blog extolling the virtues of slower travel through the Plains states, I felt obliged to get off I-70 as soon as feasible and explore other routes through Kansas.  We dropped south to parallel routes and spent our evening in Great Bend, KS, a small town that we chose only because it was about the time of day that we wanted to stop traveling.

When you are moving around the way we are, it’s hard to be fussy about where you stay.  We are always prepared to boondock a night or two in a parking lot or driveway, and it’s actually a good way to cut down the cost of travel. Long-time blog readers know we rarely make reservations, and this is part of the reason why: we often don’t know exactly where we are going to be tomorrow. In this case the decision to stop in Great Bend was made about an hour before actually getting there.

I use an app called “Allstays Camp & RV” to look ahead for possible campsites each day. (Apps like this are basically the modern equivalent of the old Woodall’s and Trailer Life paper directories—but far more useful.) In this case we could see that Great Bend had a few small campgrounds that were all exceptionally cheap, running about $10-15 for a full hookup.  At that price you have to expect that the campground will be basically a parking lot with no amenities at all, and that’s fine with us.  For an overnight stop, we don’t need a shower house (we have our own) and certainly not a trout pond.

Thus, we have gone from Grand Bend, ON to Great Bend, KS, in a little over a week.  This reminded me of June, when I went from Perce Rock on the north Atlantic coast off Gaspé, to Morro Rock on the Pacific coast off California. This has been a summer of almost too much travel. I’ve really enjoyed it.

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Yesterday I tweeted a photo of our unimpressive campsite on a mud & gravel parking lot. I forgot that these days there’s always someone monitoring … and so I heard back from fellow tweeter @GreatBendKS with a comment that next time we should get in touch and they’ll direct us to a nice place at a similar price.  This sort of thing has happened before, both on positive and negative comments I’ve made about campgrounds. In one case an armed ranger came to our campsite to say “Thanks for the nice review,” and in another case a campground owner threatened to sue me.  Luckily, people in Kansas are friendly.

Ft Larned NHS

I thought our visit at Ft Larned National Historic Site would be quick but it turned into a multi-hour saga. Emma got another Junior Ranger badge (I think she’s earned over 70 of them at this point) and we had lunch. It was tortuously hot, running 103-105 degrees, which made a mockery of my earlier decision to skip I-44 down to Oklahoma in favor of “cooler weather” heading toward Colorado. But Ft Larned was interesting and well worth the stop.

John Martin Reservoir State Park

With the last few days running progressively hotter, we’ve spent every night in a state park or commercial campground just for the electric hookup to run the air conditioer. I don’t mind that because the state parks have all been great. Last night’s stop was perhaps the best of a great bunch: John Martin Reservoir State Park in the town of Hasty, CO. It has both sunny sites by the dam and shady sites beneath mature trees, and at least during this week it is mostly empty, which I love. Now that we are slowly climbing the plateau, we’re up to about 3,300 ft elevation and the nights are running cooler even if the days are still pretty hot.

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A note about maintenance:  I’m reminded once again that this sort of rapid travel across the country does come with a price.  We have logged nearly 8,000 miles so far this summer (since leaving Arizona in May), which is about average for us.  In the past two weeks we’ve done routine and minor maintenance such as greasing the Hensley hitch, adding DEF to the car (a diesel thing), and disassembling the bathroom sink plumbing to clear a clog. But when we get home we’ll need to tackle the “bug list” that has been accumulating on the white board.

The GL320 is due for some love.  The car is now at 97,000 miles and due for an oil change, transmission fluid change (we do it about every 30k miles), and a new set of tires fairly soon. I don’t mind because the GL has been pretty good to us and looks good to go for many more miles. And I still get the question almost every week we travel: “Does that little car pull that trailer OK?” Watching people gape at our 30-foot trailer and “little” SUV can be pretty entertaining, especially at the fuel pump.

The Airstream also needs a few tweaks.  The rainstorms we’ve been driving through have revealed two leaks. The MaxxFan in the front bedroom seems to have a small, wind-driven rain leak.  That’s probably just a matter of re-caulking a spot, so I can do that easily once I get a chance to get on the roof.

The bigger problem is the front storage compartment, which has always leaked but really flooded in the last storm. We’ve had it “repaired” twice and nobody has ever been able to really get it to be totally waterproof. It is also difficult to open and close when the Airstream is hitched up, because the body of an Airstream is flexible, and the flexing causes the door to jam.  I have concluded after years of hassling with it that the only solution is to replace the compartment door with the updated design, which has rounded corners instead of square. This job will be major surgery that gets a little beyond my personal comfort zone, so I may recruit the help of one of my more experienced Airstream friends this winter.

In the meantime, since we may encounter rainstorms again today, we’ll seal the compartment with packing tape, as we used to do years ago when we were full-timing.  It’s a kludgy solution but it will do until we get home.  We’re only a little over 800 miles away from wrapping up this trip.

Socrates wasn’t infallible

Monday, May 5th, 2014

Introspection is good, in moderation.  “The greatest good for a man is to discuss virtue every day,” said Socrates, adding the famous statement that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”  These days blogging is the common man’s method of self-examination, revealing quite a bit about the bloggers to the world even if the bloggers themselves aren’t aware of it.

But there’s only so far you should follow the advice of a guy who has been dead for 2,400 years.  (Socrates himself made a point of the fact that he didn’t know everything, which he viewed as a slight advantage over people who think they know everything.)  So after about ten years of nearly constant blogging (first in the Vintage Thunder blog, then Tour of America, and now Man In The Maze), I finally got to a point where it felt better to be quiet for a while, and just enjoy life.  And that is the short explanation for the long absence of this blog.

Now it’s time to get back to it, because the Airstream is about to move and our plans have been laid for the next six months.  We have much to do, and many places to go.

First, we need to get up to Ohio for Alumapalooza.  This is the fifth year we’ve made this exact trip, and while Alumapalooza is always fun, we’re all getting a bit bored with the drive.  We have tried just about every route between Tucson AZ and Jackson Center OH, running anywhere from 1,900 miles to 2,400 miles one way.  Last year we were so desperate to have a change of scene that we went all the way east to the Great Smokies before heading north.  It was a good trip, but now our options for seeing new landscape will have to bring us up to North Dakota, and that’s just too far out of the way.

So I’ll find some things to see and do along the way that we have missed before.  Not sure what yet.  We may end up going off on weird little side trips, like our quest for “Forbidden Amish Donuts” a couple of years ago.  I’m open to suggestions.  (No giant balls of twine, please.)

After that, we will set up the Airstream in Vermont, and then I’ve got a two-week “adventure motorcycling” trip scheduled in June.  Three guys on BMW F650 bikes (3 of the 4 members of the former Black Flies gang) will wander up into Quebec, around the Gaspé Peninsula, through New Brunswick and northern Maine, basically seeing what there is to see.  I hope to spot a few puffins and get some nice photos of the scenery, but those are optional. My only real desires are to stay dry (it’s rainy up there) and avoid incidents.  With luck, my cell phone won’t work most of the time.

Late June gets really interesting.  Airstream is lending me a new Interstate motorhome for a couple of weeks.  This is a real privilege, because (a) the thing costs $140,000; (b) it’s super-cool.  My plan is to take it from Los Angeles up the coast to the SF Bay area, then back south through the desert, then via Palm Springs to I-8 and back to Tucson.  During the trip I want to meet as many Airstream Interstate owners as possible, so if you have one please let me know if you can cross paths between June 28 and July 7.

In July I’ll pay the price for all this fun by parking my butt in Tucson and working like a dog at the computer, and in August we’ll haul the Airstream back west—and right now I have no clue what route we’ll take for that.

In early September, Brett & I will be running Alumafandango in Canyonville OR.  That was great fun last year and I expect it will be even better this year.  We’ll have all-new seminars, more off-site tours, bicycling, all-new entertainment, and of course an Airstream display indoors.  Since we moved this event to September instead of August, the weather should be even better, too!  I’m told that early September is a spectacular time to be in southern Oregon.

And finally, in October we’ve got another trip on the drawing board, which (if it comes off) I’ll talk about later.

All of this moving around comes at a price, and I don’t mean dollars.  There’s a lot of prep.  We’ve been getting ready for months, arranging dates and flights, twiddling with the Airstream, scheduling appointments months in advance, collecting destination information, cleaning, re-stocking, upgrading, etc.  The motorcycle trip, for example, kept me engaged for a couple of weeks just figuring out what gear I would need and how to pack it all.  But really, this is good.  During the off season, travel planning is a great way to build anticipation and pass the time on dark winter nights.  When I think of it that way, it doesn’t seem like a “price” at all.

In the Airstream, Eleanor has made a special effort this year to pull out a lot of stuff that had been accumulating, and culling down to the things she really needs.  So I’ve done the same, and it’s amazing how many things I don’t need anymore.  I would say that the Airstream is going to be a few hundred pounds lighter, but it looks like all the ballast we’ve ditched is going to be made up with new stuff.  Partially this is because our interests and situations have changed.  The Airstream is no longer young, and so I’m carrying a few more tools and spare parts than I used to.  We’re eating differently than we did just a few years ago.  Emma is a teenager, and I probably don’t have to tell you what a massive change that has been.  We’re no longer carrying snorkel gear—instead Eleanor packs equipment for cooking demos in some of that space.  It’s all good because it’s a reminder that the Airstream reflects who we are, rather than defining us.  That’s why they’re shiny.

I had lots of plans for upgrades to the Airstream but in keeping with the decision to pause blogging, I decided not to take on any huge projects in March or April (when the weather here is usually ideal for outdoor work).  Instead, I took care of a few small things and otherwise left the Airstream alone.  No worries, it’s ready to go, thanks to all the updates and repairs I made last year (backup camera, new storage unit, 4G mobile Internet update, flooring and plumbing, window gears).  The only significant task this year was to finally get rid of the factory-installed Parallax Magnatek 7355 power converter, which I’ve never liked because of its lame charging capabilities, and install a Progressive Dynamics Intellipower 9260 in its place.

This was a a little out of my comfort zone but worked out well.  High voltage isn’t my thing, so I Googled a bunch of reports from other people who had made similar conversions, and eventually realized that there’s no single “best” way to do it, and that the job isn’t really that hard either.  Over-simplified, it came down to disconnecting four wires (two AC wires and two DC wires) and connecting five (I added a ground wire on the AC side). One trip to the hardware store for an outlet box and some wire, and the job was done in about two hours.

The only way you can visually detect the change is by the little “Charge Wizard” stuck to the wall (this gizmo allows you to overrride the automatic function of the charger), but the Intellipower documentation (and my voltmeter) tell me that we should now have far superior charging.  That means the batteries should recharge faster, be automatically “equalized” (essential for their long-term health) and I no longer have to worry as much about overcharging while in long term storage.

The real joy of this, if I’m totally honest, is that I did it and nothing blew up.

Well, perhaps that’s the joy of everything we try outside of our comfort zones.  I think I would be OK with an epitaph that read something like, “He did many things … and nothing blew up.”

In fact, that’s pretty much the goal for the next six months.  I’ll keep you posted.

Pineapple season

Monday, November 18th, 2013

Weather-wise this is one of the most pleasant times of year to be in southern Arizona.  It’s neither hot enough for air conditioning, nor cold enough for heat, and with abundant sunshine because this is one of our dry seasons.  We haven’t seen substantial rain in weeks.

Little wonder that this is when I find myself working the hardest on projects all over the house and both Airstreams.  The Caravel plumbing job is done, tested, and hopefully reliable.  Everything works perfectly.  My only job now is to take the trailer on a shakedown trip, perhaps across the county (potentially no small jaunt, since Pima County is 9,200 square miles) and camp in it for a night to thoroughly test all the work.  I am very confident in it but in this case I’m subscribing to Ronald Reagan’s philosophy: “Trust, but verify.”

(I’m also thinking of another less-famous Reagan turn of phrase: “I feel like I just crapped a pineapple.”  This wasn’t a fun job, but it feels great now that it’s done.)

The Safari, to its credit, is hanging in there just fine. Good for you, Safari.  I tweaked a few things after we got home in September, and while there are other projects in the wings, it needs nothing at the moment.  We are free to go camping.

And we might, if we had the inclination.  But when we were full-timing in the Airstream we found that in some ways this is the least interesting time of year.  The short days, even in the southernmost reaches of the continental US, meant that after about 5 p.m. we’d be back in the Airstream for a long dark night.  In the desert southwest, the temperature plummets after dark and so on those nights when we were in a national park with a ranger program to attend at 8 p.m., we’d have to bundle up like it was Alaska, in order to sit through an hour-long talk in the outdoor amphitheater on chilly metal benches.

So instead we tend to stay home in November and December, except for a break around New Year’s, and I try to get things done so that we can take off later in the season.  It’s also a good time to catch up personal maintenance, so this month I’ve had the full experience afforded the average 50-year-old American male, including a flu shot, a Tdap booster, (Tetanus, Diptheria & Whooping Cough), a examination here and there, dental cleaning, orthodontist, and the threat of having a sigmoidoscope shoved up where the sun don’t shine.  Yee-ha.

(OK, having written that, I do have to wonder why I’m not hitching up the Airstream and driving as far away as I can … Then I remind myself that I’m trying to set a good example for my daughter.)

One use of the time has been to read several very interesting books.  One has been “The Great Brain Suck” by Eugene Halton. Don’t read it if you are thin-skinned (because he skewers a certain group of Airstreamers) or if you can’t stand wordiness.  Halton could have used a good editor to trim down his prose, but his observational skills are razor-sharp.  I would hate to have him review me.

Another one has been “Salt: A World History,” by Mark Kurlansky.  Admittedly, you have to be a history buff to really love this one.  It’s not a foodie book.  He takes the common thread of an ageless essential (salt) and shows how it permeates most of the major events of world history. Salt has caused and prevented wars, changed governments, nourished some societies while crushing others, and literally enabled society as we know it today.  I picked it up while visiting the Salinas Pueblos National Monument in New Mexico, where salt trading was a crucial element of survival for the Ancient Puebloans.

Mercedes 300Dx3

I’m sure I can blame the nice weather for this next item:  I have joined a gang.  We’re not particularly scary, but we do clatter around town in a cloud of diesel smoke.  Not exactly “rolling thunder” but at least “rolling well-oiled sewing machines.” Like Hell’s Angels Lite.

We are small but growing group of old Mercedes 300D owners in Tucson who share knowledge, parts, tools, and camaraderie periodically.  In the photo you can see the cars of the three founding members, blocking the street.  We call ourselves the Baja Arizona W123 Gang.  Perhaps someday we’ll have t-shirts and secret handshake.  Probably the handshake will involving wiping black oil off your hands first.

The rest of my time has been spent working the “day job.”  At this point I am glad to say that the preliminary event schedules for both Alumafiesta, and Alumaflamingo have been released to the public (and that was two more pineapples, believe me).  There’s still quite a lot of work to be done on both events, but at least now we have an understanding of the basics.  To put it another way, we’ve baked the cake, and now it’s time to make the frosting.  If you are interested in getting involved with either event as a volunteer, send an email to info at randbevents dot com.

The question now is whether I will tackle a major project on the Safari, or just lay back and take it easy for a few weeks.  The project would be to remove the stove/oven, re-secure the kitchen countertop (it has worked loose), and cut a hole to install a countertop NuTone Food Center.  On one hand, this isn’t an essential thing just yet, but on the other hand, I’ll be glad if it’s done before we start traveling extensively next February.  I only hesitate because it might turn into a bigger project than I bargained for.  You know how projects have a way of doing that.

Hmmm… pineapple, anyone?

 

 

Lessons from the Caravel

Friday, November 8th, 2013

This past week I’ve been digging back into the Caravel, in an attempt to get it back in fully-functioning condition by mid-November.  You might remember that last February I was working on that project, and abandoned it because I had to switch over to working on the Safari.  Those Safari projects (re-flooring, building new cabinetry, etc.) took all spring, and then we went on the road in May.  Now that it’s fall and we are back at home base, I’ve finally got a chance to finish the plumbing.

Actually there were three general areas of work to be done on the Caravel, of which the plumbing was only one.  I also started building a new dinette table to replace the heavy one we have been using, and there was the super-annoying propane regulator job that morphed into complete replacement of the regulator, hoses, mounting bracket, and hitch jack.

The hitch jack was still needing to be done when we got back.  It turned out that the original manual jack on the Caravel was welded into place, so I couldn’t remove it myself.  (Someday I plan to learn welding.  I’ll be checking the local community college for courses.)

I hate calling tradesmen, because (a) it’s hard to find a good one; (b) few of them return calls; (c) even fewer will actually show up.  My historical success rate has been to get one good worker for every five or six calls.  So I was geared up for the worst when I started seeking a mobile welder to come over, but got lucky this time and got a guy with only four calls.  One other said he would come over “next week,” but that was in July.

Caravel welding hitch jackJohn showed up and right off the bat I could see he was very experienced. Over the phone it took 30 seconds to describe the job, and since he owns a travel trailer himself he knew exactly what was necessary.  He   got the jack out in 20 minutes, and the new one went in pretty quickly too.  It is bolted in place, not welded, so I can get it out myself next time.

Caravel safety chainsWhile we were at it, John torched off the old—completely inadequate— safety chains and welded up a new set.  The whole job took about an hour, plus a few minutes the next day for me to wire up the power leads.

So that ended the saga that began with a new propane regulator.  One down, two to go …

I left the plumbing in what I earlier described as an “80%” state.  This turned out to be pretty close to the truth, as long as you remember that the last 20% takes 80% of the time.  I was hoping to complete the job in about 10 hours.  After a week of tinkering with it, I think I’ve already using up my allotment of time.

The problem is rookie mistakes.  I learned a lot of things doing this job, but chief among them are:

  1. Don’t ever re-use anything from the original plumbing.  I had set out to avoid that mistake (see photo below of some of the old plumbing I threw out), but then I went and re-used just one piece, a brass winterization valve that was screwed into the water heater, because it was so firmly stuck in the threads that I couldn’t get it out.  And guess what piece leaked when time came to pressure-test the system?Caravel old brass
    Well, necessity is the mother of invention, so I did eventually get that brass valve out, and if you enlarge the photo you can see quite clearly that the shutoff has been leaking for some time.  All that green corrosion is the tell-tale, and that brings me to the next lesson:
  2. Buy good quality parts.  I can’t see any way that it pays to buy cheap plumbing fittings.  All the stuff I removed was low-grade and it was all failing after a decade.
  3. PEX is great stuff, but it only works if you remember to actually crimp the fittings.  Last February I left a few of the first crimp rings un-done “just in case” I needed to disassemble later because I’d made a mistake.  By November, I didn’t remember that.  You can imagine the spray of water that occurred later.  (Doug R gave me the advice to pressure-test with compressed air instead of water.  I didn’t take that advice, and I should have. It’s not fun chasing leaks with a towel.)
  4. You need a LOT more of everything than you think.  I bought 100 feet each of blue and red PEX tubing, 100 crimp rings, eight swivel fittings, a box of brass elbows, six shutoff valves, and many other bits.  I ran out of swivel fittings, crimp rings, and shutoffs, and nearly ran out of elbows.  Why?  Because I didn’t realize exactly what was going to be required (and I wasted a lot of crimp rings making mistakes).  It’s astonishing to me that I used most of the 200 feet of PEX tubing that I bought.  It’s only a 17-foot trailer, for cryin’ out loud!
  5. It’s a lot easier to re-plumb if the cabinetry is out.  I would have had this job done in a fraction of the time if the trailer were bare, instead of fighting to crimp copper rings inside a closet!

Caravel old plumbing The job still isn’t done, but it’s getting close.  Eleanor has been squeezing herself into the closets and under-sink area to do some of the tricky crimps.  We spent most of last Saturday together in there, and we may yet spend a chunk of this coming Saturday in there too.  The plumbing is fully assembled, so the next job is to do more leak-testing, re-assemble the interior furniture that we removed, clean up, and then in a few weeks we’ll take the Caravel out for a road test and shakedown weekend.  The third project, the dinette table, can wait until later.

 

Fixing a teenage Airstream

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

A friend called the other day and lamented the age of his Airstream, just ten years old.  At that point you’re well out of the honeymoon phase, and maintenance becomes essential.  It can seem like you’re constantly fixing up things, in between trips.

That’s happening to us as well.  It’s unavoidable, whether you’ve got a house, boat, car, RV, or marriage.  Maintenance is part of the deal.  My daughter is just 13 years old and she’s already had braces, eyeglasses, and a broken foot. So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that my Airstream needs a little TLC after eight years (Oct 2005-Oct 2013).

I think this is a good problem to have.  You don’t hear a lot about owners of other RV brands fixing up their ten, twenty, thirty, forty, or even fifty year old trailers because they are usually long gone by then.  I like the fact that at eight years, our Airstream is still just a teenager.

That’s in “Airstream years”, which are like dog years.  I figure every year of an Airstream’s life is like two years of human life, making our Airstream the equivalent of 16 human years old.  Most of the elderly Airstreams date from the 1950s, making them 53-63 years old, or 106-126 in “Airstream years,” but almost all of them have been refurbished back to new status by now, which kind of resets the clock.

The oldest un-refurbished Airstream I know is Fred Coldwell’s “Ruby,” a 1948 Wee Wind, and she’s a grand old lady at 65 (or 130 in Airstream years).  You don’t find them like that very often.  Ruby lives in covered storage and only comes out on special occasions.

This week I towed the Safari over to my friend Rob’s house to do some work on it.  My carport is great but I can only access three sides of the Airstream when it is parked, whereas Rob’s driveway has tons of space. I recruited Mike (who previously helped on the flooring replacement and A-frame re-paint last spring) to help with this morning’s two projects.

The first job was the silver rub rail that goes around the lower edge of the exterior.  This is a flexible stick-on trim that fits into an aluminum channel.  After a while the silver goes chalky and then the adhesive lets go.  A piece on the front right stoneguard came loose in Tucson before we launched this spring, and the same piece on the opposite side peeled off on the highway in Ohio last June.  So when we stopped at Airstream in September I bought enough replacement silver trim to do the entire trailer.

While I was there, I had a chat with Kevin, one of the techs in the Airstream Service Center, and he tipped me off on the correct procedure to replace this trim.  First, we swung out the stainless stoneguards at the front of the trailer.  There are three 7/16″ nuts to remove on each stoneguard, and then they swing out on hinges.  (Video of how this works.) This gives you access to the rub rail that goes behind the stoneguards.

Next we peeled off the old trim.  It was old enough that it peeled off easily, and didn’t leave much residue.  Then we cleaned up all the dirt in the aluminum channel with soap and water and a sponge, followed by a little scraping of leftover adhesive.  The final cleaning is done with rubbing alcohol on a rag.

Airstream sells a little bottle of special adhesive primer for about $14 (JPC Primer 94 in a “dauber applicator.”) This stuff preps the aluminum surface for the 3M VHB adhesive that’s on the back of the new trim.  We applied the primer to the cleaned channel, let it dry for five minutes, and then stuck in the shiny new silver trim. The ends were cut with kitchen scissors.  Overall:  pretty easy job, and the results are great.  The new silver trim really reveals how badly the rest of the trailer needs a wash!

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The other job of the day was a bit nastier, replacing yet another Hehr window operator. I’ve written about this job before, so I won’t detail it, except to say that the emergency escape window is even more annoying than the others.  It takes a different gearbox (a “center” operator, part #119-331) and replacing it is just a giant pain.  I needed a special horizontal bit driver and an extra long Phillips bit to get several of the screws out.  You might be able to do it with a regular Phillips screwdriver but I wouldn’t want to try.

Finally, I fixed the MaxxFan that spontaneously de-constructed itself a few weeks ago.  The fix was much easier than I expected, and it could all be done from the inside (avoiding a trip to the roof).  Two nuts hold down the motor and fan assembly. I just removed the screen, unbolted the fan blade, and re-attached the motor.  The fan is fine now but it has always wobbled a bit (the blade is somewhat out of balance) and after inspecting it I decided to order a new one. So that should be coming in the mail next week and will take only five minutes and a 1/2″ socket to replace.

All of this consumed about four hours of the day.  I figure a good Airstream tech would have taken about two hours to do this work, at a cost of about $200.  Doing it myself added to my store of confidence and taught me a few things, and gave me a chance to hang with Mike and Rob, so I figure the $200 savings was just a bonus.

And that’s what I told my friend who called earlier this week about his Airstream maintenance woes.  “Find some people who can guide you, and learn to do it yourself,” I told him. You’ll be surprised what you can accomplish with just a little motivation and a few tools. I don’t like having to go fix things, and I still grumble about it, but once I’ve done it I’m usually glad to have made the effort.  So I don’t fret about the higher maintenance needs of my teenage Airstream.  I hope I’ll still be fixing things myself on Airstreams for many years to come.

Cat scratch fever

Monday, October 14th, 2013

OK, we’ve been off the road for a few weeks.  But is that any reason to be going to the cats?

I would say “going to the dogs” but we are admittedly cat people, and you know that Eleanor and Emma foster kittens from the local Humane Society in between trips.  It was not long after we landed in Tucson that the first batch arrived: six cute kittens needing two medications each in the morning, and three medications in the evening, plus a little of our patented kitty socialization school.

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Having a batch of kittens will turn anyone’s life upside down.  Kittens want to jump, claw, fight, eat, and sleep—all the time, and if they can figure it out, all at the same time.  Kittens have no respect for litter boxes, so twice-daily cleanups are just part of the routine.  They don’t know how to share, and if it suits them to tip over a bowl full of water in the middle of the night, well, you just have to get up and deal with it.

In short, kittens are born with the knowledge that humans exist to serve them.  But in this house they are also patients, so we don’t take much flack when it comes to medicine time.  Their claws get trimmed (by me usually), and then with their defenses lowered we deal with them assembly-line fashion: first a squirt of medicine in the mouth, then a dab of ointment in each eye, and finally the despised nose drops.

It’s not all grief for the little beasts, though.  We do our best to give them back to the shelter with a better opinion of human beings.  Lots of snuggling, playing, attention, belly-rubs, snacks, and general carting around seems to work well in convincing them that we are worth keeping in servitude forever. Some lucky person will get one of these kittens and find that it has been pre-programmed to encourage human bondage.  (We don’t feel guilty about it–these guys need homes.)

In anticipation of some of my Airstream projects, I moved the trailer over to Rob’s place to borrow his somewhat taller carport.  Working there gives me a little more room for jobs that require access to all sides of the trailer and the roof.  Not five minutes after I parked the trailer, his cat “Chester” jumped from the roof of the house to the roof of the Airstream.  “Mmmmm… ” I could hear him saying, “a new roof to sit on.  How nice of you to bring it over for me.”

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After a few minutes of exploration, Chester decided to depart the roof.  But jumping back to the house wasn’t appealing to him, so he decided to see if sliding down the front dome of the Airstream would be appropriate.  During the testing phase he stepped just a bit too far out,  and began to slide down the dome.  I watched, completely helpless to do anything, as Chester put out his claws and ever-so-slowly, excruciatingly, slid down the aluminum dome leaving a foot-long claw scratch in the clearcoat.

Anyone who owns an Airstream can feel my pain.

Fortunately for Chester, he’s a very friendly and fluffy cat.  I couldn’t bear to gut him on the spot, as was my initial instinct.  Also, Rob was there watching.  So I picked Chester up, rubbed his tummy, and told him if he ever did that again he’d become a small yellow bath mat.  Chester later redeemed himself by catching a pack rat beneath the trailer, and the scratch in the clearcoat was shallow enough to buff out. So Chester and I are friends again.

(But I’m going to get on those projects soon.  I don’t know how much I can trust Chester.)

Time to fix

Sunday, September 29th, 2013

We parked the Airstream back in the carport last Tuesday night, spent the night in it (because it was too late to start unpacking), and it has been go-go-go ever since. There’s just so much to do …

I think one of the problems with coming back to home base is that suddenly I have no excuse to avoid the projects waiting for me here.  I thought last winter season was busy, but already this one is looking like a record-breaker.

The Airstream Safari came back from its summer trip with many little things on the Squawk List, including:

  • belt line trim replacement needed
  • bathroom fan with broken handle
  • MaxxFan with loose motor/fan assembly
  • cabinet trim by refrigerator needing tweaks
  • loose attachment of the galley countertop
  • loose section above bathroom door
  • … and a few other things

As you can see, most of these items have to do with things working loose over time.  A rolling house tends to have such issues, and after six-figure mileage and eight years of heavy use I’m not surprised to have a few.  But these are generally not hard repairs.  Often it’s just a matter of a longer wood screw where an original one worked its way out, or a bit of glue or Loc-Tite.  I see a few hardware store trips in my future, along with a few hours of weekend puttering.

I plan to make a few of the jobs harder than they have to be, in the interest of preventing future problems.  For example, the loose galley countertop is just a matter of a few screws and brackets that could be fixed in a few minutes , but I want to remove the stove and thoroughly inspect the area under the counter to see if anything else is going on under there.  Instead of just re-attaching the loose under-counter brackets, I plan to install some of my homemade aluminum L-brackets (leftover from the cabinetry job of last spring) which are much lighter and offer more area to spread out the stress.  At the same time I will probably also install the countertop-mounted Nu-Tone Food Center that has been sitting in our storage room for a couple of years.

This is the way I’ve always done it.  I see repairing things on the Airstream as a series of opportunities to improve the Airstream.  Not only do I learn more about how it’s put together, the eventual result is far better in many ways than a factory-original model, since it’s customized to our needs.  This builds confidence (assuming everything I’ve touched isn’t going to rattle apart again).  Someday, when we tow over miles of washboard road at Chaco Culture National Monument, or take a long gravel road in Alaska, I’ll appreciate the extra effort.

That means the eight or ten repairs the Safari needs will likely take through October to complete.  And there’s still the Caravel, waiting patiently in the carport to have its plumbing finalized.  That project has been on hold since April, and it’s high time I got back to it.  So already I’ve got Airstream work to keep me busy for a while.

But who needs an Airstream project when you’ve got an old Mercedes to fix?  The 1984 300D has been sitting here waiting for its share of attention.  Everything was working on it when we headed out in May, so I think over the summer it started to feel neglected.  Not seriously neglected —it still started up promptly even after sitting a month—but just the car apparently felt the need for some TLC because three things failed on it:  a climate control actuator, the trip odometer, and the clock.  All of those problems are at least tangentially related to the heat.

You can’t have an old car like this if you can’t fix most of the things yourself.  It would have killed me in repairs already if I had to take it to the local Der Deutscher specialist for every little thing.  So I got on the phone to Pierre, and read the Internet forums, and figured out how to fix the climate control actuator and the clock this week.  That took a few hours, while the Airstreams both looked sullenly on (I swear, you can tell that they are jealous, it’s like having three young children all vying for your attention).  The odometer fix will have to be done later because I’m just about out of time for repairs at the moment.

This week has to be mostly dedicated to “real” work, by which I mean the stuff that pays the bills.  (Isn’t it ironic that the “real” work generates money and the “fun” work costs money?  If only it were the other way around.)  Right now the Winter magazine is in layout and I’m collecting articles for Spring 2014.  At the same time, the R&B Events team (which includes me) is busy trying to get tentative programs for Alumaflamingo (Sarasota FL) and Alumafiesta (Tucson AZ) put together, and that’s a big effort.

And we’re working on a new iPad Newsstand app for Airstream Life, which I hope to have released sometime in the first quarter of next year.  When it comes out, you’ll be able to get most of the back issues (at least back to 2008) on your iPad and read them or refer to them anytime.  That way you can carry all the knowledge around in your Airstream without also carrying fifty pounds of paper.  I’ve been testing demo versions and it’s very cool, so this is an exciting project.

Finally, I’ll be presenting a slideshow at Tucson Modernism Week next Saturday, October 5, at 2:00 pm, about my favorite over-the-top vintage trailer customizations.  It’s basically the best of the interiors we’ve featured in the magazine over the past several years.  The pictures are beautiful and inspirational.  I had forgotten about how incredible they are, until I went through the old magazines and re-read the articles.  My talk is free and open to the public, if you happen to be in the Tucson area right now.  If you aren’t, I might present the slideshow again at Alumafiesta in February.

Mogollon to McDowell Mountain

Tuesday, September 24th, 2013

When the weather is hot in the low desert, it’s always hard to come down off the Mogollon Rim in northern Arizona.  This rim is the dividing line between the high elevation north and the gradually increasing heat of the south.  There’s a point just before AZ Rt 260 begins to descend where you can stop at the Mogollon Rim Visitor Center (a small log cabin) and stand on a deck at the edge of the rim to look over the broad view of green pines and valleys one last time.  We always stop there.

Mogollon Rim-1From this lofty overlook at 7,500 ft elevation, the air is nearly always cool and redolent with the scents of Ponderosa Pine and small blooming flowers. Just down the General Crook dirt road you will find a few nice places to have a picnic lunch while taking in the view (your Airstream can remain safely in the paved parking lot at the Visitor Center.)

Mogollon Rim-2Proceeding from this point is difficult because we know that the next time we step out of the car we are likely to be at least 3,000 to 4,000 feet lower, and thus back in the heat.

Indeed, in our case we continued on to one of the southern Arizona desert’s low spots, the Phoenix area, and got out of the car at 1,600 feet elevation in 93 degree temperatures.  The higher they camp, the harder they fall, I guess.

Well, as they say, it’s a dry heat, and that really does mean something.  If you aren’t in the direct sunshine 93 degrees can actually feel reasonable thanks to the low humidity.  The park we’ve chosen, McDowell Mountain Regional Park in Fountain Hills, AZ (near Scottsdale) has 30 amp power but we decided to just run fans because it wasn’t terribly hot as the sun began to set, and Eleanor was planning to bake a pie.

The pie is a response to our disappointment at Pie Town, a sort of consolation prize to fill that gap in the alimentary psyche.  Using the oven in the Airstream (which hardly anyone ever does) has a particular downfall:  the oven produces much more heat than the air conditioner can remove, so baking results in a net heat gain and it builds up inside the trailer very quickly.  The only way to deal with it is to crank all the fans up to their highest setting, open all the windows, and convince yourself that 93 degrees is a good thing.  Or at least convince yourself that raspberry pie is worth it.

McDowell Mtn Airstream 2Being late summer, the park is nearly deserted.  Nobody wants to camp in the dry low desert at this time of year, when you could be up in the sweet-smelling pine trees surrounded by greenery.  In a few months that situation will reverse, but for now we are left alone with a few other hardy (or foolhardy) campers in a vast desert park, visited only by lizards, birds, and the occasional Sheriff’s patrol.

Through the past few weeks I’ve been accumulating a “squawk list” on the Airstream’s white board.  I thought I would have nothing to fix after this trip since I did so much work last spring, but that was overly optimistic.  The squawk list is ten items long at this point, none of which are huge problems.

Usually I fix things as we travel, a habit of being full-timers, because that way things don’t snowball.  There was a little of that on this trip:  I replaced the propane tank lid in Airstream’s Terra Port, and while parked on grass at Stevyn & Troy’s home I replaced two belly pan rivets and re-sealed a gas line entrance in the belly pan with butyl tape that Troy gave me.  But I have to admit that I’ve just not been motivated to tackle the other items, with all the traveling we’ve been doing.  It’s hard to keep up with maintenance when you are moving every day or every second day.

Two of the list items require me to get on the roof.  The bathroom vent fan is starting to fail (clogged with dust after eight years of heavy use) and the handle broke last week.  I expected that one, but was surprised when the MaxxFan in the bedroom also suffered a failure.  I turned it on last week and it rattled, then spat out two acorn nuts and a washer.  The entire motor/fan assembly has come loose, and it has to be accessed from the top (I can see loose nuts resting atop the fan but I can’t reach them), so between the two fans I’ll be on the roof for a couple of hours.

We’ll be home in a few hours.  To prolong the trip just a tiny bit more, we plan to make a stop or two in the Phoenix.  And just so we don’t have to think that the Airstream will be parked until January, we’ve already planned a little 3-day weekend in October.  I’ll get my squawk list items addressed by then.  The Airstream is returning to base … but not for long

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine