Archive for the ‘Maintenance’ Category

Travels this fall

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

I’m in my last week as TBM.  This weekend I’ll be riding a Boeing back to New England, and then driving up to Vermont to regroup with the family.

This year my TBM experience has been a bit of a bomb.  I lost too much time to illness, work, Alumafandango, and obligations at the house.  I had great plans to go for a tent camping roadtrip, which clearly is not going to happen now.  But don’t feel too sorry for me, because in September the entire family will be back in the Airstream and towing west, with a full month to burn if we want to.  It will be our last chance for a long leisurely family roadtrip for several months, if not a year, so we are planning to make the most of it.

For the last few weeks Eleanor and I have been thinking about the trip plan, and neither of us has come up with much.  Usually we are overcome with ideas of things we want to see and do on a cross-country trip, but after having made this trek something like 10 or 12 times, we are running out of major attractions.  (For us, a “major attraction” is not a theme park, but rather a national park, or perhaps a gathering of Airstreams.)

I never thought that would happen.  Are we getting too jaded, too experienced, or are we just not trying hard enough to broaden our horizons?  I think it may be the latter, so I am re-doubling my efforts to seek out the little things instead of the big ones.  To that end, Eleanor and I are planning to follow a pattern we used when full-timing: have a long term destination (like home base) in mind, and then take the trip day by day.  This leaves lots of opportunities for the unexpected, and often that’s when the most interesting adventures occur.

The process has already started in a sense.  In the past week I have been contacted by three Airstream friends, each of whom—completely coincidentally—is likely to cross our path as we head southwest.  Just spending a day or two with each of them is likely to result in some new experiences.  Think of it as Airstream cross-pollination.  We get a taste of their style, and they get a taste of ours, and together we discover things that individually we might miss.  It’s always a good thing.

So when we head out, our route will be affected by the routes of other Airstreamers, and we’ll go places we might have skipped.  This is tough on fuel budgets, but to be on the safe side I’m planning for about 3,300 miles of towing, which means a fuel budget of about $1100.  Seems like a lot but for a month of roaming I think it’s a bargain.

Eleanor is already thinking about getting the Airstream in shape for the trip.  She’ll be cleaning the interior and stocking up on supplies; I’ll be checking all the systems and cleaning the exterior once I’m there. Everything should be in good shape, but after a summer of sitting still amongst the trees and insect life of Vermont, you’d be surprised what little problems can crop up.  I’ve learned to start checking at least a week before any major trip, just in case I find a problem that requires a parts order or a trip to the local RV service center.

The Safari, by the way, will celebrate its eighth year on the road with us in October.  I have lost track of the miles it has traveled, but it is certainly above 100,000. I can’t think of any other purchase we have ever made that has given us such a great return, in terms of life experiences and pleasure. When it’s not our home on the road, it’s a great guest house. People talk about houses as “investments,” and RVs are just “depreciating assets” but I have to disagree. Our house is worth about 2/3 of what we paid for it (not counting the cash dumped into fixing it up), and it costs many times more to keep running than our Airstream.  It’s a nice house, but in the end it’s just a house.  Our Airstream is probably worth about half of what we paid for it, but it has changed our lives and enriched us in ways we can hardly enumerate.

So by my accounting, the Airstream is the bigger bargain by far, and we will once again prove that in our month-long saga with our recently-minted teenager.  She still wants to spend time with her parents, and I think some of the credit for that can be given to the Airstream as well.  Going out this fall will remind us all of those precious years (2005-2008) that we spent full-timing with Emma, and I bet we’ll all want to recreate a little of that magic as we roam westward.  I hope so.

Thinking of it that way, I realize it doesn’t really matter where we stop along the way.  The memorable moments will happen.  We just have to get out there and let them come to us, with our Airstream to keep us comfortable along the way.

 

That intolerable silence

Friday, August 2nd, 2013

The blog has been quiet lately, and I’m sure a few people are wondering what hole I’ve managed to fall into.  A friend once accused me of being a compulsive blogger, needing some sort of intervention and a 12-step program, but none of my friends seemed to care to stop me.  So what has kept me quiet for so long lately?

It’s just life.  A couple of weeks ago I was wrestling with my motivation to solve a giant problem, one of those huge problems that can’t even be fully understood at the outset, like a 5,000 piece jigsaw puzzle.  I’m talking about my very slow-progressing Airstream maintenance book, which I think is going into its third year of “work.”

I have to put “work” in quotes because I can’t honestly use that term to describe the herky-jerky progress I was making for the first two years, interspersed by long period of contemplation and (let’s be honest) distraction.  Like the massive jigsaw puzzle, I had found all the easy parts and put them together, leaving a giant framework with 4,900 pieces yet to go.  This was a motivation-killer.

I mention this because you might think motivation comes easy to me.  I don’t talk about my failures enough (people complain it’s depressing).  I wrestle with things like every human being does, and there was a long period in which it seemed this project might be just a bit more than I was equipped to complete.  Failure WAS an option, and always is an option even if you like to pretend it’s not, because sometimes in failure you can learn something that will help you succeed next time. Like, “don’t take on a 200 page book project if you really don’t have time for it.”

But it’s harder to abandon a project of one’s own design.  After all, who or what can you honestly blame for the failure?  It was a jail of my own making and I’d told too many people about it, so I kept plugging away, adding a figurative puzzle piece every week or two, and then suddenly a wonderful thing happened.  It was that magical moment known to all writers of long texts and jigsaw puzzle fanatics alike.  I could see for the first time the beautiful picture that my puzzle would eventually form.  Better yet, it was all so obvious now.  I knew exactly what I needed to do, and without any motivational struggle at all I found myself gleefully opening up the document and adding text at every opportunity.

Suddenly I was finding time to write after dinner, before breakfast, between phone calls.  The first day after the breakthrough I added three pages of text to a 30 page document.  The next day I added five pages.  The next, 10 pages.  By the end of the week the project that took over two years to grow to 30 pages had doubled in size to 60.  It was almost worth waiting two years to have that experience.  Breakthroughs like that feel great.

Alas, my next act was to get sick with a virus, which has cost me a week of productivity already and will probably take another week to clear up fully.  I stopped working on the book because it took all of my virus-limited brainpower to just keep the basic operations going (keep in mind, I’m still TBM so I’ve got to do things like grocery shopping and laundry in addition to moving the Winter issue of Airstream Life ahead).  Now, I’ve got to fly up to Oregon to help Brett run Alumafandango, so there’s another big hiatus in the book project ahead.

This has led to the intolerable silence of the blog.  I make no apologies, as we aren’t actively Airstreaming at the moment and TBM’s adventures have been sadly muted, but I thought you should know that I haven’t abandoned you.  No, quite the opposite, I’m plotting all kinds of things to talk about in the future.  I will be blogging from Alumafandango as much as time allows over the coming week, and upon returning I’ll have just about two weeks to get all my TBM-decadence done, so that should be fun.  I already had a bacon-wrapped Sonoran hotdog but that’s just a warm-up for the real goodies…

A Mixmaster, a Mercedes, and a zombie

Monday, July 15th, 2013

When I’m TBM I must admit that I don’t eat as well as during the rest of the year, when Eleanor is here to cook.  But it’s an opportunity to eat like a bachelor, and believe it or not that’s not entirely bad.  It inspires independent thinking, for one thing.

Sure, the blueberry/chocolate smoothie wasn’t my biggest success (nor the caramel/bacon smoothie).  And my annual survey of Tucson’s Sonoran hot dog stands (ongoing at the moment) is a health fanatic’s nightmare.  It doesn’t matter.  The essence of TBM is trying new things, following sudden inspirations, and taking small risks to uncover the answers to questions nobody cares to ask.

This can encompass culinary topics as well as almost anything else.  For example, which is the best zombie movie of the past few decades?  The only to be sure is to watch as many of them as you can. I personally favor old-school classics like “Omega Man” with Charlton Heston and Anthony Zerbe, but I recognize I may be in the minority with that choice.  More recently “Shaun of The Dead” with Simon Pegg & Nick Frost could be a contender for its relative originality, and I think “I Am Legend” with Will Smith deserves a vote.

As you might be able to tell, I’m not a huge fan of the straight horror-style zombie flicks filled with shuffling idiots.  I like the ones with something new to push the theme forward, while respecting the genre.  To keep my research complete, Rob and I went out to see a late showing of “World War Z” last week.  I thought it failed to have a good plot climax, but it was good to see that the movie industry is still revisiting this tried-and-true theme.  Zombie movies are sort of self-mocking, since the movies themselves are often “undead” versions of those that came before.

Another aspect of TBM has been the traditional buying of an unnecessary car.  I haven’t blogged all the cars I’ve bought over the past few years, but basically I seem to find one every year or so, and then sell them a year or two later after sorting them out.  The green Mercedes 300D was only bought last fall and I am planning to keep it for a long time, so I told Eleanor I would not break with tradition and not buy a car this summer—and then promptly discovered a flashy red Miata at an estate sale and put a bid in on it.  To be fair, I called her first and she encouraged this irresponsibility, because she wants it for herself!  (I lowballed the bid so we probably won’t get it anyway.)

At the same sale I found a Sunbeam Mixmaster Model 12 (made from 1957-1967) in fairly good condition.  Eleanor already has a Mixmaster Model 9 (late 1940s) that was handed down through her family, which she still uses regularly.  We thought the Model 12’s beaters might be interchangeable with the Model 9 beaters, but as it turns out the Model 12 won’t release the beaters at all. I’m going to have to take it apart to fix that problem, and while I’m in there I’ll clean up the gears and motor parts, and re-lube it with new food-grade synthetic grease.

Two Mixmasters is really more than we can use, so I’m not sure what we will do with the Model 12 after I’ve fixed it up.  Right now I’m admiring it as a great example of durable American mid-century mechanical design.  It just looks good sitting there, and it’s amazing to me that these old machines still work as well as they do after fifty or sixty years in the kitchen.  It’s also neat that they are still so inexpensive and easy to find, despite being antiques.  I paid $22 for this one complete with beaters and two original milk-white glass bowls, all in good condition.

Sunbeam Mixmasters model 12 and 9These Mixmasters are analogous to my Mercedes W123: built in abundance, well-designed, long-lasting and hence beloved.  In a way they represent a pinnacle of engineering, because they achieved everything that could be hoped for at the time.  I wonder if the builders knew that they’d created things that would not be surpassed for durability by anything to follow.

I really like things like that, machines that are timeless in both design and function.  I’m not a fan of disposable industrial design.  “Disposable” is for Kleenex.  This bias is probably most of the reason why we have Airstreams, too.  Of all the things we own, the mid-century products are the ones I respect the most.

The machine that makes my smoothies is another antique, a Sunbeam Vista blender from the 1960s. When it just keeps working for decades, why replace it?  In that vein, we recently acquired the final bits we need to install a NuTone Food Center in the Airstream Safari.  The NuTones are highly sought by some RV owners because they are designed to be mounted in the countertop (thus saving valuable space when not in use).

We had one in our 1977 Argosy 24 known as “Vintage Thunder,” and kept most of the accessories that we’d collected for it.  The NuTone motor is permanently mounted under the counter, and you just pop whatever appliance you want on the power head at the countertop:  blender, coffee grinder, juicer, mixer, food processor/slicer, knife sharpener, etc.  Collecting the accessories is easy on eBay but the prices tend to be high these days because they’re out of production.  Our final piece was the motor base, and we got one of those from David Winick at Alumapalooza.  I plan to install it over the next winter, when I’ve got to get under the kitchen countertop to re-fasten it anyway.

Speaking of Airstreams kitchens, the Caravel’s new dinette table has been cut.  The dimensions are identical to the current table, but by using solid poplar instead of plywood/ash/Marmoleum, it is 8.1 pounds lighter (23.1 lbs).  That may not seem like a lot, but it makes a huge difference.  We’ve trimmed the weight by 26%, enough to allow one person to heave it out of the wall mounting bracket and convert it to a bed without help.  And it looks better already.  Neither Eleanor nor I were crazy about chunky look of the previous table.

I’ve got to let the wood settle for a few days before I proceed with sanding, shaping, finish, and hardware, so for now it’s just resting flat on the floor of the living room.  It may also require a little bracing underneath to ensure that the table never warps.  I’ll get to that over the next few weeks.

In the meantime, I’ve had a chance to contemplate why it matters to me to fine-tune the Caravel, a trailer that we hardly ever use and are seriously over-invested in.  It’s really for the same reason that I’ll take two hours to disassemble an old kitchen mixer that we really don’t need, and carefully clean & lube it so that it can work as designed for another few decades.

You could look on it as a form of recycling, but it’s more than that.  The 1948 Sunbeam Mixmaster Model 9, the 1968 Caravel, the 1971 General Electric P7 oven, the 1984 Mercedes 300D, and the 1970s era NuTone could all be replaced by modern equivalents, but none would be as durable, or as inspirational to me.  These things seem to deserve attention and respect and repair.

They were made to last, in part because they were built in a time when “value” meant more than lowest price.  More importantly, they have lasted, proving their designer’s principles were correct. If you want to make a product today that will last for ages, you don’t need to guess the future—you only need to respect good design.  Not to get too romantic about it, but those few antique machines we still use and value prove that great principles endure.

Just like zombie movies.

 

 

The hangar queen

Tuesday, July 9th, 2013

I mentioned in the previous blog that our 1968 Airstream Caravel is a bit of a hangar queen.  I’ve come to accept that, viewing it as (a) an heirloom for Emma to use someday; (b) an investment vehicle (so far a spectacularly bad one, since we have more invested in it than market value); (c) an interesting ongoing project to advance my general “handyman” education.

The last rationalization is probably the best one.  The Caravel has advanced my education in woodworking and plumbing in particular.  Someday I may even put those skills to use in the house, although I never seem to be as motivated to work on house projects.  Houses are sort of boring—they don’t move.

In the next few weeks the Caravel will get some more attention, this time in the area of the A-frame.  I bought a replacement hitch jack for it because … well … to be honest, because of a long series of stupid events.  Let’s see if I can get this all straight:

  1. Last February the propane regulator began to leak, so I bought a replacement.
  2. The replacement regulator had the red/green “flags” which indicate if the tank is empty or full on the “front” of the regulator, but on the Caravel the regulator is supposed to mount facing the rear.  This meant that the flags were not visible.  The spare tire blocked any view of them.
  3. Rather than returning the regulator for one with the flags on top because that would be “too much trouble,”  (and therein lies my big mistake) I decided to mount it facing forward.  This was more complicated than it would seem.  The job required numerous hardware store trips, a longer main hose, replacement “pigtail” hoses to the tanks, a pair of brass elbow fittings, four stainless screws, and numerous washers so that the mounting hardware would fit correctly.
  4. With that job finally done, I discovered that the handle of the manual crank hitch jack collided with the new regulator, making it very difficult to raise and lower the trailer’s tongue, so I decided to replace it with a power hitch jack.
  5. When I attempted to remove the original hitch jack, I discovered that it had been welded into place.

And that’s where I am today.  I didn’t have time to deal with it back in April and May, when I was doing a lot of work on the Safari, so I set the problem aside.  Now that I’m back—and lacking a tow vehicle—the only way to proceed is to get a mobile welder out here to cut out the old hitch jack and then re-weld the necessary plate for the new one.  I’ve made a few calls and should have someone out here in the next week or two.

If I were smarter I would have simply returned the propane regulator for the right one, and avoided this entire mess.  This debacle is going to end up costing about $400 counting all the miscellaneous parts, welding, and jack.  But at least I can console myself with the knowledge that now I’ve got a fancy power hitch jack on the trailer that we never use.

In the interest of continual investment for little actual return, I have also taken the dinette table out of the trailer to have it re-made.  The table we have currently was overbuilt by a well-meaning friend and weighs far too much to be easily handled when converting it into bed mode.  The same shop that built the black walnut countertop for the Safari a few months ago will duplicate the Caravel dinette top in poplar, which should be considerably lighter.  I’ll shape it, finish it, and attach the hardware in the next few weeks.

The plumbing project that I began last spring is about 80% complete.  With the hot weather this time of year, I’m not inclined to go out to the carport to finish that job, even though the Caravel has air conditioning.  It feels like a job to be done in the fall, when we return from Airstream travel and the Tucson weather is perfect for projects.  Around here, that means November and early December.

Someday soon this trailer is going to be absolutely perfect.  I’ll have to take it somewhere.

I break for motorcycling

Wednesday, July 3rd, 2013

There wasn’t much time to catch up on life after we returned from Europe, and the frequent rain in Vermont didn’t help.  You might think that having a few rain days would help office productivity, since the distraction of a sunny day at the lake wasn’t tempting me away from the laptop, but really I wasn’t in the mood to get back to heavy desk work and the rain just made me want to stay in bed in the Airstream.

This has been one of those cold Junes, with lots of thunderstorms and humidity.  Among other things, it put a serious damper on my plans to go motorcycle touring, but then over the weekend we had a little break.  Saturday morning we had a few hours of decent weather, and so the local “gang” got together, four of us (three BMWs and a Honda).  Not willing to risk a long ride lest the weather change again, we rode down to Vergennes (the smallest city in Vermont, one mile square) and got breakfast at the local cafe.

Sunday was the only really good weather day, and coincidentally the day of a charity ride to benefit an animal shelter.  We joined up with a few dozen other avid Vermont motorcyclists (a category which implies people of strong character since motorcycling in Vermont’s climate requires patience and resilience) at Cycleworks in New Haven VT and went on a really nice tour of about 95 miles through Addison County.

IMG_2418Now, I grew up in this area and have spent part of almost every year of my life around here, and still this tour brought me on some roads that I’ve hardly ever seen.  It reminded me of the beauty of the Vermont countryside–the roads that don’t go conveniently in a straight line, bringing you past the old farmhouse architecture, the rolling green hills and fields, and much more if you will only take the time to drive them.  If it weren’t for this charity ride I probably wouldn’t have gotten out to see all of that.

IMG_2410

At this point I had my eye on my impending trip to Tucson.  Whatever I needed to do in Vermont had to get done quickly (and while the rain was paused).  In the afternoon following the ride, I got up on the roof of the Airstream to clean off all the organic debris that had covered it in the past four weeks.

There was a lot, even more than we usually get, thanks to some tree that flowered extensively and dropped thousands of buds on the roof.  In the weeks of June rain, all of those flowers decayed to brown mulch, mixed with sticks from the locust tree, and it was really a mess up on the Airstream’s roof.

IMG_2422Usually this job gets done at the end of the summer, just before we leave, but this year I’ll be doing it twice.  It’s really not comfortable getting up on the roof when it is wet and covered with decaying plant matter.  I take some precautions to avoid slipping off, but still it feels dangerous with all the slippery gunk.  At the Airstream factory they have a neat harness rig from the ceiling that keeps service center workers from falling off roofs.  I wish I had a Willy Wonka skyhook here.

Lately we’ve had a strange problem with the water pump in the Airstream.  It will sometimes refuse to shut off after we’ve run the water.  Rather than stopping automatically when the pipes are pressurized it continues to run at its lowest level, making a sort of perpetual moaning noise.  We thought at first that the pump’s shutoff switch was going bad, but after a while I traced the problem to air trapped in the water pipes.  The pump can’t get the water pressure up if there is air in the line (because air is very compressible), so it keeps trying forever.

Running the pump briefly with all faucets open (including the shower, outside shower, and toilet sprayer) lets the air out and cures the issue for a while but after a few days it recurs. At this point I’m thinking the problem is in one of the fixtures, perhaps the shower valve, letting air in and somehow trapping it, but I haven’t managed to narrow down which one is the culprit yet.  In any case, the pump itself seems to be fine.  I checked it for leaks last week.

That’s about as exciting as it got this week.  I took care of a few other small things, packed my bag, and headed to the airport on Tuesday.  Vermont is east of me now, along with E&E, and the next phase of summer begins with the new blog post.  Temporary Bachelor Man is coming up!

Pre- Alumapalooza 4

Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

The blog has been quiet the past couple of days because we’ve been deep into the Alumapalooza pre-event routine. We’ve settled into a pattern for the set-up of these events, which started before we arrived.  This year we have a slightly larger staff than before, and they are all really excellent, so the workload for us has gotten much lighter.  When we pulled in to Airstream’s Terra Port on Saturday, everything was so well under control that there was little to do but get updated, and on Sunday instead of joining the goody-bag assembly line, I was able to spend the day with Super Terry doing some maintenance to our Airstream.

Airstream Safari CircleThe maintenance was primarily about inspecting our tires and wheel bearings.  It has been over three years since the bearings were re-packed, and many miles, which is far beyond the usual RV industry recommendation.  Paradoxically, our heavy and regular use of the trailer is one of the reasons we’ve gotten away with it. Sitting still isn’t great for the bearings, as it offers an opportunity for condensation to get in.  I’ve also periodically checked the bearings to ensure they are running cool, and whenever a wheel is up in the air I check for smoothness & quietness of rotation.

Still, it has been nearly two years and probably over 12,000 miles since the last time Super Terry and I took the wheels off to check things out, so it was definitely overdue.  We found that the Michelin tires are still doing well, but wearing more on the outer edge of the tire tread, so we took them over to the Wal-Mart Super Center in a nearby town to get them flipped.

Airstream Michelin tire wear 2013-1

Now the white-letter side of each tire is facing out, and the tires have been swapped from side to side so that they will have the same direction of rotation.  This should even out the wear a little.  Based on the wear I saw, I’d guess we could get about 50k miles out of them.  They’ve already gone over 30,000 miles, and the date code says they are five years old so they are probably going to “age out” before they wear out.

Airstream Parbond caulk-1Our inspection revealed that the brake pads were fine except on one wheel, where the disc caliper sliders had gotten dry.  When that happens, only one brake pad gets all the wear, so we replaced that set of brake pads and re-lubricated the caliper sliders.  Otherwise all was good.  Super Terry re-packed the wheel bearings, and re-applied gray Parbond (a sort of thin caulk used for small seams on the exterior) to a few spots that needed it, and that completed our day of maintenance.

Over the weekend I had a few minutes to look around Jackson Center to see what has changed.  We knew that the Cafe Veranda, the best restaurant in town, had closed.  The building is still for sale.  I hope someone buys it and turns it back into a B&B.  It’s a gorgeous house and has some interesting history.  I’ve heard that Wally Byam used to stay there many decades ago.

The one-screen downtown movie house, the Elder Theatre, is in danger of closing for the same reason as many other old independent screens across the country.  The mandatory change to digital projection is too expensive for this little Mom & Pop operation, and so they’ve launched a Kickstarter effort to raise $25,000 to save the theater.  Check it out and pledge if you love the little village of Jackson Center, OH.  This country is going to lose hundreds of little downtown theaters if they can’t make the digital conversion this year.

Phil’s Cardinal Market, the old grocery store, has been replaced by a spankin’ new Family Dollar store.  It’s nice to see some investment in the downtown.  It just opened last week and seems very fine.  This week the Alumapalooza-goers will flood it and probably clear it out of milk and bread, as they usually do.

On Monday the big deal of the day was the arrival of the tent.  Normally the tent crew arrives in the late morning and has it up by 2 or 3 in the afternoon, but this year things ran late, so we didn’t have a chance to get in there and set up our stuff (lights, sound, kitchen, Internet, refrigerators, etc) until after 6 p.m. This was an inconvenience but really not much more than that, so overall I would say setup went extremely well this year.

All weekend we’ve had early arrivals showing up and parking in the Service Center parking lot.  At this point I think we have about 25 Airstreams there, plus another ten or so staff trailers in the Terra Port, and probably 6-10 more service customers.  Everyone gathered on the grass for the Memorial Day cookout, which was a huge success.  The rain we had gotten in the morning cleared up for the afternoon and early evening.  It rained again last night and there is still the occasional patter on the roof as I type this (at 6 a.m. Tuesday) but the forecast is calling for improving conditions all day and fabulous conditions through Friday.  Only a little rain and not too much heat is a pretty good week in JC this time of year.

Airstream guitar Yesterday Dave Schumann showed up and took a few of us into his office to show off a new Airstream guitar.  So far only two have been made, but Airstream will get more and sell you one for $2,250 if you are interested.  One of our attendees is going to play this one on stage this week.

All week Eleanor and I have been practicing for the new Aluminum Gong Show, which is a featured part of Alumapalooza this week.  We’ve got a little routine which involves both of us and a ukulele.  If the performance is not great, at least it will be entertaining.  I am hoping a few more people sign up to be in the show.  Any act is welcome, even pet tricks.  It just has to be a minimum of 90 seconds long and a maximum of four minutes.  If you are attending Alumapalooza you really don’t want to miss this show, trust me …

It’s time to get moving now.  This is going to be one of those days where we do more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day.  By 8 we will have a caravan of staff trailers heading out to the field, and by 9 parking of the general attendees will begin.  Alumapalooza begins now!

All systems go

Monday, May 13th, 2013

Our countdown to the summer-long trip is into the single digits now, and so it is time to run the “Airstream systems check.”  This is a routine that I started integrating to our pre-trip prep about a year ago, after we had to cancel a long-awaited trip because the brake actuator died while the Airstream was stored.

Although that situation was sort of a fluke (the actuator was part of a run of bad units that were later recalled), it demonstrated that we can’t take our Airstream for granted.  It is almost nine years old now, and has seen heavy use.  This spring I’ve been going through the areas of the rig that have shown wear.  Through a process of refurbishing, repairing, and updating it has been put back into good shape, better in some ways than it has ever been.

In addition to all the stuff I’ve blogged, a few smaller projects got done in the past week.  For example, I added LED light strips to the under-bed area.  These turn on automatically when the bed is lifted, thanks to a magnetic switch.  It was a surprisingly painful job, because I had to squeeze myself into the front storage compartment to connect wires, but worthwhile because before we never could see well when rummaging around in that storage area.

IMG_2174While moving the backup camera I discovered a second main ground wire, hidden inside the rear bumper compartment.  This one was also somewhat corroded, despite being a bit more protected, so for good measure I disconnected it and cleaned it up as I had the front one.  I also lubed all the locks and hinges with graphite, replaced the two big zerk fittings on the Hensley (they have special spring-loaded plungers that tend to wear off), replaced a bad cabinet spring latch, and other such simple stuff.

Since we’ve fiddled with the flooring, furniture, plumbing, windows, antennas, camera, hitch, belly pan, refrigerator, bathroom sink, and microwave in the past couple of months, it seemed especially important to do a good road test before we hitched up for the real thing.  I recruited Mike, and we towed the Airstream down to the local highway truck stop, the TTT.

IMG_2173A good local truck stop can be a boon.  At the TTT we were able to get months of desert dust and last summer’s bugs finally washed off the Airstream, then go around to the CAT scale to get weighed (and re-weighed after adjusting the weight distribution a little), and on the way there and back were had opportunities to check the brakes and dial in the hitch head adjustment on the Hensley.  (This latter adjustment is crucial, as an off-center hitch head will cause the trailer to push the tow vehicle off-course in a hard braking maneuver.  We only had to do this because we disassembled the hitch for painting, otherwise it’s a “set and forget” item.) If we’d been in the mood we could have topped up the diesel and had lunch at Omar’s Highway Chef, too.

Mike kept the ladies at the TTT front desk entertained while I went through the CAT scale.  The report told me that the Airstream was lighter than it has ever been when loaded for travel with full water, at about 7,260 pounds.  It has run as high as 7,800 pounds, but usually less.   We haven’t yet finished loading some of our stuff, so when we leave it will probably be right around 7400-7450, which is fine.

While we were at the TTT I had a chance to walk around and inspect the tires, see if anything came loose (especially things I fixed!), and adjust the strut jacks on the hitch to move a little more weight to the front axle.  I went around for a second weigh and verified that the tweak moved another 60 pounds forward. (By the way, our hitch weight came out to 660 pounds, or 9%.  People often assume it’s much higher because of the size of the trailer, but it has always been around 9-11%, verified over the years by truck scales.)

The road test to and from the TTT verified that the new position of the backup camera is awesome.  With the high mounted position I now have a clear birds-eye view of the traffic situation behind us—three lanes wide.  I’m going to really like that when we get into heavy traffic situations like Dallas/Ft Worth. It’s also more useful when backing into the carport.

The test tow was about 40 miles roundtrip and it verified that everything seems tight, right, and ready to go. No surprises.  Even the new cellular antenna clears the carport entry as planned.  And it’s shiny again.  So all systems are “go” for launch.  We just need to get the crew on board and that should happen by the end of the week.

Drilling a hole in the Airstream

Saturday, May 11th, 2013

I drilled a hole in my Airstream.

Of all the jobs to be done on the Airstream this spring, this one scared me the most.  Anticipating it was worse than building new cabinetry, worse than de-greasing the hitch & sanding off the rust, worse than laying inside the front compartment and re-wiring (I’ll tell you about that one later).

The backup camera I installed on the Airstream three years ago has been very useful, but I made a serious mistake when I put it on the rear bumper.  That location was easy to reach but far too low.

As a result, car lights and setting sun would create glare, making the camera useless at dusk or at night.  I found that I needed the camera much more while towing on the highway, for situational awareness (i.e., what’s happening behind me) than I needed it for actually backing up.  So losing the camera’s functionality because of glare was a real annoyance.

Also the low position gave me a great view of the stripes on the highway and the bumper grill of the car behind me, but not of cars further away.  Because it’s a “backup camera” the field of vision is very wide, like a fisheye lens, and so the useful distance range isn’t long.  To get any sort of overview of the traffic situation it needs to be mounted up above the roof of the average car.

I knew all this after the first season of towing, but I also knew that the only way to get the camera up where it belonged would require drilling a hole in the rear dome of the Airstream.  Not a small hole either, but a whopping 5/8″ hole to fit the cable connector through.  I have never drilled a hole in the body of the Airstream before.  It’s sort of a forbidden thing, in my book, because every hole is a new chance for a leak, a spot that must be maintained with caulk, and something you can never un-do.  Remember, I just had to deal with a 3/4″ hole that was drilled in the roof eight years ago for the original cell phone antenna.

At least that hole was up on the top where nobody can see it.  This particular hole was going to be right smack in the middle on a very expensive & very visible piece of shaped aluminum, where a virtual waterfall is created every time there’s rain.  If I screwed it up, I’d be looking at an ugly patch forever.

This may explain why I put up with the inadequacies of the camera mount for three years.

IMG_2161

With all the other projects completed, and perhaps a bit of bravery inspired by their relative success, I had no excuse to avoid this one any longer.  The re-routing of the cable was easy: it was already in the bumper compartment, and from there it took only two holes inside the rear compartment to run it up into Emma’s bedroom.  A four-foot length of plastic wire chase from the hardware store hid the wire as it ran up Emma’s bedroom wall, and then … I had to face the final cut, right through two layers of aluminum, some fiberglass insulation, and out to the cold, cruel world.

In a previous blog I wrote that you should think several times before putting a hole in the Airstream’s skin.  I thought about it for weeks, running through all the possibilities in my head to ensure there was no other way, and that I had a plan for every possible screw-up.  I ran a piece of blue tape down the centerline of the trailer from the clearance light to the license plate, measured and measured again, then dusted off the dome, applied several layers of protective tape on the aluminum, and drilled a small “test hole” 3/16″ in diameter.  (If this hole had been wrong, it would have been relatively simple to plug it up with caulk.)

It was right on the money, so I continued through larger drill bits, eventually ending up with the monster 5/8″ drill.  Emma didn’t make me feel any better about this when the drill poked into her bedroom and she shouted (through the closed window), “Wow, that’s a big hole!”

The camera is now in place, secured by a very high-bond double-sided automotive tape, and sealed with Vulkem 116.  I wish I had gray or black Vulkem for this, because the white caulk smears look stupid on the black camera mount, but eventually I’ll get my hands on some and re-do it.  In the meantime, it works and the view from the camera is much better.

So I drilled the Airstream, and survived.  But I don’t want to do it again anytime soon.

Customizing the Airstream again

Tuesday, May 7th, 2013

After a good run of posting every two days for a while, I had to shut up and focus entirely on work.  I have been monumentally busy the past several weeks, but you don’t want to hear about that.  The most interesting part of it (Airstream-wise) has been finishing up the cabinetry project that I began before our last trip to California and Nevada.

Airstream Safari cabinet areaIf you haven’t read back that far, here’s a re-cap:  We wanted to get rid of the tired old laundry & microwave rack that we whipped up while full-timing, and make the area more functional.  I removed everything on the curbside of the trailer from the entry door to the refrigerator wall.  Originally this was a fold-out credenza with two huge chairs, as shown in the floorplan.

Those chairs took up too much space and we got rid of the first one before we had even towed a mile.  (As far as I know it is still serving as bachelor apartment furniture in Ohio.)  The second one exited while we were full-timing.  We stopped in Florida for a few days and a friend fabricated a counter extension to run along the curbside wall (atop a narrow shelf that isn’t depicted in the floor plan).  We bought a cheap wire rack at a housewares store and muddled the whole thing up into a storage space for a microwave and a small laundry bin.  This was a little crude but it worked for six years.

Eventually we started keeping our recycling in a little cardboard box behind this wire rack, and shoes began to collect beneath the rack.  Then we added a catalytic heater on the wall by the refrigerator.  Eleanor began storing water jugs on the floor behind the rack, too, and we noticed that the recycling bin was often too small.

The point of all this is that gradually we had modified the space to suit our style, and we had noted what didn’t work about it.  After eight years it was safe to conclude we had a clear pattern of use and our “wish list” was based on experience rather than infatuation.  So when Mike & I ripped up the old floor, rebuilding the curbside storage was part of the plan.

I finally finished it last Friday, and I’m very pleased with how it came out, considering that it was a mish-mash of old and new materials.  I tried to re-use as much as possible of the Airstream plywood because it’s very lightweight, and to keep the look somewhat reminiscent of the factory styling.  The fold-out credenza is still there, but it has been moved to a new location further forward and off the wheelwell.  (Kyle and I did that a few weeks ago, and you can see how it was done in the earlier blog entries.)

Added to it is a new microwave shelf suitable for a 1.2 cubic foot microwave, a shelf below the microwave for one of Eleanor’s large pans (probably a cast iron skillet), a black recycling bin that is twice as large as our old cardboard box, room for two 12-packs of canned drinks or four gallons of drinking water, space for the sink covers/cutting boards and a few paper bags, a much larger shoe cubby, the same laundry bin, and a semi-hidden storage shelf for small items like headlamps.

The big win of the whole thing is the huge new countertop, made of black walnut with four coats of polyurethane.  It measures 18″ x 71″ by itself (8.8 square feet), and gains another couple of square feet when the credenza is fully deployed.  With three people in an Airstream and lots of things going on simultaneously, you can never have enough tabletop space.

The only thing we lost in this conversion was a magazine rack, which I will replace later when we find a wall-mounted rack that we like.  No rush on that.

To build this thing took far longer than I had hoped.  That’s partly because I didn’t make it easy on myself.  I didn’t like the standard steel L-brackets that were available at the hardware store, so I bought lengths of 3/4″ aluminum L-channel and cut brackets from it on the table saw, then drilled four holes in each of them.  They aren’t as stiff as the steel brackets but they are a lot lighter and still strong enough.  Plus, they’re aluminum—need I say more?

The Airstream didn’t make things easy either.  You can’t count on square, level, flat, plumb or tight in a travel trailer.  Things move, and they need to flex during travel.  So every cut was “custom,” to accommodate gaps, unevenness, and just plain awkwardness resulting from the original construction.  Eleanor and I had to stop several time and ponder ways to cover up unexpected issues.  I also had to design the cabinet to be light, strong, and yet able to flex a little where needed.  Overall, I think the job probably took about 30-40 hours and at least a dozen hardware store runs.

So it feels great that it’s done, and I think it looks pretty good.  Sure, the black walnut doesn’t match the original furniture color, but I don’t care.  It looks much more sophisticated than the original stuff.  Because the shelves are black melamine, and the microwave and recycling bin are black, they all tend to visually disappear so cabinet doors are unnecessary.  Eleanor even found black no-skid material to line her pan shelf.

For those who are interested, here’s a bit more trivia:  We used the 3/4″ aluminum L-channel to make trim edges and lips for the shelves. It’s screwed to the melamine with 3/8″ stainless screws.  The microwave is attached to the shelf with self-adhesive Velcro and a security strap (made of aluminum) screwed to the side.  A low vertical divider holds the recycling bin in place.  We found the little organizer (pictured with the headlamp in it) at The Container Store.  The countertop, despite being solid wood, weighs only 19 pounds.  The entire structure weighs about 35 pounds, not including microwave, which is probably less than the original furniture and the two chairs we pitched out.

The key here is that this design suits our way of life when we are traveling.  We need convenient, reliable, practical, and durable stuff.  We aren’t glampers or weekenders, we’re long-distance travelers and we live in our Airstream for months at a time.  Your needs will probably be different.  Customizing your Airstream is just like customizing your fixed-base home: everyone has their own needs.

I have never met a full-timer or long-distance Airstream traveler who hasn’t modified their Airstream quite a bit.  Even people with brand-new trailers do it.  So if you haven’t yet, my advice would be to think about what you do, what you carry along with you, what you most feel is lacking in your interior, and starting planning a few small customizations of your own.  It’s easy to start with something as small as an organizer or a hat hook.  But beware—despite the many hours this latest project took, I can tell you that modding the Airstream is addictive.  There will be more in our future.

Grease is the word

Saturday, April 27th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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