Archive for the ‘Renovation’ Category

Steadying up for travel

Friday, March 15th, 2013

Although progress has not been as fast as I would like this past week, we’ve completed much of the Safari project list.

While the dinette was out, I had good access to the kitchen plumbing, and so this was the opportunity to get in there and alter the fresh water plumbing just a tad, so that Eleanor would have easier access to her pots and pans (stored under the sink).  With all the PEX equipment and supplies on site for the Caravel project, it was a simple matter to cut out a section of the original installation and re-build it to provide  a few inches more clearance.

Mike and I also managed to finish the floor installation.  It got harder as we moved rearward in the trailer.  Each wall required a custom-fit plank, as nothing was square and very few lines were even straight.  We put in an hour or two most days until it was finally done on Wednesday.  The process was frustrating at times and we spent as much as 30 minutes on some sections, but in the end it came out well and we’re both proud of the job done.

Vince's tool

In an earlier blog I mentioned a special tool from half a century ago.  This is it.  You just press it up against a corner and it gives you a template to mark the plank for cutting.  Such a simple tool made cutting some of the complex areas much easier.  I only needed it in three spots, but for those spots it was a big time-saver.  I have nicknamed it “the Vince” in honor of Mike’s father who stored it in his tool shed all those decades.

When the floor was mostly done we switched over to a few other incidental projects in the Safari.  As you can imagine, eight years of heavy use and many thousands of miles (probably well over 100,000 at this point) do take a toll on the interior.  Screws back out, aluminum holes stretch, caulk lines will tear, rivets pop, etc.  We’ve actually been fairly lucky in this regard.  I have yet to find a single rivet needing replacement in our Safari–and we’ve never coddled it by avoiding rough roads.

I’ve already found a few screws missing in hidden spots, which have been replaced.  Sometimes the screw hole is stripped and a new one needs to be drilled; at other times it’s easier to replace with a larger screw.  This is all simple and routine stuff.

The big concern we had was the refrigerator.  It has been shifting in its position as we travel, and causing damage to the surrounding cabinetry, like scuff marks and cracks.  Mike and I disconnected the refrigerator and slid it out a foot in order to study the problem.  This required disconnecting the propane line, AC power, DC power, two bolts in the back, and four screws in the front, which only takes about 10 minutes if you know what you’re doing, or 30 minutes if you’ve never done it before (like us).  It’s slightly more complicated if you have the recall kit installed by Dometic (five more screws and some sheet metal have to be removed).

The major problem we discovered was that upon the last service, the two screws at the top front of the refrigerator hadn’t been put in.  Secondarily, the bottom screws were seriously cocked at an angle and didn’t seem to be well secured.  This allowed the refrigerator (which weighs about 120 lbs) to shift at the top, much like a person swaying on his feet.  On the road, this was a lot of force on the cabinets.  We replaced all the connections, slightly adjusted the position of the refrigerator, and re-secured the fridge with new screws in new holes.  It doesn’t move at all now.

The next project was the bathroom vanity.  It has been moving too, lately.  Over the years Eleanor has used her smaller hands to get through the maze of under-counter plumbing and tighten one of the two screws that hold the vanity to the aluminum wall to temporarily resolve the problem.  But that hole finally enlarged too much to hold the screw, and the screw has vanished.

The fix there is simple in concept.  Just drill a new hole in the L-channel that abuts the wall, and put in a new screw.  The problem here turned out to be that there was no way to get a drill in place.  We ended up removing the sink, drain line and stopper, and loosening the faucet, just to get access.  Once that was done it was easy to drill some new holes. I replaced that one screw with three.  That vanity won’t be going anywhere soon.

Of course, this meant we had to reinstall the sink, etc., and re-putty the drain seal, so the total job time was probably close to two hours.  It’s the kind of job I really don’t want to pay anyone to do, because it doesn’t take a ton of skill or special tools, just patience.  Eleanor and I did it together, and now that we’ve done it, we know it’s done right and the vanity won’t come loose again.

Today we’ve got some minor tasks to tackle, mostly cleaning up and finishing the caulk at the floor edges.  Being slightly ahead of schedule, I’m thinking about tackling one more major project: building a new multi-purpose cabinet to hold our microwave, laundry bin, and recycling.  I’ll post more about that in the next few days.

Tricky cuts

Sunday, March 10th, 2013

As predicted, the bug I’ve caught has really slowed down progress on the Airstream projects. Mike and I are still working every day on the Safari flooring, but only for a couple of hours each day.

It also doesn’t help that we’re now doing the really difficult part. Toward the rear of the Airstream the cuts in the vinyl planks get much more complicated. We’ve got many obstacles to work around, such as the power converter, bathroom door frame, Emma’s bed, and kitchen cabinets. We are removing what we can, in order to slip the new flooring beneath furniture as much as possible, but most of the interior elements in the rear are impractical to remove without gutting the entire trailer.

Many of these spots require long and tricky cuts. It would be much easier if the furniture all fit into the Airstream exactly square with the body, but when you are down on your hands and knees studying it with a framing square, it becomes painfully obvious that nothing goes in a true straight line. Some of the lines are more like waves on the sea than straight edges.

This means that each plank that abuts a piece of furniture has to be approximately cut to fit, then carefully trimmed here and there, freehand, with a knife. This takes several tries, with test-fitting between every new trim. Just about all of the planks we have to lay need some sort of customization like this, so in an hour of work we are lucky to get four planks laid.

On Saturday we did two hours of work, and laid only five planks, plus we re-hung the bedroom door and re-installed half the dinette. It’s not nearly as impressive looking as the progress we made last week, but this is the phase we are in. There’s no way to speed it up. We’ll just have to keep whittling away at it for the next several days.

In the meantime, the Caravels waits for its final few plumbing connections. I’d like to get out there today and finish it up (it might take only a few hours) but I know this isn’t the time for me to getting into that. The Safari is the priority because we will be leaving on a trip soon and it has to be 100% ready by then. I may even take it on a test-tow just to make sure nothing that everything we’ve re-installed is staying put.

This is psychologically a tough part of any project. The end is in sight, but now we know that rather than coasting into the finish line, it will be a long and tedious slog to finish up the last few square feet. Worse, even when the floor is done there will remain a list of other tasks that the Safari needs as a result of the new floor (I listed some of those projects yesterday). So it’s clear that we will be at this task right up the deadline for our trip.

On the other hand, I can find great motivation to keep working on the project, and that’s what keeps me going even on a day when I have a virus. There’s the joy of making the trailer look better, the opportunity to resolve a number of things that have been annoying, the pleasure of knowing you “did it yourself”, the good feeling that comes from working with your hands to make something tangible (a big change from my desk job), the knowledge that your efforts will help your Airstream investment last longer and retain value—and if you are really lucky, adulation and love from friends and family who appreciate the results. Not a bad return on investment.

Slowed down

Friday, March 8th, 2013

Things were going well with the Safari flooring project, but now progress is going to slow down.  I woke up Thursday morning with a sore throat, which inevitably means a cold the next day, and if history is any guide I’ll be unable to do the long days I’ve been putting in lately.  Thursday we didn’t work on the trailer at all.  Instead I ran around town trying to get everything done that I could before the virus really hit.

One of those errands was to get a nice piece of black walnut, measuring 2″ x 2″ x 30″, at the local woodworker’s supply store.  This will be used to replace the oak entry door threshold that came with the trailer, once I’ve shaped it and coated it with polyurethane.  The original oak was looking very tired, plus it never really matched the rest of the decor, and it didn’t fit well.  The new piece will fit perfectly, because I’ll take much more time to fit it than a factory assembly line can afford to do.

Today Mike and I laid six more pieces of vinyl plank, just so that the center of the trailer could be considered done, and then we re-installed the master bed platform.  With that, the bedroom is done.  We can haul the mattress back in and make the bed.

Bed reinstalledI think for the next few days an hour or two is all I’ll be spending on this project.  I won’t work on the threshold for a while, because with a virus in my system I’m likely to cut off my own fingers on the table saw.  There are plenty of other little projects to wrap up instead, and maybe some small improvements I can fiddle with as we put the rest of the furniture back in place.

So far I’ve noticed that the thicker vinyl planks are slightly softer on the feet than the original floor covering.  The darker pattern definitely masks dirt and minor gaps (1/16″) between the planks as they shrink and expand in different temperatures.  But these are only first impressions.  It will take a real roadtrip to prove out this material.

Laying the floor

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

The Safari floor project is looking good.  I started at my desk around 7 a.m. and things were thankfully quiet, so I edited a couple of articles and shot off a bunch of emails asking people for things needed to complete the Summer magazine, and headed to the Airstream to work on the floor while awaiting responses.

Mike and I were able started laying floor around 9:30.  We found the process fairly straightforward, as long as we were patient with the tricky cuts.  The vinyl plank lays straight & true, and it’s easy to re-position the planks as they are fitted in place.

Staples in bedroomOne of the first problems we encountered was the staples in the bedroom.  These were under the carpet and they bulged up enough to mess up the planks’ adhesion.  Even when hammered into the wood they caused some slight disturbance in the planks, fortunately mostly under the bed where it won’t be noticeable.  In the rest of the trailer where vinyl was originally laid, Airstream used a different sort of metal connector that sits level with the floor, so it wasn’t a problem.

For the most part we have been able to slip the planks under the edges of furniture, which means there has been little trouble fitting the new flooring without visible gaps.  Where we couldn’t go under, it hasn’t been a huge problem to cut around things, and I bought some dark brown silicone caulk to fill in gaps if needed.  We’ll need very little of it, as it turns out.

Cutting planks2

Some of the planks have taken as much as 20 minutes to properly cut, test-fit, cut again, and finally adhere in place.  It can be a challenge to get one right (and we’ve had to abandon a few attempts), but when it does finally go in, it looks great and feels great.

The tricks are simple:  work from the centerline outward, keep a sharp blade in the knife, cut from the top whenever possible (there’s a thin layer that has to be broken on the top side), keep the floor clean, fit each plank tightly before pressing into place, measure twice & cut once.

Main floor doneAnother time-consuming aspect has been planning out the flooring so that we have minimal seams in high-traffic areas.  The planks fit so snugly together that it’s not really a problem to have seams, but we figured it would be nice to have a seamless space under the dinette table (where frequent sweeping is necessary), and in the entry to the bedroom.  So we adjusted the cuts accordingly.  In one of these photos you may be able to see where we collected a lot of cuts together next to the furnace; these will be entirely covered by the dinette seat later.

Today we worked a total of seven hours and managed to lay down about 3/4 of the trailer.  The front bedroom and dining area are done, and half the kitchen.  We’ve got to do the bathroom and a little bit around Emma’s bed tomorrow, which will probably take an hour or two because of some tricky cuts around the bathroom door frame.  Then we’ll caulk a few edges and move on to other incidental fixes in the Airstream before we start to put the furniture back in place.

This was the longest session of the project, and I can definitely feel it.  At the end of the day I had multiple small cuts and scrapes on my hands, I had pulled three small slivers out from under my fingernails (and several more from my fingers), my fingertips were covered with excess glue, and the kneepads were starting to feel like tourniquets.

The floor is nearly done but the work isn’t.  I’ve got to build a new threshold for the entry door, add L-channel supports to some undercabinet areas, re-plumb part of the kitchen, install a few pieces of trim, modify the chase that hides the furnace lines under the dinette, and then put back the dinette, master bed, and some other stuff.  We’ll be busy into the weekend, I think.

Just cut it out

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

Tearing up the Airstream is more fun than we expected.  Today Mike and I started on the Safari in the early afternoon after a trip to the hardware store and tool rental shop.  The original plan was to find a way to smooth the transition from where the old vinyl ended in the bedroom, to the bare plywood floor.  We started on one idea, but then (coincidentally) Colin called.  When he heard what we were up to, he said, “Just cut up the old vinyl. It’s not attached, except at the edges.  Get a sharp carpet knife and just cut it all out.”

So we tried it, and of course he was right.  (He is, after all, a professional at this.)  In about 90 minutes we had the old vinyl floor removed (except some bits under cabinetry).  The staples at the edges were easy to pull out with needle-nose pliers, and the vinyl cut like soft cheese as long as the blade was sharp.  We used two blades in the process, and the Airstream now has bare plywood floors throughout.

What a relief to get rid of that nasty old floor.  It was permanently dirty, meaning that whatever finish it originally had seemed to have worn off, and the debossed “grain” in the pattern just trapped dirt and wouldn’t come clean no matter what we did.  I was glad to slice it up into small pieces and toss it into the trash bin.

Also, removing the floor revealed a few surprises.  In the bathroom we found evidence of a prior water leak.  There are no current plumbing leaks in that area, but there have been in the past, and you can see in the photo how that water discolored the floor.  It seems solid throughout, so I’m not worried about it.  We will need to do a good leak check on the exterior later this season, to be sure rain isn’t seeping in somewhere.

Bath leak evidenceUnder the kitchen counter, in an area that was inaccessible until we removed the dinette, we discovered evidence that a leak or spill occurred and black mold grew in a patch measuring about 10″ x 4″.  This is a more serious situation, because some molds can be toxic.  However, I think we’ve been living with this one for a while.  As with the bathroom, it seems to be a very old past leak, perhaps dating back to when we had a bad kitchen faucet in 2005.  [UPDATE:  It appears that this was the result of condensation dripping from the cold water line to the kitchen faucet.]  Disturbingly, the mold was growing just inches from where we store the pots and pans.  The good news is that the floor is fine and the affected area is small, so the job here is just to clean up carefully with bleach.

I’m also going to re-plumb this area slightly so that we have more space for storage, and better access to this spot so we can inspect it again in the future.  It may take a flashlight and a mirror, but we will be able to see in there, just to be sure nothing is happening.  I don’t like inaccessible spots in a travel trailer; that’s where problems get a chance to advance unnoticed.

Along the way I saw a few opportunities for improvement.  I’m going to replace some fairly lame chrome trim around the floor edge with aluminum L-channel.  I also want to make a new wood threshold at the entry door; I’ve never liked the one we have.  The bedroom door has some issues that I hope to fix, and I discovered several furniture screws that have stripped so those will get replaced with larger ones.

The big fix will be re-attaching the kitchen cabinetry and the bath vanity to the walls.  Over time, the screws and brackets work loose. The aluminum stretches and the screws just won’t hold, and then the cabinet is free to go for a walk.  The solution is to make new brackets with aluminum L-channel, which can be made long enough to attach to the trailer’s structural ribs, not just the interior walls.  This isn’t strictly necessary but we’ve long wanted to be ready for rough roads in Alaska or Chaco Culture National Historical Park, and this is what the trailer needs to avoid being shaken apart.

Interior gutted pano

With the floor stripped out and the trailer vacuumed again, we are ready to start the next phase: laying the new floor.  Both Mike and are pumped to get started, so on Wednesday we’ll give it a go.

A good Monday

Monday, March 4th, 2013

Although the Caravel is not yet done, time is short so I’ve started the other major Airstream project.

As I’ve mentioned before, the Safari’s floor covering is pretty tired.  We’ve purchased vinyl planks which will overlay the existing vinyl flooring in the living area and bathroom of the trailer.  In the bedroom there’s carpet, which is horribly discolored (after eight years of heavy use) and which we’ve never been fond of anyway.  So that’s coming out, and the entire trailer will have a new look once this job is done.

Mike has agreed to help me out, which is a great relief.  I have to get the Summer magazine in the hands of the layout crew by Friday, so there’s not much time for home projects.  The plan is to start early in the office, knock off in the early afternoon, and thus get in a few hours of work in one or the other Airstream before the sunlight starts to fade.  Today I worked on the magazine from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. and then we got started on the Safari by removing most of the bed frame and the carpeting.

The bedframe came out fairly easily.  We had it disassembled and stored in the carport in less than an hour, including folding up the blankets.  So then we ripped out the carpet and the carpet pad.  That was quick too, even with the need to locate and remove about thirty staples in the floor.  (In the course of this demolition we of course uncovered numerous souvenirs of this trailer’s time on the assembly line, mostly in the form of discarded rivet stems and the occasional dollop of sawdust-encrusted caulk on the floor. I regarded these artifacts as almost historic.)

Buoyed by all this success, we moved to the dinette, and had that out in even less time.  One of the nice things about working on an Airstream is that just about everything is fastened with a #8 wood screw, even those things that are anchored in the aluminum.  So with a screwdriver, you can disassemble pretty readily. It’s even faster with a cordless drill and screw bit handy.  And if you strip a screw, it’s easy to replace with a small assortment of different-length #8 spares on hand.  I always have a bunch of them in my repair kit.

IMG_1874

Of course there are always a few tricks.  The forward bench of the dinette, it turns out, was fastened to the bulkhead (wall) that divides the dining area from the front bedroom.  To get to all the hidden screws, we had to remove the bedroom’s sliding door (about eight more screws and a bit of sleuthing).  Since the furnace is inside that part of the dinette, I now know exactly what will be required to replace it someday.  Hopefully not too soon.

The bedframe was similar—most of it came out but we discovered four screws that could only be accessed from inside the front outside compartment, and six staples that I just had to yank out.  I hate finding staples, and whenever I do I resolve to replace them with something better.

Eventually it was all out and we were left with a lot of dust, a lot of screws in clear plastic baggies, and plenty to think about while cleaning up with the Shop-Vac.  We knocked off at 5 p.m.

The new flooring should be fairly easy to install, once we get started.  But as with everything, there are a few more tricky spots.  The major problem is where the existing vinyl floor ends in the bedroom.  The existing floor is thin, but it’s just thick enough that it will telegraph a slight bump where it ends.  We have a few schemes in mind to hide this problem, and will test some solutions in the next day or two.

Another problem is that we are going to have to trim the new floor around quite a few obstacles, since we aren’t removing the rest of the interior furniture.  For this problem Mike has produced a 50-year-old tool from his father’s workshop that we think will be just the ticket.  I’ll show you that device later.

While all this was happening, the UPS truck came by the final items I need to complete the Caravel.  At least, I think they are the final items.  It’s dangerous to say that, given that every other project has taken many more trips to the hardware store than expected.   I don’t know when I’ll finish the Caravel but I certainly expect to do it this week, perhaps when Mike is busy and unable to help me on the Safari.

In our next session in the Safari, we need to remove one more piece of furniture, and then start prepping the surface for laying down the new material.  That’s for another day.  We got enough done for one Monday.

80% plumbed

Monday, February 25th, 2013

For the most part I resisted the temptation to work on the Caravel over the weekend.  There were other things to do and the end of the plumbing project is within sight, so it seemed like a good idea to take a break for a little while.

Over the weekend the only major progress was on the last really tricky bit: the plumbing assembly for the water heater bypass and the connections heading off to the two sinks.  I built it in about an hour.  You can see an early draft of it in the picture below, not quite complete but showing all three of the ball valves and some of the major connections.

IMG_1832This piece will stand upright next to the side of the water heater (so the blue line will be at the bottom), and thus tuck in neatly to allow lots of free space under the bathroom sink where we formerly had wild plumbing lines going everywhere and blocking everything.  The draft in the photo doesn’t show two additional tees that I added later.  As with the Dreaded Closet Manifold, it was designed so that access to the three ball valves would be much easier than before, and of course it’s color-coded too.

This was definitely the hardest piece of the project but I wouldn’t call it hard, really.  The whole project has been fairly easy, although time-consuming, and despite the challenges I’ve really appreciated the chance to do this and learn some new skills.

I’ve since completed the assembly with tees for the sinks and swivel fittings for the water heater connections, and test-fitted it for the umpteenth time.  All that remains is to fix couple of under-sink mistakes I made earlier, and then crimp it into place.

The mistakes are going to hold up the project, though, because I need a de-crimping tool.  I had gotten this far without purchasing that tool, which is used to cut off crimps without sacrificing the brass fittings.  Then I made two serious mistakes: one bad crimp, and I rather stupidly put in two tees to connect the cold water side of the bathroom faucet.  Obviously I only need one.

I could correct these mistakes by cutting out and sacrificing a bunch of completed sections, but I decided to go ahead and purchase the de-crimping tool (about $20) so that I will be able to make other repairs or modifications later.  I added this to a final parts order on Friday and probably won’t get it until late this week, so in the meantime not much is going to get done.

Once the parts do arrive, the project list looks like this:

  1. Hook up sinks
  2. Finish connecting water heater bypass to heater and main lines
  3. Install new city water fill
  4. Add experimental water hammer arrestor (*)
  5. Add foam insulation and pipe clamps for sound dampening and security
  6. Pressurize system and check for leaks (first with water pump, then with city water pressure)
  7. Test for noise & add insulation as needed.

Notice I haven’t included the item “Fix leaks”.  There won’t be any.  Right?

The water hammer arrestor is a complete experiment. I’m wondering if it will have any effect on the pulsing that the water pump transmits through the entire system.  You can insulate and clamp down the pipes so they don’t move, but the vibration is still transmitted through the water, so the vibration can re-appear in the pipes downstream.

RV stores sell a device called a pressure accumulator which is supposed to smooth out the water flow, but I’ve tried one and found it ineffective.  The water hammer arrestor is designed to stop one heavy “slug” of water pressure rather than a constant series of pulses, but I’m hoping it will have some positive effect anyway.  I’m going to plumb it in on the main line from the water pump and see what happens.

With this project mostly under wraps, and the weather finally warming up here (I know, no pity from the northerners), it’s time to get serious about the Safari floor project.  That’s on my list for later this week.

Too much plumbing history

Friday, February 22nd, 2013

Like all projects, the Caravel plumbing replacement moves forwards a little unevenly—a few hours one days, and a few minutes the next.  Yesterday I got less than an hour of work done on it, because I was tied up most of the day with other projects, the kind that pay for this project.  The major accomplishment was screwing down the water pump and neatening up the wiring with some new butt splices. But although there wasn’t a lot of visible progress made, I was happy to take some time to think about the remaining plumbing to figure out how best to correct it.

There were two major puzzles to solve.  The first was the city water fill.  I had made some incorrect assumptions, namely that the original 2.75″ round filler was no longer available as a modern part, and also that it did not have a check valve.  This lack of a check valve was a major annoyance, since it meant that anytime the fill was not capped tightly our water would pump out it and onto the ground.

Because of those two incorrect assumptions, I had bought a modern Shurflo city water fill for $30 to replace what we had.  It comes with a pressure regulator and check valve built-in, all very neatly package but considerably larger than the original. I would have to enlarge the existing hole to 3.75″, and that gave me pause.  Anytime you have to cut an Airstream’s skin, you should take a day or two to think about it first.  It doesn’t heal itself.

Colin set me straight on this.  A replacement for the original filler is available, and it does have a built-in check valve.  (The original one did too, but the check valve failed many years ago.)  I found it for $12 at Camping World.  It’s Valterra part # A01-0172LF. You can see it in the photo, just above the original one.

The only problem is that the replacement unit takes three screw holes, and the original took two holes, so I’ll have to drill a couple of new holes.  I can live with that.  The old holes will be hidden behind the aluminum flange of the filler, and sealed with caulk.

Space inside the trailer closet to attach the plumbing to this filler is very limited.  For some reason, it was installed next to the black tank and so there are only 4 inches of clearance to work in.  If it had been installed just a few inches forward on the trailer body, there would have been plenty of working space.  This is one accessibility issue that I can’t rectify (at least, not without patching one hole on the skin and making another).

After some visualizing, I realized that it would be simple to put a 90-degree elbow on the inside of the city water fill so that the water line goes upward and then via an 18″ loop of clear flexible line (to absorb shock from city water pressure) to the closet manifold that we installed the day before.  This design also has the advantage of self-draining if the trailer is ever winterized again.  To do this, I need a special elbow that goes from pipe thread to PEX, and I couldn’t find one locally so I added it to another order from PEX Supply and will get it next week.

The second puzzle was how to re-route the plumbing to the water heater so that it would meet the design goals of (a) easy access for future maintenance/repair; (b) neatness (so we’ll have more usable storage space), and (c) reliability.  From a reliability point of view, I’m not a fan of the typical winterization valves sold in RV stores.  I like the way Airstream does it instead, with a very clear winterization bypass and three shut-off ball valves.  It took me a while to figure out a neat solution, and when I did I realized that the project will require more shutoff valves than I had ordered, so that went on the next order as well.

Since a major chunk of the project is now on hold for parts (which won’t arrive until sometime next week), the next thing to do was to rip out the rest of the plumbing, since I no longer needed it to understand what was going on.  The stuff that was left was frankly depressing to see and I was glad to get it out of there.

The most interesting bit was this (above).  This was a repair done by an Airstream shop to a section of PEX that was leaking at the fitting.  The fitting was leaking because it was installed without an elbow and thus had been overstressed.  The mechanic put in the blue section of PEX that you see, using steel clamps. This is a reliable system, nearly equal to the copper crimps.

IMG_1831The repaired section was fine, but the pinhole leak we found before Alumafiesta occurred right next to it, in the first 1/4″ of the white PEX, just past the clamp.  Why?  It appears that something (a fitting? a clamp?) cut into the white PEX a little bit.  It’s barely visible in the closeup view above. The mechanic should have trimmed off the last inch or so of white PEX to ensure good material, but for whatever reason he didn’t, and so this last inch sprang a leak when subjected to city water pressure.

This may help explain why I decided to just gut the entire system and replace it with new.  There’s too much history in this system.  I want a “no stories” plumbing system.  If something goes wrong, I will have to blame myself but also I will know exactly how to fix it, and that’s infinitely more satisfactory than being bewildered while cursing some anonymous prior owner or mechanic.

Even while waiting for parts I can still do some work on the bathroom sink plumbing and get started on the winterization bypass for the water heater, so it’s possible I’ll put a few hours in over the weekend.  Otherwise, expect updates next week.

Plumbing on the snow day

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

Yesterday my iPhone emitted a terrible sound from my pocket, one I’d never heard before.  It turned out to be warning me of an impending “blizzard” coming to Arizona.

A what?

Yep, this morning the snow level, which usually stays well above 4000 feet, dipped down low enough that we have gotten considerable snow here at 2,500 feet.  This is a rare event for Tucson, one which brings everyone out to look at the strange white stuff, take pictures, and slide around on the roadways.  Having seen my share of snow from life in the northeast, I was not impressed until  I saw it decorating the Caravel, and then I succumbed to the temptation to take a few pictures myself.  I really don’t know why.  I have lots of pictures of the Caravel buried in deep snow from Vermont, but I took a few more anyway.

There’s a little electric heater in the Caravel to keep it from freezing at night, and that makes the interior cozy enough for me to keep working on the plumbing project.  I had run out of Teflon plumber’s tape yesterday, and I needed to ponder the complexities of the next major phase, so I paused the project overnight.

Today, with large, wet snowflakes pattering on the aluminum skin, I got back inside to figure out what I’ve been mentally calling “the dreaded closet manifold.”  One of the narrow bathroom closets had housed a strange collection of plumbing intersections, and it was all wedged into a space only about 1 foot wide and three feet deep.  This made just reaching the plumbing a difficult task, since I don’t fit into spaces that small and my arms aren’t that long.

In rebuilding this rat’s nest of plumbing I wanted to design something that would be much easier to access and service in the future.  There was a shutoff valve that could only be reached if the gaucho cushions were removed, for example.  The city water fill lacked a check valve and a pressure regulator, so it needed wholesale replacement but couldn’t be accessed without disassembling half the bathroom.  Much of my time was spent figuring out ways to remove the whole mess before I could even get started on building a new system.

Eventually, with lots of struggling, cutting, use of extension tools, and even duct tape, I got the plumbing out. A neat new plumbing manifold was designed after lots of headscratching.  You can see it below.

Although it doesn’t look like much, this little bit solves several problems:

  1. It connects the water pump, city water fill, toilet, and main cold water line to the rest of the trailer.
  2. It fits in the exact center of the available closet space, on the floor, with room to swing the shut-off valve if needed.
  3. Nearly all of it can be easy accessed from the door without requiring the help of a small person.

It took Eleanor and I about 10 minutes to crimp all the fittings once I had the basic layout measured and cut.  In this type of job, it’s definitely a “measure twice, cut once” situation.  Actually, being a newbie to this, I measured about four times for each piece.  So although you may scoff, I regard this little bit of plumbing as a work of art.

Getting it into place was another matter.  I could easily make one of the connections, but for the two low elbows I needed four hands to hold everything in the right position when crimping.  Eleanor was recruited.  At one point she had to wedge herself into the closet, because she’s thinner than me.  And I’m not particularly big, so you can get an idea of how tight it was.

Or maybe this picture will help.

And now that part is done.  I won’t rest easy until we pressurize the system and verify there are no leaks, but I’ve done everything I can to ensure that it will be perfect.

So now onto the next phase.  Believe it or not, the plumbing project is almost half done.  We have gone from the fresh water tank  to the bathroom, which means the water pump, winterization valve, and toilet are connected.  I still have to rig up the new city water fill, water heater, and both sinks.  (The Caravel doesn’t have a separate shower connection, since it uses a takeoff from the bathroom sink.)

Time elapsed so far is probably about eight hours, not counting trips to the hardware store or pre-planning.  I think that’s not bad for a first effort.  I’m actually looking forward to tackling the under-sink areas and the water heater, as (again) they are a mess of stressed connections, all of which are in the wrong place.

I discovered today the real danger of doing this and blogging it: my Airstream friends might ask me for help with their trailers.  Well, let me say this:

  1. I’m still definitely not an expert.
  2. You can borrow my tools.

Farewell to Billybob plumbing

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

With Alumafiesta behind me and some Airstream travel coming up, it’s time to get serious about maintenance again.  I’m starting with the Caravel, because it sprang a few leaks recently and I really want to get those under control soon.

The big job is the fresh water plumbing.  This is the only major system of the trailer that didn’t get refurbished over the past several years.  It’s a horrible hodge-podge of “home handyman” work, with at least four different types of hose (PEX, braided stainless steel, PVC, and clear) and many different connectors.  The hose clamps in particular are a problem because they work loose during travel and are a constant source of leaks, but the braided stainless faucet connectors haven’t been very reliable either.

When it became apparent that repeated patches to the system would only result in repeated frustration and new leaks sprang up, I decided to just completely replace the fresh water plumbing—every piece of it except the faucets and water pump.  I rationalized this as an opportunity to learn something new.  More importantly, a complete refurbishment of the system would allow me to rectify all the little dysfunctional annoyances caused by the prior hack jobs.

For example, the water shutoff valves for the kitchen sink are nearly inaccessible behind the cabinetry.  A few inches to the left and they’d right where you’d want them; easily reached without removing all the contents of the cabinet and turned off in a flash if need be.

Somebody who worked on this system apparently had a phobia of 90-degree elbows.  Rather than plumb elbows in where they were needed, he just bent the plastic pipe around corners.  This works—sort of—but it puts huge stress on the connections and fittings.  This is probably the reason a line near the water heater sprang a pinhole leak just before Alumafiesta. Studying the system, I began to see all those stressed connections as leaks waiting to happen.

And then there was the shut-off valve installed where there should be a check valve (a one-way valve).  And the frequent use of screw-on plastic compression fittings that weep randomly, mostly when you’re 500 or more miles from home.  And the lack of a pressure regulator.  It’s all a fine example of what my friend Colin calls “Billybob plumbing.”

So out it goes.  I did some research and decided to go with a professional grade system.  I read a few restoration blogs, then looked inside a new Airstream to see what the factory is using these days.  They’re using PEX with copper crimp fittings.  It’s the same system we have in our 2005 Safari, and it has been utterly reliable.  The PEX is tough stuff and should be a “lifetime” installation.  This is the same stuff used in houses, rated for use in inaccessible locations.  That’s the quality I want.

Left:  “Before” in Hose Clamp Hell.    Right:  “After” PEX with crimp rings (except one pair of legacy clamp rings).

This system is really simple.  You cut the PEX pipe to length, slip a copper ring on the outside, slip a the fitting inside (elbow, coupling, whatever), and crimp the copper ring with a big hand tool.  It’s easy and the connection is permanent.  It won’t leak, and just to be sure there’s a gauge provided that you can use to check each crimp as you go.

RJ Dial’s website tipped me off to PEXSupply.com, where I bought about $380 worth of parts and tools to do this job.  I bought rolls of blue and red PEX-A (the good stuff, more flexible than the hardware-story-variety PEX-B and more resistant to freezing), about 50 various brass fittings, a bag of copper crimps, and a pipe cutter.  There was no need to get color-coded PEX for the hot and cold water, but I figured if I was going to do this I would make it a work of art.

The big expense was a pro-grade crimping tool at $119.  My friend the sword-swallower Alex confirmed this choice, saying that the off-patent ones for $30-40 really weren’t worth using in his experience.  I don’t know about that personally but I can say that this tool is really sweet, easy to use, and does a great job.

My plan is to go out to the Caravel every day and work for a few hours or until I realize I need to get something at the hardware store.  Today that point came after about four hours of work, which was more than I had planned, but I was having fun with it. It’s great to disassemble and toss out the crummy old plumbing and zillions of hose clamps, and replace it with a carefully structured system that will hopefully never give me trouble.

The job will take a long time because I am being very methodical.  Every pipe thread fitting will have Teflon tape and be carefully torqued, every crimp will be gauged, lines are being re-routed to avoid stress and clutter, etc.  I’m only planning to do this once, so I want to do it right.  Much of today I spent relocating the water pump & winterization valve, and rigging up a system to reduce water pump noise.  The old plumbing made such a loud noise when the water pump was run (rattling the rigid plastic lines) that it would wake the dead and scare small children.

Now, as recommended by the manufacturer, the water pump output goes to an 18″ clear flexible hose in a loose loop to reduce vibration transmission down the line.  I also installed some foam pipe insulation and a clamp to try to dampen vibrations, and I moved the water pump to where it’s (a) no longer in the way of storage, and (b) easily accessed if it needs to be replaced.  It feels good to finally get these things right in the Caravel.

Besides having a leak-free fresh water system in the future, an incidental benefit is that I’m learning how to repair or modify the plumbing in the Safari, and I have all the tools to do it.  We’ve discussed changing the kitchen sink and countertop, but I’ve shied away from it because of the need to re-do the kitchen plumbing.  Now, it’s a completely non-threatening job. So despite the fact that I’m once again putting time and money in the trailer we barely use, it’s a good project.  I’ll update later when things get a little further along.

 

 

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine