Sometimes even the simple trips can get complicated quickly. As I’ve mentioned before, we have been anticipating this trip to the southern California desert for a long time, and we’ve had plenty of time to plan and pack. But somehow I managed to overlook one of the simple preparations: checking the tire pressure on the Airstream.
This week in Tucson we’ve had the coldest weather that we’re likely to see all winter. At night the temperature has been dropping below freezing, which is a major weather event here. We’ve been covering the citrus trees and running the electric space heaters in the house at night. On Thursday, a “winter storm” arrived, which translates to heavy rain for half a day, and considerable snow up in the mountains. Our nearby Mount Lemmon (elev. 8000+) picked up a foot of snow. Down in Tucson, we just got wet and cold.
Our original plan was to head out on Thursday and drive half of the 380 mile trip, then boondock overnight somewhere along Interstate 8, but with the crummy weather we decided to spend another day at home and do the entire drive in a single day. I turned the heat pump on in the Airstream, so that it would be warm while we were in there packing, and we were able to complete the re-packing process without having to rush too much.
So by Friday morning at 8 a.m. we were all set to go. Alex and Charon and their friend Laura were ready too, parked directly in front of the house with their 1965 Airstream Safari. They had arrived the day before. The temperature was a shocking 29 degrees and the car had the thickest layer of frost I’ve ever seen on it. (Forgive the quality of the pictures in this blog entry — they are frame captures from a video on the little Canon digicam.)
The last thing we usually do is plug in the tire pressure monitor for the Airstream, right before we pull out of the driveway. As we did, I realized that the tires desperately needed air. They had been set for 50 psi back in August, and I hadn’t had to adjust them for cooler temperatures since. We stopped just a few feet out of the carport, and checked. Sure enough, they were reading about 38 psi cold — far too low. The load capacity of the tires drops dramatically with lower pressure. Although they would warm up on the road and the pressure would increase, towing at this pressure still presented a very real risk of a blowout.
No problem, that’s why I have an air compressor at home. But it wouldn’t work. The darned thing worked for a while, then quit. I assumed that perhaps it was unhappy with the freezing temperatures, and took it into the house to warm up. I also told everyone else that they might as well go back into the house because I assumed this was a problem that would take some time to resolve.
But Alex knew something I didn’t. Last winter he gave me the extension cord I was using. Although it looked perfect and had worked for me many times before, he replaced it with one of his own and that solved the problem. So we pumped up all the tires in the freezing temperatures and finally got on the road about 40 minutes later than we had initially planned.
Well, that was still no problem because we’d allowed plenty of daylight to get to our destination. But along a lonely stretch of Interstate 8 (and frankly, all of I-8 is lonely) Alex called on the road to report a flat. We all immediately pulled over into the debris-strewn breakdown lane, but we were about half a mile ahead of them. A tire on his Safari had blown out, from causes unknown. I had to stay with our rig in case the troopers showed up, as our stop was technically unnecessary and we could be cited for a “non-emergency” stop, so Alex changed the tire himself. About 30 minutes later, we were on the way again, now about three hours into our schedule and only 100 miles down the road.
Still, we had time to stop at the tiny outpost of Dateland, AZ for a couple of bags of fresh dates and some fuel, and at the Imperial Sand Dunes in southern California — just because we could — and still managed to get to Borrego Springs CA before the early sunset at 5 p.m. When we arrived, we immediately saw some Airstream friends (Roger & Roxie, Bill K, Dan and Marlene) who were all hanging around wearing winter clothes. It’s cold here, too, although a few degrees warmer than Tucson. We’ll spend the next few days hiking, exploring by car, and relaxing.
Any word on how his one axle trailer handled the flat? I have a one axle trailer as well and this is my one of my biggest fears while trailering. Was he able to stay in his lane, did he have a monitoring system that detected it early?
Alex reports that he had no problem controlling the trailer at 70 MPH. There was no sway and it stayed in the lane. He attributes this to the fact that his trailer was properly balanced and loaded. That means there was appropriate tongue weight (10-15%) and the trailer was within its GVWR. (From my experience the 1960s single-axle Airstream are surprisingly stable when properly loaded. A full water tank helps, because it sits up front and adds tongue weight.)
Alex also feels that the polyester-belted bias ply tires he uses track better in a blowout than steel-belted radials that are more commonly used these days.
Alex wasn’t using a tire pressure monitor, so he only noticed the problem after the tire was flat. The tire might have been saved if there was early warning, but we can’t be sure in this case. An analysis of the tire is pending. We’d like to know if it went flat and then broke apart (perhaps from a nail or valve failure), or failed structurally from a defect and then lost its air.