Go ahead, sweat the small stuff

After a long pause at home base, you can’t just assume that the trailer is completely ready to go, especially when the next trip is an expedition.  We aren’t just going camping for the weekend, we’re going out for what will probably be an 8,000 mile trip and a total of 100-120 days of occupancy in the Airstream.  For the average Airstreamer, that’s several years worth of use.  So I look at the car and the trailer in that light, and try to consider what might go wrong with them in the next few months.

Being only about two years old and well maintained, the car is pretty easy.  I had it serviced in December and I know it will need a maintenance stop again about the time I return to Tucson, so I’ll get that done when I’m back.  The Airstream, however, is much more complex.  Checking it over before a major trip takes the better part of a day, but I usually spread it out over a week or so, just in case I run into something that requires parts.

I start with the easy stuff, by simply using all of the systems in the trailer and verifying that they work as expected.  Eleanor wanted to practice her demonstration meal in the Airstream last night, so that gave us a chance to run the hot water, stove and oven, air conditioning and vents, and lights.  Everything in the kitchen was fine.  Separately I checked the shower, bathroom plumbing, windows, doors.

You might think it’s unlikely that something like plumbing would go bad while the trailer is just sitting, but actually that’s exactly the type of thing I suspect the most.  In the past I’ve found that the toilet seal has begun to leak during storage (which lets sewer gas into the trailer, not a pleasant thing), or that a water pump has died over the winter.  It’s obviously much nicer to discover these things a week before launch, rather than letting it be the first memory of your vacation.  Fortunately, this time the inspection turned up nothing awry.

Even seemingly maintenance-free things like doors and windows often need a little help after storage.  Usually it’s a matter of the hinges getting squeaky, or the seals beginning to stick — things that are easily remedied with a little cleaning and lubrication. There’s a good feeling that goes with checking all the systems and tuning up the small stuff, so it’s a practice that’s beneficial for your mental state as well as the Airstream.  The guy who wrote, “Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff” wasn’t talking about travel trailers.

After the systems check, I start running through the routine tasks.  This includes filling the fresh water tank, dumping the holding tanks, getting a propane re-fill, lubricating the hitch, charging the cordless drill batteries, plugging in the TPMS (to check the tire pressure), and putting the tools back in place.

That last item bears explanation.  Do you have in the trailer the tools and parts you’d need to:

  • remove a flat tire and install the spare?  (Does the spare have air in it?)
  • temporarily or permanently fix a dragging belly pan  (rivets, drill, rivet tool, washers)
  • replace a burned out clearance, brake, or tail light  (screwdriver, spare bulbs)
  • clean corrosion off the main ground wire, or the metal tabs of the 7-way connector?

I find that the tools tend to migrate away from the Airstream during periods of storage, and need to be put back before a big trip.  So I never take anything for granted until I’ve located the part/tool and verified it’s where it should be in the trailer.

At each step of the routine tasks I have a chance to see if anything has come loose, begun to leak, gotten rusty, or been misplaced.  If insects have made nests in the furnace or water heater, or if packrats have chewed the electrical wires, this is the time to catch those problems.  I also check all the critical and consumable supplies like grease, silicone spray, and maple cookies to see if they are running low.

This time while I was puttering around I spotted the fire extinguisher in the Airstream and wondered if it was still functional.  It’s the original equipment, installed in 2005, and it has been through probably 100,000 miles of travel, which I’ve heard will eventually pack the dry powder to the point that it might not work.  A pair of replacement extinguishers (better ones, in fact) were just $30 at Costco, so I bought them and put one in the house kitchen, too.

While kneeling at the front wheel to fiddle with the TPMS, I took the opportunity to scan the underbelly of the trailer, and spotted a loose aluminum plate.  I’m not yet sure what this plate does (center of image), but regardless I’ll be under there later today with the drill and rivet tool to put it back in place.

Riveting up loose parts or areas of the belly pan is an easy job once you get into your working clothes. I recommend keeping the cordless drill, an assortment of small drill bits (1/8″ – 5/16″), and some buttonhead pop rivets and/or washers in your tool kit, because belly pan rivets have a habit of letting loose at inconvenient times.  (It’s caused by dissimilar metal corrosion — the aluminum rivets are drilled into the steel frame.)

Another problem I found was that the sewer hose was getting a bit elderly, and my cardinal rule of Airstreaming is “Never trust an old sewer hose.” They’re like the brakes on your car, you replace ’em before they break.

I wrote up a bunch of “springtime de-winterizing” tips in my book about Airstreaming (see page 74) and believe it or not I do actually take my own advice once in while, so I have checked the 9-volt batteries in the smoke detectors and inspected the hitch receiver on the Mercedes.  This time the smoke detectors were fine but the digital clock was blinking.  Replacing its batteries reminded me: did we have a bunch of AA and AAA batteries in the trailer? Yes, we did.  More “small stuff,” but all good stuff.

OK, at this point I’ve checked all the systems, verified that the tools and parts are in place, checked for items that may have failed or been damaged during storage, serviced the items that are due, and replaced all the maintenance consumables.  Meanwhile, Eleanor has been packing the household items, which is an even bigger task.  On Wednesday we’ll cross-check each other as we get to the home stretch, and deal with prepping the house itself for its vacation from us.  There’s much more ahead …