News from the industry, late 2013

I just got back from the annual RV Industry Association trade show, which is held in sunny Louisville, KY the first week of December each year.  This is a trip I normally dread, because it’s right after the Thanksgiving travel season and the airplanes and convention center are inevitably filled with people who have viruses to share. Being a human virus magnet, I almost always get sick.  And it always rains in Louisville this time of year.

So it is with great trepidation that I force myself to leave sunny southern Arizona to spend a few days under the big tungsten lights.  But this year, I’m glad I did.

Sometimes the big draw for me is the chance to see the latest things from Airstream.  This year the big draw was the knowledge that the RV industry has fully escaped the doldrums of the recession and for the past year the manufacturers have been cranking out product at full speed.  The RV industry is a “leading economic indicator,” which means that when the RV industry speeds up, the rest of the economy is not far behind.  (Of course, this goes both ways—about eight months before the Bush administration admitted we were heading into a recession, we knew the bad news because RV sales had already plummeted.)

I was looking forward to smiling faces and busy people at RVIA, and I was not disappointed.  For example, Brett & I were approached by our friend, the president of Zip-Dee, who suggested that perhaps we should suspend his full page ad in Airstream Life for an issue because, “everytime it comes out our phones go nuts for two weeks, and we can’t keep up!”  Only in boom times will you hear such a complaint.  (Instead of suspending his ad for the super-cool Zip-Dee motorized awning, we are going to run a different Zip-Dee product ad in the Spring issue.)

Airstream, you may have already heard, is having the biggest year they’ve seen in decades.  In terms of dollars of sales, it’s their biggest year ever.  The Airstream Interstate motorhome continues to be the best-selling Class B moho in the industry, despite also being the most expensive.  Trailers are flying off dealer lots, and the production backlog is several months long.

Despite knowing all this before I went, I was absolutely astonished at the level of bullishness we found at the trade show.  We signed more new advertisers for Airstream Life on the spot than we have done in the last three or four years combined.  We found eager new sponsors for our R&B Events, including Alumapalooza and Alumaflamingo (we’ll announce those when the deals are finalized).  Every aftermarket manufacturer we talked to was interested in sending someone to represent their company.  The Grinch of prior years was thoroughly banished.

What’s behind this?  Well, recessions don’t last forever.  Also, the baby boomers, who have been retiring in droves for several years, are eagerly buying Airstreams so that they can finally indulge life-long fantasies of freedom and travel.  Airstream says about half of their new buyers are new to RV’ing entirely, meaning that they went from nothing to an Airstream.

This has changed everything, no exaggeration.  The content of Airstream Life, the content of our events, the future projects I’m working on, the design of Airstreams, dealerships—nothing is untouched by this massive change.  It used to be that Airstreams were the trailers you ended up with after years of climbing your way up the ladder through lesser brands, but now we have all these newbies showing up who very suddenly want to live the dream.  So everyone who makes, sells, or supports Airstream has to look what they do and figure out how to do it differently.  I think this is great fun.

In terms of new products, we saw only a few things of note.  The re-boot of Trillium fiberglass trailers seems to have faltered a bit, but they are now being sold by Great West Vans as the “Sidekick Trillium“.  Certainly well worth consideration by anyone looking for cute weekender on a budget.  Jayco was showing a European spec caravan to attempt to show American dealers how EU models can make a lot of sense.

The guys at Primus Windpower picked up the pieces from another RV wind power company that failed last year, and will be having a product re-launch in 2014, which I’ll be watching.  The Airstream Interstate has been updated for the new Mercedes Sprinter chassis, but it’s essentially the same as before, meaning quite long and very plush.  Likewise, the $146k “Land Yacht” trailer has been updated a bit.

We met with Dicky Riegel of Airstream2Go to talk about his new Airstream trailer rental business.  He showed us the incredibly cool app that they give, pre-loaded on an iPad Mini, to each rental customer.  It has maps, explanatory videos, helpful guides, checklists, equipment lists, even song playlists.  It’s first class, and I was very impressed.  Sometime next year it will also have a full set of Airstream Life back issues pre-loaded, too.

I have to admit I was a skeptic about the concept of Airstream2Go, but Dicky seems to have found and tapped into a base of well-off customers who really want to rent new Airstream trailers for a “vacation of a lifetime” but don’t want to buy one.  If that’s you, there’s no better option than Airstream2Go.

I also had a rare chance to sit down with Andy Thomson of Can-Am RV.  Andy writes a series on towing that we publish in Airstream Life.  His last article, about load capacity, really tweaked a few people because Andy showed how some cars which aren’t rated to tow much at all can actually perform better than the traditional pickup truck.

A few people asked my why I’d publish such an article (which gored a sacred cow in the towing world), and I tried to explain that the discussion of the vehicle and hitch dynamics helps us all understand what we are doing.  You don’t have to like Andy’s choice of vehicle to benefit from his knowledge, no matter what you drive.

The same people typically suggested that I shouldn’t publish such articles because (a) I’d get sued; (b) “somebody will get killed”; (c) Andy doesn’t really know what he’s talking about.  I don’t buy any of those excuses.  My response is usually that you may not agree what you read, but don’t ask me not to publish it.  Cancel your subscription or flip to the next page.  I believe in the free exchange of knowledge and I’m not in favor of quashing new thinking.  If you pay attention with an open mind, you might just learn something.

I tell ya what, I certainly learned a few things this week.  In addition to all of the above, I learned not to eat the egg & guacamole biscuit thing at the hotel breakfast buffet.  By 4 pm on the final afternoon of my trip I was feeling a bit “off,” and by 11:30 pm I was doubled over in agony.  Didn’t sleep much that night.  My personal “Louisville curse” got me again.  On the plus side, I also learned that Louisville airport has very clean bathrooms, after visiting several of them in the pre-dawn hours the next morning while waiting for my flight.

Well, as my associate David told me, “a stomach bug is a small price to pay” for a successful week.  (Of course, that’s easy for him to say.)  My take on it is that I learned, I lived, and overall I’m glad I went.   Of course, there is one other bit of sobering news to consider:  this means I have to go again next year.

Pineapple season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mercedes 300Dx3

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

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

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

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

Hmmm… pineapple, anyone?

 

 

Lessons from the Caravel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

This is a test … of Alumafiesta

Although this month is one of the really great ones for Airstreaming in the southwest, we’re mostly staying at home.  Since the Airstream is usually out from May through September, the mild weather of a southwest Fall season is the ideal opportunity to catch up on the rest of life.  Maintenance on both of the Airstreams is part of it, thanks to cooling temperatures and a near-total lack of rain, but far more interesting is the process of planning for the next round of events.

I have spent much of the past week trying to wrap up the event schedule for Alumafiesta.  After many hours of research and coordination, I am extremely glad to say that a Preliminary Event Program is ready for public release!  We posted it on the Alumafiesta website today.

The program is looking very ambitious and I think it’s going to be another hit.  We’ve got seven seminars, four evening presentations, musical entertainment, sword swallowing, five Happy Hours, four yoga sessions, a bike ride, a big hike and two walks, glass-making, six meals, five off-site tours, a cooking demo, cooking contest, three Open Grills … AND we’re working on a few surprises that aren’t on the Preliminary program yet.

One of the requests we got last year after Alumafiesta was to make sure it didn’t repeat exactly in 2014.  I get that.  If I were attending from another state, I’d be disinclined to drive back to Tucson and do the exact same things all over again.  So we tossed out most of the excursions we did last year and substituted five new ones, plus we brought in two new entertainers, and added more seminars. We will do the same again in 2015, because there’s a lot of stuff to do in this area!

There are still a dozen details to nail down, but we are close enough to done that I can relax a bit and do the fun research.  You see, somebody has to actually go to all of the places that we will visit during Alumafiesta and check out the details. This includes the tedious details like verifying that the driving maps are good, and that each parking lot has enough space, as well as the fun stuff like testing the menu at the various restaurants.  I always leave this part for last because I regard it as my reward for weeks of desk work.  I get to abandon my desk, get out for a few hours, and make sure that everything we’ve planned for the event meets a high standard.

For example, yesterday Emma and I loaded our bikes up on the roof of the trusty old Mercedes 300D to test a bike ride I’ll be leading during Alumafiesta.  The ride is only 16 level miles round-trip, entirely on paved trail, so it wasn’t terribly challenging and it was very fun to do with my teenager.  (It seems like this will be one of the last rides Emma does on her current bike—she’s managed to outgrow it yet again—so soon I’ll be shopping for a replacement.  Ah well, it’s worth it to be able to have days like that with her.)

Restaurant testing will be next.  I suspect I will have volunteers to help with that task, too.

I hope to see you in Tucson next February!

Reconnect with a weekend Airstream trip

It used to be said that there are two types of Airstreamers: campers, and travelers. (These days there’s a third type: non-campers who own Airstreams as pool houses, guest houses, or showpieces, but that’s another story.)

Campers tend to go shorter distances, focus on the weekend or vacation getaway, have campfires, hold social events at their Airstream, and decorate their site. They load up with the awning lights, elaborate ingredients for cookouts, lots of chairs for friends to use, musical instruments, fire wood, etc. and mostly just plan for a few days out.

That is always fun, but it has rarely fit our lifestyle, so we tend to the traveling mode. That means we use the Airstream as a rolling hotel, and we’re out for long periods of time. We carry tools for on the road repairs, rather than pink flamingos. We pack for weeks or months. When we arrive, we’re not likely to break out the s’mores and lawn chairs, because we’ve got things we need to do at our destination. It’s still fun to go to a great place and explore, so our basic enjoyment of the freedom afforded by the Airstream is the same, it’s just some of the practicalities are different.

So it’s a big deal when we do finally switch gears and use the Airstream as a weekend getaway. I think it happens about twice a year on average. This weekend was one of those times. On the last few days of our trip back west this September, we thought about the prospect of being in the house all winter and (as always) started talking about places we could go instead of staying home. Before we even pulled in to our driveway we had a weekend trip sketched out, and then Eleanor discovered that Alton Brown’s show was coming to Mesa AZ and so we planned a second weekend trip around that, too.

Coming up to the Phoenix area is a ridiculously short trip by our “traveler” standard (just 120 miles) but that’s part of what makes it interesting to me. We packed hardly anything (again, by our standards) and—horror of horrors—we made reservations. It felt strangely inflexible to me, but I knew that for the weekend to be successful I had to embrace the practicalities of “camping.”

I would like to say we went all the way and had a campfire and sat out under the stars here at Lost Dutchman State Park (Apache Jct, AZ), cooked on the outdoor grill and made s’mores, but the plan was to take advantage of the urban distractions of the Phoenix metroplex. So instead we spent our evenings at the Japanese Friendship Garden taking in the fabulous Otsukimi Moonviewing Festival, and in the Mesa Arts Center watching Alton Brown’s hilarious food show.

Superstition Mtns AirstreamWhile it’s boring to have a weekend with nothing to do at home, it’s very nice to have the same in the Airstream in a beautiful scenic desert park. In the mornings around 8 a.m. the sun crests the Superstition Mountains to our east and illuminates the Airstream, reminding anyone who is still in bed that another beautiful day awaits. In the afternoons it’s a little warm and the drone of the fans inspires napping, so I’ve taken full advantage.

I brought a couple of 1960s era paperback science fiction novels and picked up a copy of Tom Brokaw’s “The Greatest Generation” at the Mesa Swap Meet, so I’ve got plenty to read whether I want escapism or reality. Nice hiking trails surround us, and on other trips we might feel obliged to go hike them all, but on this trip we are content to look around and make notes for some future visit. There should be no obligations when you are weekending.

I’m glad we took this weekend to explore the “other mode” of Airstreaming. We’ll do it again this winter, on our annual visit to Anza-Borrego. On that one I plan to bring the Weber grill and the Dutch Oven, and a chair or two so we can really get into the camping mode. It gets cold at night in the desert in January, but having to don a warm hat and cook in the darkness at 5 p.m. by headlamp enhances the camping sensation. Going to camping mode reminds us of why we got into this lifestyle in the first place, and it keeps us balanced, so that the Airstream is not just an expedient for travel but a way to reconnect with the outdoors, our family, and ourselves.