Kitten season

While the Airstream sits dormant, we completely switch gears and concentrate on the elements of a traditional suburban life.  Well, at least a few of them.  Because we come and go frequently, we can’t participate in many of the common preoccupations that require a continuing presence. I haven’t joined a gym or auditioned for a dramatic production, nor have I enrolled in any classes at the university or joined the board of the local home owners association.

To tell the truth, I’m glad for that.  A good friend just confessed that (being a good natured person who wants to make the world a better place) he recently accepted committee or leadership roles in three different organizations and now has little time for himself.  One of those commitments is for a three year sentence, um, I mean “term”.  I don’t mind getting involved in things, but I’ve got a business to run too.

Also, it bothers some locals when they discover our odd nomadic ways.  A local club co-opted me to their board of directors a couple of years ago, and my frequent & long absences quickly became the topic of some discussion.  I don’t want to be a distraction, so I resigned after a year. Even our neighbors who have known us for years still occasionally wrestle with the fact that we might at any moment vanish for weeks or months.  It seems to be unsettling.

So there are only three local activities we maintain long-term:  orthodontia (just me now, as Emma got her braces off a month ago), karate class for our future black belt, and volunteering at the local Humane Society.

Eleanor and Emma volunteer because Emma has long wanted a pet.  We haven’t been able to find one that could keep up with our travels, and not die of heat stroke when we are boondocking in a national park somewhere that doesn’t have hookups and doesn’t allow pets on the trails. Dog, cat, rat, snake, various birds and reptiles—all have been evaluated and found wanting.  So in compensation for being such terrible parents, we came up with the idea of volunteering to foster kittens for the local Humane Society.

This is ideal, because we only have to commit to a pet for a few weeks at most, and then it goes back to be adopted.  It’s a great opportunity to teach Emma the rewards of volunteerism and also to experience the responsibility of taking care of a fellow creature.  We’ve fattened up and socialized kittens so that they are adoptable, we’ve visited quarantined cats so they don’t go crazy waiting to be let out of their cage, and most recently Eleanor and Emma took on four very young kittens that required bottle feeding.

four unnamed kittens bottle feeding, from Humane Society of Southern Arizona
The 11 p.m. feeding

You see, this is “kitten season” in Tucson.  It’s the time when litter after litter of kittens is  dropped off at the Humane Society, often without mothers.  When they are very young, they have to be fed by syringe or bottle every two hours, around the clock.  As you might guess, there is a very limited pool of people who are willing to do this, and so the staff is stretched to find foster homes for all those kittens.

Last Friday we got a call from a desperate staffer who had run down the list of volunteers and was on her penultimate phone number when she reached Eleanor.  By that evening we had four little mewlers in the house, each requiring feeding, burping, and assistance with bodily functions.  Those of you who had colicky babies can easily recall the sleep-deprivation that results.  It’s the same with kittens, except they cry quietly enough that Daddy can sleep through it.

Kitten bottle feeding, from Humane Society of Southern Arizona
Hey, this is good! What’s in this stuff?

The feeding process for all four kittens, including clean-up, took about 45 minutes, which means you have just 1 hour 15 minutes before the timer goes off and it’s time to get out of bed and do it all over again.  I helped with one or two of the feedings and realized that motherhood is not for me.  But I think I knew that already from the experience when Emma was a sleepless creature herself.

Roaring kitten
I am kitten, hear me roar!

I thought by the end of the weekend we’d thoroughly hate the little buggers, but I underestimated the cute factor.  This is nature’s way of preventing us from eating our children, I think.  When they really got a rhythm going on that bottle of milk, their little ears would start to flap in time with swallowing, making the grey kittens look like cute fuzzy Dumbos with tiger faces.  Then, with a big beard of milk on their faces, they’d collapse gratefully into a “milk coma,” lying atop their litter mates in the box.

Emma’s technique was praised by the local Society volunteer coordinator and I’m told a picture of her “perfect” bottle-feeding position will be part of the training program for future bottle-feeding volunteers.

We couldn’t keep the kittens as long as we’d like, because homeschooling and other critical daily functions were just not feasible around the kittens’ schedule, but at least we had them for three days and bought the staff a little time to find them a longer-term home.  I would like to think that Emma learned something about the realities of babies, too.

We have about a month before we need to saddle up again.  In those weeks, if we can snag a few kittens who aren’t bottle-feeding, we will.  It feels like having furry foster children is now a fundamental part of our “home base” experience, and we may as want get the full benefit of it while we have the opportunity.  Soon the Airstream will be rolling and when it does, this aspect of our life will go back on hold until next fall.

Mobile Internet, part II

OK.  I’m sitting here looking at my fingers as I type.  I see three small cuts (nicks from sharp aluminum edges), three broken nails, and one knuckle scuff.  I have been fighting the mobile Internet installation, and finally won.

When I started on the project Saturday I figured it was a two or three hour job:  pull out all the old gear, run a new antenna cable, mount the new antenna, and then install the new gear.  No big deal.  But every step of the way, I was tested.  This was an exercise in beating frustration, which is part of why it took two and a half days to complete.

Nothing would go right the first time.  Now, I can admit that some of the trouble was the result of my inexperience with some things, but I’m not a total noob, so there’s a piece I can attribute to some other force:  bad karma, juju, luck, biorhythyms, alien influence, whatever.  Nothing was as easy as it was supposed to be, and when I realized how things were going to be, I decided I would stick it out even if it took all week.

The big problem was the antenna.  The old antenna was something called an NMO Mount, which means that the installer made a 3/4″ hole in the Airstream’s roof that I would have to plug.  The new antenna requires a side mount (it was designed for buildings rather than RVs) and so I had a very limited range of places I could put it, unless I wanted to fabricate a custom aluminum bracket. I very nearly did, but then found that the bracket upon which the TV antenna rests made a perfect mount.

[NOTE added 5/14/2013:  I’m an idiot.  I should have just returned this antenna and done some more looking.  Since I went through this nightmare install, I discovered a replacement that would have just screwed right onto the existing NMO mount, avoiding the need to run a new antenna cable and seal up the old hole.  I recommend this antenna to anyone who wants the same 4G performance but with a much lower profile:  Laird Phantom.]

Airstream antennaThis location was ideal:  away from metal objects on the roof that might block the signal (such as the solar panel and air conditioner), low enough that the antenna will clear the carport entryway, and right where I can easily inspect it.  I had to run the coaxial antenna cable through the base mounts that hold up the front solar panel.  That was actually one of the easy problems, solved with the purchase of a 1/2″ drill bit and two rubber grommets.

Antenna closeup

The simplest path to the electronics cabinet was through the existing 3/4″hole in the roof.  I thought I was being clever to use the old antenna wire to pull through the new one, but the old line kept snagging.  So I used the old antenna wire to pull through a few feet of slick & smooth plastic vacuum line (left over from the Mercedes 300D renovation), and then used that to pull the new antenna line through–and discovered that the new one wouldn’t quite fit through an internal brace inside the Airstream’s ceiling.

I tried everything to get that wire through, wiggling it, greasing it, pushing it and pulling it, but it just wouldn’t go. I even drilled little holes behind the overhead cabinet to try to locate the problem.  By the time I had exhausted every possible approach, the entire overhead cabinet and doors were completely removed along with one of the ceiling mounted JVC speakers, the curtains, one power outlet, a 12 volt outlet, the coaxial cable outlet, part of the white vinyl wall covering, and (just for good measure) the obsolete DVD changer.  With the tools burying the dinette table and bits of fiberglass insulation, sawdust, and aluminum shavings everywhere, the Airstream looked like it was still on the assembly line.

Airstream wire chaseIn the end, there was nothing to do about it.  The new antenna cable was just too large to fit through that hidden constriction. After sleeping on it, and consideration of the idea of relocating the entire electronics cabinet, there was really only one practical solution left.  We drilled a fresh hole in the ceiling and ran the wire down the ceiling about four inches to a point where it could disappear again.  A plastic wire chase helps minimize the visual impact.

There were many more challenges, but I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice to say that nothing could be taken for granted.  Every splice was suspect, every hole was in the wrong place, every trick I tried was confounded, and in the end the job took about eight hours, not counting three stops at the hardware store.

Airstream Internet install completeBut finally, it works.  The picture shows the install. It’s a little cluttered looking in the photo.  In reality we have more useful space in the closet than we had before, because I neatened up a lot of the DC wiring and tied up the excess.  That little plastic bag at the bottom contains a 12vDC + wire that is leftover from two installations ago and is still hot.  I’m keeping it in case I need more power in this cabinet later.

I’m in the Airstream now, using the new wireless Internet system to write this blog.  The reception is fantastic even in the brick carport (router reports -53 dBm).  I can’t wait to try it out in a remote place during our next trip east.

Since I started this project, I noticed that Kyle and Kevin both went with similar equipment.  Since Kevin is an engineer/publisher who must get online daily when he’s traveling, and Kyle is a full-timer who does Internet consulting, I figure we are in good company.  The transition to 4G technology is raising a lot of questions for people, so I may do a seminar at Alumafandango (Oregon, Aug 6-10) on that subject.  (By the way, if you’re planning to come to Alumafandango, now’s the time to register.  Spaces are filling up quickly!)

Updating the Airstream’s wireless Internet

As soon as we got  back from our trip I started ordering things for the coming Airstream maintenance and upgrades.  So beginning on Friday, interesting boxes have been arriving at our doorstop.  Many more are due this coming week.

The first package contained a new cabin air filter for the GL320.  That dust storm really got into everything, and so I decided I’d change the cabin air filters and check the engine air filters.  They were all better than I expected but the cabin air filter was definitely due because it wasn’t changed at the last service.

Today’s package contained my new wireless Internet kit.  As I mentioned, our Cradlepoint CTR500 has been obsoleted by the manufacturer and isn’t reliable with the new 4G networks, and the roof antenna on the Airstream goes back to the 2G days (and isn’t compatible with the frequencies Verizon uses today for 4G LTE, which are in the 700 MHz band).  Plus, I got tired of not being able to get online in fringe areas, especially when everyone else seemed to be getting along fine.  Turns out they are all using “boosters,” and so I finally broke down and got one, along with everything else.

Airstream wireless InternetI spent about 20 minutes on the phone with Vanessa from the 3G Store to work through the technology needs and make sure everything I was going to order would be compatible.  I already had the core of the system, a Verizon wireless data card capable of using the new 4G LTE network (specifically, a Pantech UML-290). The bottom line for everything else was about $360, including:

  • Cradlepoint MBR-95 wireless router.  This is the device that takes the signal from the Pantech UML-290 and makes a private wireless hotspot that all our devices can use.
  • Wilson Sleek 4G-V signal booster cradle (thanks to Jay & Cherie for the tip).  This amplifies the signal from any device you put into the cradle, 3G or 4G. It’s really designed for car use but will work fine for our purposes.  The Pantech will get strapped into the cradle with a rubber band.
  • SureCall omnidirectional fiberglass antenna with ten feet of low-loss cable, and an adapter to connect to the Sleek.  This antenna is a bit of a monster, 9.5 inches tall and about 3.5 inches wide at the base.  It’s much larger than the antenna it is replacing (which was the size of a shot glass) but hopefully offers better performance too. The specs call for a 2-3 dB gain.

All of this stuff will get wired up in the cabinet that we have reserved for electronics and DVDs, near the TV set.  I’ve already got a 12v connector that fits the Cradlepoint, leftover from a previous installation, and a 12 volt socket which will take the cigarette lighter adapter for the Sleek, so we’re all set for power.

The antenna will be mounted to the side of an aluminum leg of one of the solar panels.  Clearance is a challenge:  I bought this 9.5″ antenna because the Wilson RV antenna that most people use is 18 inches tall and won’t clear the entryway of our carport.  This one will just barely make it.  It will be interesting to watch as it comes out of the carport the first time.  If I’ve miscalculated, we might lose a Spanish tile or two in the process.

Before going to all the trouble of running the new antenna wire and putting mounting screws in place, I hooked up the full kit in the house, and dropped the antenna out the window.  After the usual firmware upgrade and some configuration, the first test, using only the Pantech without the Sleek booster, yielded a good signal of -69 dBm, which is not surprising since we are in a city.  Then I put the Pantech card into the Sleek cradle, which boosted the signal and sent it out to the external antenna, and as I watched the signal improve to -43 dBm.  That’s a really good increase, and better than what Wilson promised for the Sleek booster with its standard antenna.

The actual installation will be in the next few days.  I’m looking locally for the appropriate polyurethane caulk (Sikaflex 221, Vulkem/TremPro 635, or similar) to seal up the antenna wire where it passes through the aluminum, and so far am striking out.  I can order an $8 tube of it with $10 shipping from many places, but that’s annoying so I’m trying to find an acceptable substitute in Tucson.  I suppose I can always go over to the local RV store and get something that will work, but in the past the “white box” caulks they tend to sell have been disappointing.  They just don’t last, and I’d rather not have to get up on the roof next year to do this job again.

The real test of this new gear will be this summer when the Airstream is in Vermont.  Reception at our parking spot has always been marginal, to the point that I have to borrow a friend’s office to get work done efficiently.  It would be nice to be able to work from the Airstream as I’m accustomed to doing. And when we are traveling, it looks like the addition of the big antenna and booster will help me get online in more places, and I’m all for that.


Airstream LED lights and European tow vehicles

Since we’re back at home base for a while, I’m going to be posting mostly about Airstream maintenance stuff.  Those of you who are looking for pretty pictures and stories about the family might want to avert your eyes for a while.

Several times a year I get inquiries from new Airstream owners who have European tow vehicles (mostly Mercedes, but also BMW, VW, Audi, Porsche, etc) and are having trouble getting straight information about hitching the two vehicles up properly.  I can’t cover the entire topic because it’s quite complicated but I’d like to cover at least one common problem.

The Europeans have been using clever computers in their cars, which measure the resistance of the trailer lights to determine if there is a trailer attached.  If there’s no trailer, the computer turns off the 7-way plug.  I don’t know why this matters, since American tow vehicles leave the plug constantly powered and it doesn’t seem to cause problems.  It may be a case of being just a little too clever, because this resistance-sensing scheme is baffled by trailers that have LED tail lights, as all new Airstreams do.

So imagine the happy new Airstream owner with a fancy BMW/Mercedes/whatever to pull it, and you’d think he’d be on Cloud Nine but when he goes to hitch up, the brake lights don’t come on and (on some vehicles, like Mercedes) the brake controller has no power.  The darned computer has turned off the power because it thinks there is no trailer.  All that money spent on a nice car and a nice trailer, and yet it’s stuck in the driveway with no lights.

LED lights on trailers are nothing new, so you’d think that the European vehicle manufacturers might have figured this one out by now.  Indeed Volkswagen has.  They sell a special patch cable that contains a resistor, which you can buy (if you search carefully on the Internet or have the part number at the dealer) for about $40.  This works, and it’s stupid.

It’s stupid because the resistance cable adds in a couple feet of length, so the cord is now too long and must be secured in some kludgy way.  Secure it incorrectly and one day you’ll find it dragging down the road.  And the patch cable is stupid because it adds another point of connection, and the connectors on 7-way cables are famous for corroding in the weather, so you’ve just lowered the reliability of your lights and brakes.

IMG_2078Andy Thomson at Can-Am RV helped me out with this one when we bought our Mercedes GL320 in 2009, and I’ve passed on the knowledge many times since then.  His solution is the best one, I think: just wire in some incandescent lights into the system.  (You could use resistors but light bulbs are easy to mount, and easy to find and replace on the road if needed.)  Andy uses the clearance lights that were found on older Airstreams, because they have two bulbs.  If one goes, there is some redundancy and you can swap a bulb from another light for a while.

The photo above is from our trailer.  We just mounted the clearance lights right on the floor in Eleanor’s closet, with all the other main 12-volt junctions.  This is normally covered with a box so you can’t see it.  Because the lights are kept out of the weather, they should last a long time.  We’ve been using this system for about four years.

LED Lighting FixThis solution is really easy for the DIY’er to install.  You just wire the lights into the relevant circuits.  The easiest place to do this is in the “rats nest” of wiring where the 7-way connector enters the trailer. This is usually in the front closet or under the front sofa, or behind an access panel in the front storage compartment, on the street side of the trailer.  (The diagram above is by Andy Thomson of Can-Am RV.)

Once you’ve made this simple modification, your Airstream lights and brakes should work with any tow vehicle.  If you ever have a problem on the road, check the 7-way connector for corrosion first, because the LED lights and this modification should be highly reliable.

Wind & dust

We’ve encountered a lot of windy days when towing the Airstream.  I even documented one of them on YouTube (see “Windy Day Towing in Nebraska“) to show how well an Airstream pulls through wind when it’s properly hitched up with a good tow vehicle.  Crosswinds have not been a problem for us, even when other vehicles are being pushed around and threatening to sway, so the major issue we have with wind is the poor fuel economy that results from plowing through it.

The warning we got on Sunday about high winds in the desert finally came true on Monday.  The tow down from Burro Creek on the Joshua Tree Forest Parkway (93 in AZ) to Phoenix was marked by blustery winds.  I watched as the fuel economy plummeted down to 11.5 MPG.  My general rule of thumb is that when it hits 10 MPG it’s time to quit driving for the day.  We’ve had that happen twice:  once in west Texas on I-10, and once in South Dakota on I-90.  Unless you absolutely have to be somewhere, there’s not much point in buying fuel to fight Mother Nature.  Better to take a night off and park somewhere.

This time it didn’t get that bad, but in Phoenix the side effect of heavy wind started to show in the skies.  Sustained winds lift dust from the valley floor and carry it long distances, covering everything and obscuring visibility.  Light dust looks sort of grayish, like haze, and we see that often, but on this day we discovered that heavy dust looks orange.  Eventually everything begins to appear as if you had accidentally detoured to Mars. (Photo by Mars Curiosity rover.)


It was obvious we weren’t going to be spending the day outside, so we bagged our plan to spend a night at Lost Dutchman State Park, and instead turned toward home, pausing to visit IKEA in Tempe.

Inside IKEA it was easy to forget that outside the winds were gusting to 45 MPH.  We picked up an LED light set (DIODER) for the Airstream, something which had been recommended to us by Kyle, and some aluminum hooks (BLECKA), and a few other things.  I’ll be installing the DIODER & BLECKA in the next few weeks.

But once outside again, we had to face the reality of the wind.  The next 100 miles of I-10 passes through a stretch of wide-open desert ready-made for dust problems, partially because of agricultural clearing.  It’s famous for sudden total loss of visibility, and so we decided we would bail out & spend the night parked somewhere if conditions started to deteriorate.

Fortunately few people on the highway were in a hurry.  The speed limit is 75 MPH, but we and the trucks were all comfortable at about 60.  Those who zoomed ahead despite the buffeting and dust blowing across the road definitely were taking a huge risk.  At least seven carloads of people lost the gamble: we passed two accidents on both sides of I-10 involving multiple cars and trucks.

Finally we got caught up in some terrifically bad dust, not coincidentally at the scene of the accidents, and that was enough for us.  Watch the YouTube video here.  You can hear dust and gravel pelting the car, in the video.  Once we got past the accident, we took the next exit at Picacho Peak.

We also needed more diesel to get home, but the fuel pumps were offline at the local stations because the power was out.  We added it up:  high winds, accidents on the Interstate, low fuel … and we didn’t need to get home on Monday.  When that many factors pile up on you, it’s time to listen.  So we parked the Airstream facing downwind, dropped the stabilizers and tongue jack, and settled in to wait it out.

Even with the stabilizers down, the trailer was rocking slightly in the heavier gusts, which were reaching 45-50 MPH.  We haven’t felt such wind in the Airstream, or had to wait out a windstorm like that, since we were at Cedar Island NC in 2008.  I had to go out in the truck stop parking lot and capture a rolling 55-gallon drum that was blowing our way. It was definitely an “exciting” wind.

Parked in Picacho to wait out dust storm on I-10But really it wasn’t a big deal for us.  The Dairy Queen next door was shut down for lack of power, but we were in a rolling emergency shelter.  We had a full tank of fresh water (as we always do when traveling), empty black & gray, a refrigerator full of food, lots of battery power, solar panels, Internet, phone, movies, etc.  What did we need?  We were entirely comfortable and could have stayed there for days if we needed to.  So there was not much stress involved, other than making sure the Airstream didn’t get hit by a rolling object in the parking lot.

Eleanor made up spaghetti with meatballs and I had a couple of hours to catch up on the blog.  I took a shower to get refreshed, and then after dinner the power came back on at the fuel station so we were able to tank up with diesel.

Then we considered our options.  #1:  Stay put.  #2:  Go across the Interstate to Picacho Peak State Park.  #3:  Go home (50 miles away).  It was dark but that’s when the winds tend to die down, and the Interstate seemed to be moving well, so I decided to give it another try.  It worked out.  By 8:30 we were backing the Airstream into its carport spot at home.

At that point neither of us wanted to go through the Airstream unloading procedure, even just to move our toothbrushes, so Eleanor suggested we just stay in the Airstream for the night.  That sounded perfect to me.  I plugged in the trailer, dropped the stabilizers, and settled in for one more comfortable night.  Thus, despite arriving home early, we didn’t end our trip early.