Fixing a teenage Airstream

A friend called the other day and lamented the age of his Airstream, just ten years old.  At that point you’re well out of the honeymoon phase, and maintenance becomes essential.  It can seem like you’re constantly fixing up things, in between trips.

That’s happening to us as well.  It’s unavoidable, whether you’ve got a house, boat, car, RV, or marriage.  Maintenance is part of the deal.  My daughter is just 13 years old and she’s already had braces, eyeglasses, and a broken foot. So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that my Airstream needs a little TLC after eight years (Oct 2005-Oct 2013).

I think this is a good problem to have.  You don’t hear a lot about owners of other RV brands fixing up their ten, twenty, thirty, forty, or even fifty year old trailers because they are usually long gone by then.  I like the fact that at eight years, our Airstream is still just a teenager.

That’s in “Airstream years”, which are like dog years.  I figure every year of an Airstream’s life is like two years of human life, making our Airstream the equivalent of 16 human years old.  Most of the elderly Airstreams date from the 1950s, making them 53-63 years old, or 106-126 in “Airstream years,” but almost all of them have been refurbished back to new status by now, which kind of resets the clock.

The oldest un-refurbished Airstream I know is Fred Coldwell’s “Ruby,” a 1948 Wee Wind, and she’s a grand old lady at 65 (or 130 in Airstream years).  You don’t find them like that very often.  Ruby lives in covered storage and only comes out on special occasions.

This week I towed the Safari over to my friend Rob’s house to do some work on it.  My carport is great but I can only access three sides of the Airstream when it is parked, whereas Rob’s driveway has tons of space. I recruited Mike (who previously helped on the flooring replacement and A-frame re-paint last spring) to help with this morning’s two projects.

The first job was the silver rub rail that goes around the lower edge of the exterior.  This is a flexible stick-on trim that fits into an aluminum channel.  After a while the silver goes chalky and then the adhesive lets go.  A piece on the front right stoneguard came loose in Tucson before we launched this spring, and the same piece on the opposite side peeled off on the highway in Ohio last June.  So when we stopped at Airstream in September I bought enough replacement silver trim to do the entire trailer.

While I was there, I had a chat with Kevin, one of the techs in the Airstream Service Center, and he tipped me off on the correct procedure to replace this trim.  First, we swung out the stainless stoneguards at the front of the trailer.  There are three 7/16″ nuts to remove on each stoneguard, and then they swing out on hinges.  (Video of how this works.) This gives you access to the rub rail that goes behind the stoneguards.

Next we peeled off the old trim.  It was old enough that it peeled off easily, and didn’t leave much residue.  Then we cleaned up all the dirt in the aluminum channel with soap and water and a sponge, followed by a little scraping of leftover adhesive.  The final cleaning is done with rubbing alcohol on a rag.

Airstream sells a little bottle of special adhesive primer for about $14 (JPC Primer 94 in a “dauber applicator.”) This stuff preps the aluminum surface for the 3M VHB adhesive that’s on the back of the new trim.  We applied the primer to the cleaned channel, let it dry for five minutes, and then stuck in the shiny new silver trim. The ends were cut with kitchen scissors.  Overall:  pretty easy job, and the results are great.  The new silver trim really reveals how badly the rest of the trailer needs a wash!

IMG_3129The other job of the day was a bit nastier, replacing yet another Hehr window operator. I’ve written about this job before, so I won’t detail it, except to say that the emergency escape window is even more annoying than the others.  It takes a different gearbox (a “center” operator, part #119-331) and replacing it is just a giant pain.  I needed a special horizontal bit driver and an extra long Phillips bit to get several of the screws out.  You might be able to do it with a regular Phillips screwdriver but I wouldn’t want to try.

Finally, I fixed the MaxxFan that spontaneously de-constructed itself a few weeks ago.  The fix was much easier than I expected, and it could all be done from the inside (avoiding a trip to the roof).  Two nuts hold down the motor and fan assembly. I just removed the screen, unbolted the fan blade, and re-attached the motor.  The fan is fine now but it has always wobbled a bit (the blade is somewhat out of balance) and after inspecting it I decided to order a new one. So that should be coming in the mail next week and will take only five minutes and a 1/2″ socket to replace.

All of this consumed about four hours of the day.  I figure a good Airstream tech would have taken about two hours to do this work, at a cost of about $200.  Doing it myself added to my store of confidence and taught me a few things, and gave me a chance to hang with Mike and Rob, so I figure the $200 savings was just a bonus.

And that’s what I told my friend who called earlier this week about his Airstream maintenance woes.  “Find some people who can guide you, and learn to do it yourself,” I told him. You’ll be surprised what you can accomplish with just a little motivation and a few tools. I don’t like having to go fix things, and I still grumble about it, but once I’ve done it I’m usually glad to have made the effort.  So I don’t fret about the higher maintenance needs of my teenage Airstream.  I hope I’ll still be fixing things myself on Airstreams for many years to come.

Cat scratch fever

OK, we’ve been off the road for a few weeks.  But is that any reason to be going to the cats?

I would say “going to the dogs” but we are admittedly cat people, and you know that Eleanor and Emma foster kittens from the local Humane Society in between trips.  It was not long after we landed in Tucson that the first batch arrived: six cute kittens needing two medications each in the morning, and three medications in the evening, plus a little of our patented kitty socialization school.

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Having a batch of kittens will turn anyone’s life upside down.  Kittens want to jump, claw, fight, eat, and sleep—all the time, and if they can figure it out, all at the same time.  Kittens have no respect for litter boxes, so twice-daily cleanups are just part of the routine.  They don’t know how to share, and if it suits them to tip over a bowl full of water in the middle of the night, well, you just have to get up and deal with it.

In short, kittens are born with the knowledge that humans exist to serve them.  But in this house they are also patients, so we don’t take much flack when it comes to medicine time.  Their claws get trimmed (by me usually), and then with their defenses lowered we deal with them assembly-line fashion: first a squirt of medicine in the mouth, then a dab of ointment in each eye, and finally the despised nose drops.

It’s not all grief for the little beasts, though.  We do our best to give them back to the shelter with a better opinion of human beings.  Lots of snuggling, playing, attention, belly-rubs, snacks, and general carting around seems to work well in convincing them that we are worth keeping in servitude forever. Some lucky person will get one of these kittens and find that it has been pre-programmed to encourage human bondage.  (We don’t feel guilty about it–these guys need homes.)

In anticipation of some of my Airstream projects, I moved the trailer over to Rob’s place to borrow his somewhat taller carport.  Working there gives me a little more room for jobs that require access to all sides of the trailer and the roof.  Not five minutes after I parked the trailer, his cat “Chester” jumped from the roof of the house to the roof of the Airstream.  “Mmmmm… ” I could hear him saying, “a new roof to sit on.  How nice of you to bring it over for me.”

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After a few minutes of exploration, Chester decided to depart the roof.  But jumping back to the house wasn’t appealing to him, so he decided to see if sliding down the front dome of the Airstream would be appropriate.  During the testing phase he stepped just a bit too far out,  and began to slide down the dome.  I watched, completely helpless to do anything, as Chester put out his claws and ever-so-slowly, excruciatingly, slid down the aluminum dome leaving a foot-long claw scratch in the clearcoat.

Anyone who owns an Airstream can feel my pain.

Fortunately for Chester, he’s a very friendly and fluffy cat.  I couldn’t bear to gut him on the spot, as was my initial instinct.  Also, Rob was there watching.  So I picked Chester up, rubbed his tummy, and told him if he ever did that again he’d become a small yellow bath mat.  Chester later redeemed himself by catching a pack rat beneath the trailer, and the scratch in the clearcoat was shallow enough to buff out. So Chester and I are friends again.

(But I’m going to get on those projects soon.  I don’t know how much I can trust Chester.)

Time to fix

We parked the Airstream back in the carport last Tuesday night, spent the night in it (because it was too late to start unpacking), and it has been go-go-go ever since. There’s just so much to do …

I think one of the problems with coming back to home base is that suddenly I have no excuse to avoid the projects waiting for me here.  I thought last winter season was busy, but already this one is looking like a record-breaker.

The Airstream Safari came back from its summer trip with many little things on the Squawk List, including:

  • belt line trim replacement needed
  • bathroom fan with broken handle
  • MaxxFan with loose motor/fan assembly
  • cabinet trim by refrigerator needing tweaks
  • loose attachment of the galley countertop
  • loose section above bathroom door
  • … and a few other things

As you can see, most of these items have to do with things working loose over time.  A rolling house tends to have such issues, and after six-figure mileage and eight years of heavy use I’m not surprised to have a few.  But these are generally not hard repairs.  Often it’s just a matter of a longer wood screw where an original one worked its way out, or a bit of glue or Loc-Tite.  I see a few hardware store trips in my future, along with a few hours of weekend puttering.

I plan to make a few of the jobs harder than they have to be, in the interest of preventing future problems.  For example, the loose galley countertop is just a matter of a few screws and brackets that could be fixed in a few minutes , but I want to remove the stove and thoroughly inspect the area under the counter to see if anything else is going on under there.  Instead of just re-attaching the loose under-counter brackets, I plan to install some of my homemade aluminum L-brackets (leftover from the cabinetry job of last spring) which are much lighter and offer more area to spread out the stress.  At the same time I will probably also install the countertop-mounted Nu-Tone Food Center that has been sitting in our storage room for a couple of years.

This is the way I’ve always done it.  I see repairing things on the Airstream as a series of opportunities to improve the Airstream.  Not only do I learn more about how it’s put together, the eventual result is far better in many ways than a factory-original model, since it’s customized to our needs.  This builds confidence (assuming everything I’ve touched isn’t going to rattle apart again).  Someday, when we tow over miles of washboard road at Chaco Culture National Monument, or take a long gravel road in Alaska, I’ll appreciate the extra effort.

That means the eight or ten repairs the Safari needs will likely take through October to complete.  And there’s still the Caravel, waiting patiently in the carport to have its plumbing finalized.  That project has been on hold since April, and it’s high time I got back to it.  So already I’ve got Airstream work to keep me busy for a while.

But who needs an Airstream project when you’ve got an old Mercedes to fix?  The 1984 300D has been sitting here waiting for its share of attention.  Everything was working on it when we headed out in May, so I think over the summer it started to feel neglected.  Not seriously neglected —it still started up promptly even after sitting a month—but just the car apparently felt the need for some TLC because three things failed on it:  a climate control actuator, the trip odometer, and the clock.  All of those problems are at least tangentially related to the heat.

You can’t have an old car like this if you can’t fix most of the things yourself.  It would have killed me in repairs already if I had to take it to the local Der Deutscher specialist for every little thing.  So I got on the phone to Pierre, and read the Internet forums, and figured out how to fix the climate control actuator and the clock this week.  That took a few hours, while the Airstreams both looked sullenly on (I swear, you can tell that they are jealous, it’s like having three young children all vying for your attention).  The odometer fix will have to be done later because I’m just about out of time for repairs at the moment.

This week has to be mostly dedicated to “real” work, by which I mean the stuff that pays the bills.  (Isn’t it ironic that the “real” work generates money and the “fun” work costs money?  If only it were the other way around.)  Right now the Winter magazine is in layout and I’m collecting articles for Spring 2014.  At the same time, the R&B Events team (which includes me) is busy trying to get tentative programs for Alumaflamingo (Sarasota FL) and Alumafiesta (Tucson AZ) put together, and that’s a big effort.

And we’re working on a new iPad Newsstand app for Airstream Life, which I hope to have released sometime in the first quarter of next year.  When it comes out, you’ll be able to get most of the back issues (at least back to 2008) on your iPad and read them or refer to them anytime.  That way you can carry all the knowledge around in your Airstream without also carrying fifty pounds of paper.  I’ve been testing demo versions and it’s very cool, so this is an exciting project.

Finally, I’ll be presenting a slideshow at Tucson Modernism Week next Saturday, October 5, at 2:00 pm, about my favorite over-the-top vintage trailer customizations.  It’s basically the best of the interiors we’ve featured in the magazine over the past several years.  The pictures are beautiful and inspirational.  I had forgotten about how incredible they are, until I went through the old magazines and re-read the articles.  My talk is free and open to the public, if you happen to be in the Tucson area right now.  If you aren’t, I might present the slideshow again at Alumafiesta in February.

Mogollon to McDowell Mountain

When the weather is hot in the low desert, it’s always hard to come down off the Mogollon Rim in northern Arizona.  This rim is the dividing line between the high elevation north and the gradually increasing heat of the south.  There’s a point just before AZ Rt 260 begins to descend where you can stop at the Mogollon Rim Visitor Center (a small log cabin) and stand on a deck at the edge of the rim to look over the broad view of green pines and valleys one last time.  We always stop there.

Mogollon Rim-1From this lofty overlook at 7,500 ft elevation, the air is nearly always cool and redolent with the scents of Ponderosa Pine and small blooming flowers. Just down the General Crook dirt road you will find a few nice places to have a picnic lunch while taking in the view (your Airstream can remain safely in the paved parking lot at the Visitor Center.)

Mogollon Rim-2Proceeding from this point is difficult because we know that the next time we step out of the car we are likely to be at least 3,000 to 4,000 feet lower, and thus back in the heat.

Indeed, in our case we continued on to one of the southern Arizona desert’s low spots, the Phoenix area, and got out of the car at 1,600 feet elevation in 93 degree temperatures.  The higher they camp, the harder they fall, I guess.

Well, as they say, it’s a dry heat, and that really does mean something.  If you aren’t in the direct sunshine 93 degrees can actually feel reasonable thanks to the low humidity.  The park we’ve chosen, McDowell Mountain Regional Park in Fountain Hills, AZ (near Scottsdale) has 30 amp power but we decided to just run fans because it wasn’t terribly hot as the sun began to set, and Eleanor was planning to bake a pie.

The pie is a response to our disappointment at Pie Town, a sort of consolation prize to fill that gap in the alimentary psyche.  Using the oven in the Airstream (which hardly anyone ever does) has a particular downfall:  the oven produces much more heat than the air conditioner can remove, so baking results in a net heat gain and it builds up inside the trailer very quickly.  The only way to deal with it is to crank all the fans up to their highest setting, open all the windows, and convince yourself that 93 degrees is a good thing.  Or at least convince yourself that raspberry pie is worth it.

McDowell Mtn Airstream 2Being late summer, the park is nearly deserted.  Nobody wants to camp in the dry low desert at this time of year, when you could be up in the sweet-smelling pine trees surrounded by greenery.  In a few months that situation will reverse, but for now we are left alone with a few other hardy (or foolhardy) campers in a vast desert park, visited only by lizards, birds, and the occasional Sheriff’s patrol.

Through the past few weeks I’ve been accumulating a “squawk list” on the Airstream’s white board.  I thought I would have nothing to fix after this trip since I did so much work last spring, but that was overly optimistic.  The squawk list is ten items long at this point, none of which are huge problems.

Usually I fix things as we travel, a habit of being full-timers, because that way things don’t snowball.  There was a little of that on this trip:  I replaced the propane tank lid in Airstream’s Terra Port, and while parked on grass at Stevyn & Troy’s home I replaced two belly pan rivets and re-sealed a gas line entrance in the belly pan with butyl tape that Troy gave me.  But I have to admit that I’ve just not been motivated to tackle the other items, with all the traveling we’ve been doing.  It’s hard to keep up with maintenance when you are moving every day or every second day.

Two of the list items require me to get on the roof.  The bathroom vent fan is starting to fail (clogged with dust after eight years of heavy use) and the handle broke last week.  I expected that one, but was surprised when the MaxxFan in the bedroom also suffered a failure.  I turned it on last week and it rattled, then spat out two acorn nuts and a washer.  The entire motor/fan assembly has come loose, and it has to be accessed from the top (I can see loose nuts resting atop the fan but I can’t reach them), so between the two fans I’ll be on the roof for a couple of hours.

We’ll be home in a few hours.  To prolong the trip just a tiny bit more, we plan to make a stop or two in the Phoenix.  And just so we don’t have to think that the Airstream will be parked until January, we’ve already planned a little 3-day weekend in October.  I’ll get my squawk list items addressed by then.  The Airstream is returning to base … but not for long

Which way to go?

Since we are in the last week of our trip, we are looking ahead every day to try to figure out how to make the most out of the time we have left.  Yesterday morning at the Datil Well BLM camp we realized we could just stay put another day rather than pressing on (as had been our intention) to Arizona.  As I mentioned, Datil Well is a nice spot, and it satisfied our general attraction to quiet and beautiful places that are off the beaten path.

The alternative was to continue to Fool Hollow Lake Recreation Area in Show Low, AZ, which we knew was a nice place along our general route but also very popular. That might mean a shut-out if the park was full, and we’d be abandoning a place we knew we liked. Also, if we stayed two days at Datil Well, we’d have to sprint from Show Low directly home, which would result in a long drive on our final day.  I hate arriving home after a long drive, because arriving means lots of tasks in order to re-settle into the house. (Sometimes we resolve this by staying in the Airstream another night in our own carport, so we can tackle the job of transferring to the house in the morning.)

We couldn’t decide without a look at the map.  In the Tour of America days these early-morning talks would mean I have to throw on some clothes and grab the atlas from the car.  These days we pull out the iPad and start browsing the map on the AllStays Camp & RV app.  This allows us to see all of our options for camping while we look at possible routes.  (I don’t have a picture of this; you’ll have to imagine Eleanor and I sitting up in bed sharing an iPad.)

NM-AZ routeFrom where we were (green dot on the map), options to get back to Tucson were few.  We could turn around and take NM-12 south to NM-180, eventually ending up in Arizona at Safford.  We’ve driven most of this route, and it’s scenic but slow, and there wasn’t anything along the way we wanted to visit. (The famous Catwalk is along this route, near Glenwood NM, but weather conditions have closed it too.)

That left only one way to go: continue west on NM Rt 60 toward Arizona, our original plan. This would inevitably bring us to Show Low (red dot on the map), since the only alternate route south toward Tucson is the famous “Devil’s Highway” (Rt 191, formerly Rt 666), and trailers over 25 feet aren’t allowed on that road.

Pie Town NMThe good news was that this route would bring us past Pie Town right around lunch time, and Pie Town basically exists because of the shops along Rt 60 that sell … well, you can guess.

The bad news was threatening weather.  Show Low and most of the towns along the Mogollon Rim in Arizona were expecting serious thunderstorms.  When the weather service reports strong thunderstorms, the boilerplate statement usually says something about the “possibility of large hail” and “gusts up to 60 MPH.”  I’m not particularly concerned about gusts to 60 MPH when we are parked, because I know the Airstream can handle that, but “hail” is a word that strikes fear into the heart of any aluminum trailer owner.

So you can see that with all of these factors to consider we needed some time in the morning to figure out what to do.  I can’t think of a better place to have such a conversation that in a warm bed while waiting for the water heater and coffee maker to finish their jobs.

We eventually decided to compromise: we’d stay at Datil Well until checkout time (1 p.m.) and then migrate over to Show Low for a single night, then head south to some place in the desert for our final night and a short drive home the last day.  Pie Town was a bit of a bust since it’s off-season and the famous “Pie-O-Neer” is only open Thurs-Sun this time of year, but we found a decent lunch a little further on in Quemado.

The only weather we encountered was along the final leg of Rt 60 and it amounted to a feeble shower left over from the thunderstorm line that had threatened Show Low earlier in the day.  By the time we landed in Show Low it was sunny and gorgeous again, and of course being Sunday we had no trouble finding a space at Fool Hollow, so it was generally smooth sailing all day.

Emma has pointed out that until we arrived at Fool Hollow, our trip seemed to have an insect theme.  We picked up lots of spiders in Vermont and Ohio, a few houseflies in Missouri and Kansas, ladybugs in Capulin, butterflies in Mountainair, grasshoppers at the VLA, gnats at Valley of Fires, and at Datil Well the campground was nearly covered over in fat black fuzzy caterpillars.  Along the way we have evicted a few bugs from the Airstream, but mostly the damage has been more to the insect population than to us.  The front of the Mercedes and the Airstream look like we’ve been driving through chum, so I was grateful for the little showers we encountered on the road.  Our last stop before going home will be the local truck wash.

Fool Hollow AZ E E Fool Hollow has turned out to live up to its reputation.  The lake is small but pretty, with canoe and kayak rentals available.  There are nice gravel walking trails around the lake, well-designed camp sites, and even an ice machine and book swap in our loop. The neighbors did of course fire up the mandatory state park “campsmoke” (can’t really call it a fire—I wish more people had Scouting training & could build real fires) which forced us to close up all the windows, but other than that we really enjoyed the place.

Despite the pleasantness of this place, it’s time to get serious about going home.  We could do it in one day if we left early this morning, but since we have a little time our plan today is only to get about 150 miles south and then arrive at base on Wednesday in the early afternoon.