Fridge and charger upgrades

I don’t have to look at the calendar to know that time is running out to get my annual Airstream repairs and upgrades done. I lost a lot of time this winter with other projects, plus Alumafiesta and Alumaflamingo, and now I can feel the looming deadline of mid-May. That’s when we have to hit the road to go to Alumapalooza, and begin our summer of travel, and so that’s when the Airstream must be in top shape.

Some of the projects just aren’t going to get done this year, but one that could not be passed by is the replacement refrigerator cooling unit. It arrived on time (from the second vendor I chose, one that performed reliably) but then I was too busy to get to installing it until just last weekend.

Replacing the cooling unit isn’t too bad of a job for two people, but doing it solo it would be a giant pain. First, you’ve got to get the entire thing out of the Airstream, and my fridge weighs about 120 pounds, plus it had to be lifted over the countertops. I called on my friend Patrick to come over and help out with the job, which he was kind enough to do. Fortunately, he’s also quite strong, so while it wasn’t a picnic to hoist the refrigerator, it wasn’t too awful either.

I set up a nice little work space in the carport behind the Caravel to do the actual surgery. The “operating table” is a painter’s tarp, so we could lay the patient face down and not scuff the doors. (That’s the new cooling unit in the box.)

New cooling unit and work spaceAlthough the new cooling unit came with directions that did point out a few handy tips, I wouldn’t say it was a slam-dunk sort of job. There are lots of small differences between models, and the directions could only give general advice. A few parts ended up being unneeded on the new unit, such as the Dometic “recall box,” and we had to slightly modify the mount for the burner assembly, and drill a hole for the thermistor wire … and drill a few other holes as well. You definitely need to have a good toolkit to do this one. Moral support from a friend helps, too.

We ended up getting it done in about six hours. I would expect that if I had to do the job again it would take about half as long, now that I know how it goes. Overall, I’m glad to have tried this. The repair shop was going to charge $1,500 for this job, whereas my cost was about $600 plus six hours of labor. So I basically paid myself $150/hour to do it. (Patrick got paid with some of Eleanor’s fresh cannolis.)

In the photo below, you can see the old cooling unit, complete with the yellow stains of refrigerant that leaked out when it died. That residue sticks to the metal and corrodes it. We chucked most of the contaminated metal and cleaned the burner tube.

Refrigerator ready to gut

Re-installing the refrigerator includes four screws on the front, two large screws on the back, an AC plug, two 12v wires, and a gas line. Not too bad after you’ve pried the guts off the fridge and replaced them.

We were careful, so I was pretty confident the refrigerator would work when we finally re-installed it, but still it was nice to stick my hand in the freezer door a couple of hours later and find it already cold.

Alas, it was around that time (long after Patrick had gone home) that I discovered my mistake. During re-assembly we had noticed that the condensate drain was too old to use. It kept breaking apart, so we finally removed it and made a note to get a replacement drain later. This seemed like a fine plan until later that evening when I realized that it is impossible to install a new drain tube while the refrigerator is installed—at least on my particular trailer.

So sometime next week, Eleanor and I will disconnect (four screws, two large screws, AC plug, 12v wires, gas line again) and pull the refrigerator out partially so she can skinny her way into the fridge compartment from the outside and try to attach the new condensate tube. I hope she can do it, otherwise we’ll have to remove the refrigerator entirely.

Xantrex remote panel installed

While the refrigerator was out, I took the opportunity to run a final line for the Xantrex TrueCharge 2 that I had installed the week before. The TrueCharge 2 was my answer to some battery charging issues I’ve encountered, which I’ve discussed in prior blog entries. The Xantrex TrueCharge has an AGM mode, ideal for the giant Lifeline 4D battery we are using. Since it came with a remote panel, I decided to install that on the wall by the refrigerator, since having the fridge out made it easy. The remote panel doesn’t really do anything that I need, or provide much information that I can’t get from the Trimetric right next to it, but it looks cool.

I’ve written a full review on the TrueCharge 2 which will appear in an upcoming issue of Outside Interests. If you are wondering about that, go to the Outside Interests site and subscribe (free). We’ll send you an email when the next issue comes out.  But if you want the bottom line, I like the TrueCharge 2 a lot and would definitely recommend it.

Xantrex ready to install

The TrueCharge 2, by the way, fits with room to spare in the space of the factory charger. I did a little surgery to remove the heavy metal tray of the old charger, and then just slipped the Xantrex unit in and screwed it down to the floor.

It’s a great unit but I’m not sure if it’s in time to save the battery. The battery doesn’t seem to want to take a full charge anymore, and if it doesn’t start acting normally after a few charge/discharge cycles this summer, I’ll be shopping for a new one. We’ve gotten five years out of it, which is less than I would expect from an AGM even in fairly heavy use, so it’s a little disappointing.. I suspect the chargers we had installed before the Xantrex had something to do with the short life—they weren’t giving the battery a full charge sometimes.

Oh, one other thing: I ordered a set of aluminum Worthington propane tanks, and they finally arrived after months of backorder. They have replaced the original steel tanks that were starting to get rusty.  I like the aluminum tanks even though they cost a lot more, for their lighter weight, and their long lifespan. The propane tank hold-down required some slight modification to accommodate the tanks, but otherwise it was a simple upgrade. The old tanks got sold on Craigslist for $30 each.

With the mandatory repairs out of the way, I can concentrate on the little things and the “nice to have” stuff over the next four weeks. I’d get into some bigger projects, that’s all the time I’ve got to get the Airstream ready for the road. Come mid-May, we are outta here and the Airstream won’t come back home until September, maybe October.  We’ve got some big travel plans this year. You’re invited along, of course.