Knowledge is power

New Airstream owners are full of questions, and one of the most common questions has to do with energy usage when they are not hooked up to shore power. They’re always worried about running out of power, a version of the “range anxiety” that owners of electric cars often have.

That’s a legitimate concern, because once the batteries run out of juice, everything in the trailer goes off: refrigerator (even when running on propane), heat, light, water pressure … even the hitch jack won’t go up or down anymore. If it happens to you, you won’t forget it. It’s a pretty traumatic experience to have the entire trailer—your home and security–go dead.

The problem is two-fold: First, new owners really have no idea of how much power they are using at any given time (the battery monitor is pretty inaccurate); Second, the batteries are typically sized with just enough capacity for an overnight or a weekend if you aren’t running the furnace a lot.

Airstream provides those batteries because most people don’t use the trailer away from shore power for longer than a night or two.  Yes, despite all the discussions about “boondocking” you may have seen online, and all the blogs written by hard-core off-the-grid travelers, the reality is that most travel trailers go straight to a campground and get plugged in. Problem solved.

But after a while, a minority of owners start to pine for something more in their travel experience, and that inevitably leads them to the need for more power, more efficiency, and a better understanding of what’s going on.

The quick answer for many is a generator … (insert sigh here)  I’m not a fan of them. They’re noisy (even the “quiet” ones), they put out smelly fumes, you have to carry a gas can or extra fuel for long trips, they require maintenance (although nobody ever does it), you’ve got to store them and lock them up, and they are expensive. They also do a crappy job of charging batteries.

Hey, before you generator owners get all up in arms, let me say that if that works for you because you need air conditioning or because you really like hauling gasoline around in your truck (whoops, sorry for the sarcasm), that’s all fine with me. To each their own. (But if you own a generator solely because of your CPAP machine, Google “12 volt CPAP” and see if you can find options there.)

Personally I like solar energy. It’s free and endless. You can set up a cheap 50 watt panel on a cord to the battery for as little as $150, and just toss it on the ground, or you can spend a few hundred and get a really nice setup … or even a few thousand for a really nice setup with all the bells and whistles. No matter what, you’ll have power anytime the sun shines and it’s scheduled to keep shining for the next five billion years.

But let’s say you are a real cheapskate and don’t want to spend a penny on solar panels or a generator. How can you get more boondocking time out of your batteries?

The short answer is to learn how to conserve. Cutting back on use of electrical power gets into the same skills that boondockers need for water and propane conservation. Take shorter showers (the water pump is a big energy consumer), do less dishwashing or learn to wash very efficiently, use fewer lights at night, set the furnace temperature lower and sleep with a dog, etc. Conservation takes a little effort and a little practice, but it pays off immediately.

That’s about all you can do without spending any money. Then it gets into some upgrades, which will cost you something but I think all of the suggestions below are well worth the investment.

The first thing I always recommend to people is to understand where their power goes. To do this you need a real battery monitor, by which I mean an amp-hour meter with digital readout like the Bogart Engineering TriMetric series, or the Xantrex Link series. If it doesn’t have a “shunt” to be wired next to the battery, it’s not an amp-hour meter; it’s probably a cheaper voltage meter that guesses at amp-hour usage. You already have that, so you don’t need another.

With a real monitor you can see what each light and appliance is consuming, and identify the big users so that you can avoid them or upgrade them. Right off the bat you’ll see that your RV furnace is a huge consumer of electrical power, so you might want to consider an extra blanket on the bed or even a catalytic heater (which uses no electricity).  Incandescent lights (on older Airstreams) are also big consumers, so if you don’t have LED you should seriously consider upgrading the most-used interior bulbs or entire fixtures.

The second piece of advice I give cheapskates friends is to simply add more battery capacity. There are several ways to do this, and the best solution depends on the layout of your Airstream. Usually people find a spot toward the front of the trailer (such as under a couch or in an external storage compartment) to install a bigger battery bank. At the same time it’s a chance to upgrade to Absorbed Glass Mat batteries, which last longer and are safer. Sticking with the electric car analogy, more battery power is like going from a Nissan Leaf (with an 80 mile range) to a Tesla Model S (230 mile range). Suddenly your “range anxiety” is greatly reduced and you can actually go places.

Both of the amp-hour monitor and larger battery options are less costly than a “quiet” generator or solar setup, with the advantage of always working regardless of sunshine or fuel supply. For most people, more battery capacity and better conservation are enough to get a few extra days of boondocking.

See? Knowledge is power, and in this case more power is a mostly matter of more knowledge. You’ve got options to explore. If you find yourself addicted to the off-the-grid lifestyle, you’ll want to start looking at solar and generator options … and if so, congratulations! It means you’re enjoying your Airstream and that’s a good thing.

Numbers games

I’ll let you in on a little secret: I am in the business of publishing stuff about Airstreams primarily because it allows us to travel frequently as a family. It’s a fun job and I meet a lot of interesting people, but the big benefit is lifestyle. With the Airstream we can go out for long trips and it’s not expensive. “Will work for cheap travel,” might have been my motto in the early days.

Every time we are forced to travel without the Airstream I am shocked at the cost and reminded why most families travel rarely. At the moment I have an uncomfortable sensation of impending poverty as a result of traveling without the Airstream. We are in Europe, and it’s lovely, broadening, and expensive.  The apartment we’ve rented in Milan is very nice, but there’s no denying that our cost per night is strikingly high compared to staying in the Airstream.

This year the Airstream will be out for roughly 20-22 weeks (not counting the time we are in Europe), at an average cost of about $25 per day including fuel & campgrounds. (It’s a low number because many days we are courtesy-parking in driveways for free.) We can be away from home for about five months on the same budget as a couple of weeks in Europe, even if you don’t count the airfare. In other words, our daily cost is about 10 or 11 times more expensive without the Airstream.

So yeah, I miss the Airstream. Someday I’m going to work out an European Airstream and travel in that.

If we were using an Airstream right now, we probably would have camped at Camping Ca’Savio (a 45 minute ferry ride away) when we wanted to visit Venice. Actually you can camp there right now in an Airstream if you want, because they have six of them set up as permanent rentals right by the beach. Eleanor and I rode a ferry from Venice and walked across the narrow peninsula (stopping for gelato along the way, as is mandatory in Italy) to check it out.

Camping Ca'Savio Airstreams

Even though we can’t roam as much as we would with the Airstream, it has been a good trip. I find it useful to take some time to reflect on everything from a distance. The past few years have been heavy with obligations and challenges, and now I think we have the chance to get back to the sort of life we have enjoyed in the past.

That means working less frantically, leaving more time our daily schedule for ourselves, and taking more time on trips. For example, it has been about five years since we attended a good old fashioned weekend rally that we weren’t hosting ourselves.  I miss the simplicity of just showing up and hanging out with friends and fellow ‘streamers without any obligations at all. I guess you could say that my goal for the next few years is to “see more, live more, do less.

This is part of the reason why there will be fewer Aluma-events next year and in 2017. It was a lot of work to run around the country to host five-day events in Oregon, Ohio, Florida, and Arizona (all the while doing advance work for new events in California and Ontario). So in 2016 Brett & I will be hosting Alumapalooza and Alumafandango only.  Alumapalooza will continue as an annual event because it’s the “homecoming” event at the factory.

Other events, such as Alumafandango and Alumaflamingo will show up perhaps every other year. Alumafiesta in Tucson is gone forever*. So if you want to go to an “Aluma-event”, don’t wait for “next year”—there may not be one.

 * The brilliant campground management decided they could make more money by refusing rallies during “peak season”, AKA the only time anyone wants to be there. They offered that we could hold Alumafiesta in May. Let’s have a show of hands: who wants to go to Tucson in May?

Cutting back the events has given me time to work on other projects, which is why I finally managed to complete my Airstream Maintenance book this summer. If you don’t have a copy, check it out. Initial reviews have been great on Amazon, Airforums, and blogs.)

And that brings me to a minor rant. This has nothing to do with Airstreams and probably few people other than me care about this issue, but I have to say publicly that Amazon has done a serious disservice to niche publishers with their Kindle royalty scheme. You see, Amazon says that if you publish your book on Kindle with a retail price between $2.99 and $9.99, they’ll give you a fair 70% of the revenue.  That makes sense. After all, the author/publisher does the heavy lifting in this equation and takes on most of the risk, including research, writing, editing, design, and marketing.

But if you set a price above $9.99, Amazon cuts the royalty to 35%. This is their way of discouraging “expensive” Kindle books (since when is $10 expensive for a book?) In other words, Kindle authors gets less money for books priced at $19.00 than for books priced at $9.99. Amazon snarfs up the rest, even though their work is the same regardless of the retail price.

This sucks for a niche publisher like me.  I can’t justify spending years writing lengthy niche books (219 pages in this case) which only a few thousand people will buy, and letting Amazon take 65% of the revenue. Basically, their Kindle pricing penalizes people who publish specialized information.

So I won’t sell my maintenance book on Kindle.  Sorry, Kindle owners. But the good news is that Apple is more reasonable, and so you will find Airstream Life’s (Nearly) Complete Guide To Airstream Maintenance” in the Apple iBookstore at $24.99.  You’ll even save a few bucks compared to the print edition, if you like e-books. I hope you’ll give it a look either way.

We’ll be back in the Airstream in October. In keeping with the “see more, live more, do less” philosophy, we have no particular agenda for the trip back west from Vermont to Arizona, but we will take some time to allow things to happen along the way. After all, taking extra days in the Airstream is easy and affordable.  That’s a place where the numbers always work.

Our tow vehicle repair budget, 2014-2015

People ask me all the time about our experience with the Mercedes GL320 as a tow vehicle.  I think half the people who ask truly want to know if they should consider it for themselves, and the other half are hoping I’ll admit that I really can’t tow my Airstream with anything less than a 3/4 ton truck.  I probably disappoint a lot of people, because I tell the first group the brutal truth about the cost of Mercedes parts and service, and I tell the other half that it has done just fine towing “that big Airstream” for over six years.

It’s time for an update.  The Mercedes now has 107,000 miles.  Probably 80% of those miles were traveled with our 30-foot Airstream Safari in tow, so we’ve certainly worked the Merc as much as we can.

When I bought this car back in 2009 I said it had better give me 250,000 miles of service or I’ve made a big mistake.  To date, I’m encouraged. It hasn’t been amazingly more or less reliable than our previous Nissan Armada, but overall it hasn’t been terrible. There were far too many instances of “Check Engine” lights a few years ago, but all the bugs seem to have been worked out and lately our visits to the dealer have been either routine maintenance or other repairs that are associated with high mileage or age.

The warranty is long gone now, as is the extended warranty.  I pay for all the repairs, so I’m watching the expenses carefully. Here’s what it has consumed (other than routine maintenance like tires and battery) since 2013:

June 2014: Blower motor (for climate control fan) wouldn’t shut off. It was corroded and had shorted out. Replaced at a cost of $539.  Mercedes parts ain’t cheap.

July 2014: The air conditioner had been intermittently failing for years.  It finally got bad enough to replace the compressor, at a cost of $1,289.  Ouch.

October 2014: I tried a shadetree mechanic to save a few bucks on replacing the rear shocks (worn out), right front lower control arm and engine mounts. He screwed it up by failing to tighten a nut on the wheel hub, resulting in a destroyed hub bearing assembly. He also couldn’t get the left engine mount in, so he handed me the part and said, “It’s OK, the right one usually wears out first anyway.” Later I discovered he’d left a wrench under the third row seats, which jammed them until one day the wrench rolled out.

The car ended up at the dealership to finish/correct the work.  Between the hack mechanic and the dealer, the total cost for this debacle was about $3,500 in parts and labor. That included a lot of parts, but still, double ouch. I kept the wrench.

February 2015: The front air struts finally began to leak. This is pretty typical around 100k miles on these cars, sooner if they are driven in the city a lot. Front struts were about $2,000 installed. The rears should be good for a while longer, since they get less stress. We also replaced the battery for the first time.

June 2015: I noticed some weird electrical symptoms following a big rain at Alumapalooza, and went hunting. Sure enough, there was a rain leak around the brake lights that was letting water drip on to one of the very expensive computers that run the car (called a “rear Signal Acquisition Module”). I dried it out and protected the area with a towel until we could get it to the dealership for leak testing and repair.  The tech found two leaks and fixed them at a cost of $247.  Fortunately, the rear SAM survived.

September 2015: During routine service the techs discovered the front propeller shaft (part of the all wheel drive system) had a torn boot and was leaking grease.  There was also an oil leak from the engine.  The oil leak was fixed by replacing two missing screws, but the propeller shaft had to be entirely replaced.  $1,300 for both jobs.

We also finally had to replace the front brakes. They were original brakes!  Normally on a GL most people get about 35,000-45,000 miles, so the Service Advisor did a double-take when he saw we had 107,000 miles on the car. It’s because of the towing, actually.  The Airstream’s excellent disc brakes do most of the work, saving the expensive Mercedes brakes. The dealer price for the front brakes was $551.

OK, so are you falling over with sticker shock or not? The reality of traveling as much as we do and maintaining this car to a high standard is that there’s a definite cost. We spent $5,328 on repairs in 2014, and $4,098 in 2015 (so far), not counting tires, oil changes, battery, etc. That’s over about 17,000 miles of travel, or about $0.55 per mile. It’s a high number but keep in mind we work this machine hard.

Also, the car is paid for, and we like it. Having no monthly payment compensates for a lot of repairs. Realistically, I couldn’t replace the GL320 with anything comparable or more reliable for what we spend on repairs currently*, so economically it makes sense to stick with it.

* For reference, our current repair budget is equivalent to the payment on a $22,000 vehicle financed at 4% for five years.

For me, the key factor is overall reliability. While the car has spent some time in the shop getting replacement parts, those have been planned services. It has never failed us on the road. That’s my personal Rubicon to cross; if the car fails to get us where we are going, I’ll take it out behind the barn and shoot it.  I don’t mind maintenance and replacing worn parts as long as it continues to perform as good as new, but becoming unpredictable and unreliable would put an end to our friendly relationship.

Interestingly, none of the repairs we have had in the first 100,000 miles can be attributed to the “stress of towing.”  A lot of armchair/Internet experts will claim that towing is terribly hard on a vehicle. Our experience has been the opposite. All the highway miles have only lengthened the time certain parts have lasted (front struts and front brakes in particular), and we have had no repairs that can be attributed to towing.

The engine and transmission have yet to show any significant problems at all despite pulling a trailer that typically weighs about 98% of the manufacturer’s suggested tow rating. I have gained a lot of confidence in Mercedes’ design for this V6 Turbodiesel engine. It will probably be the last thing to fail.

I do expect we’ll probably be buying rear air struts and front suspension components in 2016 just due to age and miles, so the budget for annual maintenance will likely stay around $4,000-5,000.  If it gets substantially higher, I’ll start thinking about options for replacement. But for now I’m still aiming to hit 250,000 miles.