Repairs in Jackson Center and beyond

In the last blog I talked about the wheel bearing replacement we did while in Jackson Center, and it occurred to me that you might wonder why I don’t just take the trailer into the Airstream Service Center for this sort of routine stuff.

The reason is simple: no time.  We arrive for Alumapalooza set-up usually on the Friday or Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. The Service Center is booked up solid for at least a week or two before the event, and a week or two after Alumapalooza is over.  Everyone always thinks that Airstream will do me special favors like building me custom trailers and opening the Service Center on a weekend, while the reality is that I have to book appointments just like everyone else.

Besides, going into the shop for work anytime before, during, or after Alumapalooza is a non-starter for us.  We’re already too busy at that time, and losing the trailer for a day while working an event would really screw us up. So although we have utilized the Service Center many times in the past, it never works out at this particular time, and that’s why Super Terry (an experienced Airstream mechanic) pitches in.

We have had an odd little problem for the past couple of years, which had gradually gotten worse.  When using the water pump, the LED lights flickered—to the point of strobing in a very disconcerting way.  We’ve also been getting massive interference on the TV when the pump runs.

I have bounced this problem off numerous people in the past, and their suggestions have always been around the idea that the pump is drawing down the voltage, and that therefore the solution is some sort of capacitor or filter to smooth out the voltage drops and spikes.  Another popular theory is that the battery is weak, but we eliminated that as a possibility when we replaced the battery in January of this year.

I’ve resisted the voltage theory even though it is appealing. No question that LED lights are very sensitive to low voltage, but at worst they should be dimming a little, not strobing on and off rapidly.  Also, we didn’t need a capacitor when we first got the LED bulbs in July 2012, so clearly something has changed.  And I needed to find out what it was before we all went nuts from living in a disco.

While in Fort Collins CO at the Denver Unit’s “May-tenance Rally” I had a chance to ask Von Campbell, an electrical engineer, and he immediately suggested that the brushes in the water pump’s motor were wearing out.  This would cause electrical arcing, he explained, and that would definitely cause noise in the 12 volt DC power lines.  This struck me as the winning answer, so I asked Super Terry to bring a new water pump to Ohio and install it for me.

Bingo!  Problem solved.  Now the lights dim slightly when the pump is running, but they do not flicker or strobe.  The interference on the TV is also now barely noticeable.

I guess when all the parts are 12 years old and have been used for … what? maybe 2,000 nights? … we’ve got to expect to replace a few things.  As with the wheel bearings, I can’t really complain.

Another issue we had was with the MaxxFan in the front bedroom.  It often whines or makes an annoying resonance at certain speeds now.  It used to be very quiet.  Since we sometimes run this fan on hot nights, it’s important that it be quiet. I noticed that the fan seemed to be slightly out of balance, and attributed the problem to that, but replacing the fan blades didn’t help (it still wobbles).  Now I’m thinking the problem is the motor itself.

Super Terry brought me a broken MaxxFan, for parts.  I stripped it down one afternoon, keeping the motor, circuit board, and a few other small parts.  Later I plan to swap out the motor and see if that resolves the issue.  It’s a lot easier to swap a motor than to replace the entire fan assembly (and hey, the motor was free).

You may recall that while traveling through Colorado we had some trouble with the refrigerator, and my theory was contamination in the propane lines.  I asked Super Terry to bring his air compressor along and we used that to blow out the lines running from the refrigerator to the propane regulator up front. No surprise–we collected about a teaspoon of dark brown oil on some paper towel in just a minute or two.

This verified my theory that we had gotten some contaminated propane.  This is a known problem, although I’m not sure how commonplace it is.  According to the Propane Education & Research Council:

Oil Residues and Heavy Hydrocarbons … This type of potential contamination can vary from very light oil to a very viscous tar-like substance. Sometimes it is a waxy material like paraffin, or it may be similar in consistency to axle grease. Sometimes it is transparent (no apparent color) while at other times it is light brown, dark brown, or even black. It usually has a strong odorant smell, as the ethyl mercaptan used as an odorant in propane appears to concentrate in the oily residues.

Source: The oils in propane can come from many sources; from processing, pipelines, pumps or compressors, piping systems, and flexible hoses.

The refrigerator had been running on gas without problems for a few days, so it was interesting to note how much oil was still left in the lines.  I suspected we hadn’t seen the last of this problem, and sure enough it cropped up again about two weeks later in Plattsburgh when we finished one tank and switched to the suspicious one.  The fridge gave me grief for a few hours but has been fine since.  I may blow out the lines one more time at the end of this summer, when that tank is nearly empty.

There was one more repair item along the way. While driving through Pennsylvania the GL’s “CHECK ENGINE” light came on.  I didn’t even have to pull out my new engine diagnostic tool (code checker) to guess that it was once again a stupid emissions problem.  The car is great but the complicated Bluetec diesel emissions system has been the cause of most of our service stops, and usually it’s not a real emissions problem but a sensor or software update needed.

We made a stop at Mercedes Benz of Lancaster (PA), where it just happens we know the general manager Chris through Airstream circles and he made sure the dealership took excellent care of us.  The problem was a NOX (nitrogen oxide) sensor, which is an expensive part but fortunately replaced fairly quickly. Chris arranged for us to be able to drop the Airstream in their parking lot and offered use of his house nearby for overnight parking. Sweet.

Airstream courtesy parking PA

Clearly it was not a bad place to spend the night.  Too bad it was too chilly to try the pool!

Our next major stop was Plattsburgh NY, at Colin Hyde Trailer Restorations for a long-anticipated major repair and upgrades to the Airstream.  That’s quite a story, so I’ll save it for the next blog entry in a day or two—along with extensive photos.


  1. Terry says

    Rich, don’t forget we also adjusted the LP pressure regulator, as that was also off a bit, and could have contributed to the fridge issues.