Life in the white box

This week I’m at Alumaflamingo in Florida, which is one of the events we occasionally run around the USA.  Everything’s going well here and all the attendees seem to be having a good time, but I’m in hell … White Box Hell.

That’s because I’m in a rented trailer, provided by the campground.  I had to fly to Florida because I didn’t have time to make the 4,000 mile roundtrip this winter, and there was literally no other place for me to stay during this week.  It’s the annual “Speedweeks” at Daytona and all the accommodations are taken.

On one hand this is a good opportunity to see what travel trailer life is like when you don’t have an Airstream.  I suppose I could say that this broadens my perspective and perhaps instills new appreciation for the difference in quality when you step up to an Airstream.  But it’s also a shock. This ain’t no Airstream 2 Go, it’s a relatively low-end white box even for an industry that’s not generally known for quality.

IMG_7079The maker of this trailer, Pilgrim, died in 2008 as an early victim of the recession, so there aren’t any units less than nine years old.  Nine years is nothing for an Airstream, but it is a long time for the average white box trailer.

This one is typical: the exterior corners have begun to split and separate, the thin plastic vents have cracked, the ceiling has large water stains from roof leaks, and the furniture is starting to pull apart at the staples.

That’s even more disturbing because this particular unit never travels. It’s an on-site rental only. It never will travel thanks to moisture rising from the damp Florida soil. The exposed lightweight steel frame beneath has rusted away.


I sometimes hear Airstreamers complaining about the mattress in their new trailer, but they wouldn’t if they tried the one I’ve been on for the past week. It’s a lumpy and thin thing that barely insulates from the hard plywood below. At night it’s always cold because there’s a huge uninsulated storage compartment directly beneath. I’d rather sleep on my Therm-A-Rest camping mattress.

The only thing I like about the trailer is the ducted air conditioning, which Airstream added across their line a couple of years ago. Airstream’s ducted air is whisper-quiet.  The Pilgrim’s air is somewhat noisy but still far better than the old style of air conditioner that sounds like a jet blast.

I’ve done what I can to make this trailer “home” for the week and—to count my blessings—it is a reasonably comfortable place to eat, sleep, and shower. I shouldn’t complain too much about it. My point is only that had I started RVing with a trailer like this, I would be astonished and envious looking at the new Airstreams available today.

And yes, I’d be thinking that the $20k or so I spent on my white box is a lot less than the $40-70k for an equivalent length Airstream … and then I’d think: how can I swing that payment? Because the Airstream is a better product in almost every way, and it will last a lifetime with good care.  The white box I’m in today is destined for a landfill in a few years.  When you look at it that way, you see how an Airstream is a really good value over the long run.

The last electrical upgrade?

Perhaps this is the ultimate and final power system upgrade  on our Airstream. I certainly hope so.

Over the years we’ve installed solar panels, bigger batteries, an amp-hour meter, an upgraded (Intellipower) power converter-charger (which we replaced with a Xantrex converter-charger), even bigger batteries, and finally a fancy Xantrex converter-charger-inverter.  It has been a great learning process and I really like how the capabilities of our Airstream have been enhanced, but … please … let this be the last electrical upgrade we do on this trailer.

We discovered an issue with the Xantrex converter-charger-inverter installation that I’ve already described in a prior post, and I’ve been preparing for the last month or so to deal with it. In short the device wasn’t wired optimally, and the result was that we could not plug the Airstream into any common household GFCI outlet without tripping it. That limited where we could “driveway camp” as we traveled last summer, so it has been a priority to get it corrected this winter.

Long ago when I installed the Intellipower charger, I removed the lower (converter/charger) section of the original Parallax 7155 power converter-charger and left the AC and DC distribution panels. We’ve continued using those original distribution panels, since there wasn’t any reason to mess with them—until now.

Airstream power distribution panel-3

Our goal here was to install a new AC distribution panel. That’s because it needed to be split into two: a Main panel for the air conditioner and refrigerator, and a Subpanel for the inverter-supplied circuits. Although that isn’t terribly complicated in theory, it triggered an avalanche of other tasks.

It started with the panel itself. The only product I could find to fit the bill was the Progressive Dynamics PD55B003 AC panel, and since it didn’t come with DC distribution built-in, I also had to order the companion PD6000 DC panel.

That meant we’d be ripping out every AC and DC connection in the panels and re-wiring them all.  And since the new panels are physically larger than the original, we needed to cut new holes in the fascia below the refrigerator.  And that meant the propane leak detector had to be relocated.  The avalanche had begun.

My buddy Nate and I spent a couple of hours analyzing what needed to be done.  In the process we realized that we’d have to run a new electric line to the refrigerator because Airstream originally had it sharing a circuit with all the other GFCI protected outlets in the bathroom and kitchen. (I wanted the fridge on a separate circuit so it can’t accidentally be run from the inverter, which would deplete our batteries very quickly.)

We also realized we’d need a completely new fascia built to mount the new AC & DC panels and the relocated propane leak detector. I could have made it myself but it was much easier to hire a local guy who made a beautiful and precisely-cut fascia from 3/8″ black walnut for $60. So Nate drew up a very precise drawing to show exactly what we’d need.

Power panel fascia diagramAirstream power distribution panel-2

Suddenly this little re-wiring project was looking a bit more daunting. We ended up with this shopping list: three new circuit breakers, an AC panel, a DC panel, assorted clamp connectors, 5 feet of Romex, GFCI outlet & box, black screws, plus the custom-made walnut fascia. The hardware was easy to get. The woodworking, on the other hand, caused a three week delay.

Over this past weekend we finally got started. Like many other “three hour” jobs, the various complications and surprises blew our estimate away.  Saturday’s work alone stretched into six hours as a result of minor complications and “might as well” items.

A few examples:

  • I found a section of floor covering that needed replacing while we had everything out;
  • We discovered small extrusions on the AC panel that required us to trim the opening in the wood fascia a little wider;
  • Nate spent some time cleaning up and labeling the mess of wiring under the refrigerator;
  • We had to remove the inverter to identify the input and output wire colors, since the previous tech didn’t label them and they were hidden from view.

There were several other small issues of the same variety, which inevitably result from “working behind” someone else who didn’t take time and care to do things as nicely as we’d like. This is why I prefer to do my own work (or with a good partner like Nate). If we ever have to get into this system again, we’ll find all the wires bundled, labeled, and secured.

Airstream power distribution panel-4

In the end, the job we that thought would take three hours stretched over three days, with a total of about 12 hours of time invested including runs to the hardware store. To be fair, the wiring part of the job did take less than three hours—it’s all the other “little things” that sucked up the rest of the time.

Airstream custom power panelAirstream power distribution panels done

I’m glad we did this.  Not only did we get the whole-house inverter finally set up the way I wanted it, but we fixed a bunch of small secondary problems and ended up making the interior look nicer too.  The new walnut fascia and the black plastic distribution panels are a big improvement over the way things looked before. We even managed to shave a few pounds off; those original distribution panels were framed in steel and they weighed a surprising amount.


One final important note

The final challenge was a GFCI circuit breaker that we re-used from the original installation.  It was fine right until we pressed the GFCI “TEST” button. Then it buzzed for a couple of seconds and fried itself. GFCIs have a definite lifespan, and this one was 12 years old and had not been tested recently. If we’d had an electrical fault in the trailer, this GFCI would not have protected us.

So learn from my bad example and go press the TEST button on each of your GFCI receptacles and circuit breakers today.  (The RV must be connected to shore power to do this test, so if yours is in storage, make a note to do the test before your first trip of the season.)

When you press the TEST button, the breaker or outlet should trip off instantly with an audible snap, cutting off the power. Then you can press the RESET button to restore power. If either the TEST or RESET buttons doesn’t work, you’re missing a crucial piece of electrical protection that could save your life someday.  Time to get a new GFCI.

Winter options for Airstreams (and their owners)

Even in Arizona it’s winter now, and our Airstream is mostly dormant. Although we boast of having a 365-day camping season, in practice we do relatively little camping in the winter because the Sonoran desert is chilly at night, and the nights are long. Sword swallowing in the desertWe have to plan our days carefully because around 5 pm the dark comes crashing down and the temperatures plummet. You want to be back at camp, all set up and cozy when dusk arrives.  There’s not much natural entertainment after dark except for the songs of the coyotes.

It can, however, be quite interesting to make your own fun on those long dark nights in the desert.

I’ll let you in on a “full timer” secret: The best camping this time of year isn’t in Arizona, it’s in California, particularly near the coast where the temperature swings are more moderate. Last January we took full advantage of that with a two week trip to Death Valley and the coast up to San Francisco. Even with frequent El Niño rains around the Bay Area it was a great time.

If you follow the blogs of various full-time RVers you have probably noticed that they tend to congregate over the winter in a few areas. Most full-timers hate freezing nights—the propane really disappears fast when overnight lows are below freezing—and so unless they have an obligation to be somewhere, Airstreamers head for a few reliably warm spots in the continental US.  Basically that’s southern Florida (below I-4), southern Texas, southern Arizona, southern California, the Pacific coast, and a few warm national park sites like Death Valley, Big Bend, and Padre Island.

This year we skipped our usual post-Christmas or early January trip to California, the first time we’ve done that in a decade or so. Instead, we will take a trip in mid-March.  March is an especially nice month to visit the low desert (anywhere from Texas to California) because it’s springtime and the desert plants will be blooming.

Picacho peak springtime

Desert flowers-1Last year the media and the parks were talking up something called the “Superbloom” and that might lead you to think that other desert springtimes are not worth the trip, but you’d be missing out. Every spring in the desert is wonderful.  The weather is nearly perfect: sunny, warm but rarely hot, and even if the blooms are below average you will still see lots of tiny flowers and green cacti if you just take some time to go for a short hike.

When it’s not out traveling our Airstream is fortunate to have a cozy carport to snooze in, protected from the slow degradation of weather and kept happy with a 30-amp power hookup. We keep it warm and mostly packed so that we can host occasional overnight guests or hitch up for an impromptu trip if some inspiration should overwhelm us.

If you have an Airstream that’s not in use over the winter, my first advice is always to keep it under cover if you can. I don’t mean a tarp, because:

  • tarps flap in the wind and can actually cause damage to the clearcoat from scuffing
  • a tarp will trap moisture rising up from ground and inhibit the Airstream from being able to dry out naturally, which can actually cause more moisture-related problems than it prevents!

Any sort of structure that keeps the rain, snow, and sunshine off your Airstream will help preserve it over the winter. If you use a storage facility, opt for a covered space—it’s worth the premium!  But try to avoid enclosed barns and tents that have earth floors, unless there’s a vapor barrier in the ground. Any corrosive material or damage to the clearcoat will be encouraged to become blooms of white spidery filiform corrosion during winter storage in a humid environment.

Ideally your Airstream should be stored below 60% relative humidity, although obviously that’s not always possible. Given a choice between a humid indoor environment, and a cold winter outdoors with some snow, I’d make sure the roof was leak-free and store it in the snow.  The dry winter air is far better than a damp and somewhat warmer environment.

(There’s a lot more to know about over-winter storage. Check out “The (Nearly) Complete Guide To Airstream Maintenance” pages 150-163.)

My other piece of advice is to consider taking a long trip to a warmer climate if you can. Lots of Airstreamers take their rig south during the winter, then store it in a covered spot for a return trip later in the season. Seems like a great idea to me: essentially your Airstream becomes a moveable vacation condo!

Whatever you do, stay warm and plan ahead. Even if you can’t get away over the winter a long lovely season for camping is not far away. While your Airstream dreams in its winter bed, you can dream of travel and camping yet to come.