Why I became a DIY mechanic

We’ve had our Mercedes GL320 for nearly eight years now, and it has accumulated about 130,000 miles to date. For the most part it has been a good choice for us but as it ages I am faced with a harsh decision.  That decision is whether to continue paying Mercedes repair shops exorbitant amounts of money to keep the GL320 on the road, or to start the ownership process over again with something new.

Anza Borrego GL 2014-01

I’m not really crazy about the idea of buying a new tow vehicle. The GL is in excellent shape overall (thanks to lots of new parts and meticulous maintenance), and let’s face it, tow vehicles are expensive.

But neither am I crazy about our tours of America becoming tours of Mercedes service centers.  This summer we were forced to visit dealership service centers in Pennsylvania, Washington, Oregon, and California, and that’s a reminder to me that the trusty steed is no longer a youngster.

For now I’m choosing a third option: Do-It-Yourself (DIY). It’s impractical for me to do large repairs on the road but while we are parked at home base over the winter I have the opportunity to do routine maintenance and certain repairs in the driveway. The Mercedes “Service B” interval costs about $500-700 when done at a dealership; last winter I did it myself for about $150.  In October I replaced the rear brakes for about $220 in parts and supplies, which was about 1/3 what the dealer would charge.

Not only is DIY a big savings but it is an interesting opportunity for personal growth. For most of my life I would have described myself as “not mechanically inclined.” That was my father’s special ability, not mine. But entering the world of Airstreaming gradually forced me to pay attention to how things worked, and ask questions, and acquire tools & skills.

It has been frustrating at times. There have been many times when I would never have persevered without the support and advice of friends like Nick, Colin, Brett, and Super Terry. When a vital part slipped from my fingers and disappeared, when I accidentally cross-threaded a bolt in the engine block, when I mis-wired something and blew up part of a circuit board, when the wheels literally came off the Airstream … all those times when it seemed there was absolutely no hope and I was about to drown in self-doubt or confusion, my friends have been there to help me get perspective.

One of the places where I buy parts, Mercedessource.com, provides a single Lemonhead candy in many of their parts kits. This is so you can “seek the wisdom of the Lemonhead” when things get difficult. In other words, step away from the problem for a while. In those moments of frustration when things seem bleakest it’s extraordinarily helpful to simply stop working and let your emotional chemicals subside. I usually go seek advice from friends or reliable documentation for a while. Eventually the path forward becomes clear—and the problem that seemed so utterly impossible before gets resolved.

Over the past ten years this learning process has been so empowering for me that it has literally changed my life. I’m still cautious about tackling new mechanical or electrical things (because the more you learn, the more you realize how much you don’t know) but the knowledge and confidence I have gained has led me to things like:

I look back on those accomplishments with amazement, because ten years ago I would never have seen myself doing any of those things. If you’re thinking the same about yourself, well, don’t sell yourself short.  You can learn anything.

And it feels great to have more self-sufficiency.  Most of us are constant victims of our modern “disposable” consumer products system.  The system says that more durable items (appliances, vehicles) must be serviced only by a qualified technician, and like our semi-broken healthcare system, you aren’t allowed to question the cost.

Well, that’s baloney. Sure, I can’t DIY every car repair. I don’t have all the tools or all of the abilities. The dealership service centers are still collecting their toll from me every year. But we can all push back on the system a little, empower ourselves, reduce inconvenience, and avoid being chumps if we bother to understand how things work and take some time to do what we can by ourselves.

I almost lost my resolve over the latest car issue.  The “Check Engine” light had popped on again, this time indicating a failure in the Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF) treatment system.  The dealer quoted $2,400 to fix this problem and (on top of several other expensive repairs earlier in the year) that was enough to make me seriously consider pitching the car in a river and signing up for a new car loan.

A technical aside here: DEF is a fluid that gets injected into the exhaust stream to combine with nitrogen oxides chemically to produce much cleaner exhaust.  The output turns into water vapor and free nitrogen. Mercedes calls DEF “Adblue” when they are feeling romantic (e.g., selling cars) and they call it “reductant” when they are feeling technical.  Whatever, it’s all the same thing: a mixture of dionized water and 32.5% urea.

The problem with this stuff is that it freezes when it gets below 12 degrees F, and it crystallizes if exposed to the open air. So to comply with Federal emissions requirements which say that the system must work under all conditions, Bosch designed a fancy system that keeps the DEF warm and sealed. Then they sold this system to a bunch of car manufacturers.

While I’m all for clean air, the DEF system has been a hassle. We’ve had nearly a dozen incidences of “Check Engine” lights attributable to this system over the past eight years, requiring numerous overnight stays at the dealership while the engineers back in Germany huddled together to figure out yet another software update or component upgrade. The frequency of these problems has not decreased with time.  In fact, this summer we had to stop in Pennsylvania to replace a failing NOx (nitrogen oxides) sensor for $600, so this the second emissions-related Check Engine light this year.

When the Mercedes service center said it would be $2,400 for a new DEF tank heater, I began to weaken. It seemed to be too complex a job for me to tackle. Perhaps it would be a good idea to start over with a new car warranty (and massive new car payment).  My doubt began to grow. Then I did a little research and was reminded:

  • trade-in or resale value of our existing car would be ridiculously low.  I wouldn’t sell it for the going rate of about $13,000—it’s still a nice car!
  • the new diesel I’d want is temporarily off the market thanks to fallout from the VW/Audi scandal.  All the manufacturers are being very cautious right now.
  • if I could get a few more years out of the GL, there might be interesting electric vehicle options.  The electric car industry is rocketing forward and it’s not unrealistic to expect major developments in the next 5 years. Then I’d be free of these nightmarish emission-control systems and “Check Engine” lights.

With that bit of Lemonhead perspective, I dug in to the expensive repair I’d been told was needed.  It turns out that the service center solution for a failing DEF tank heater is to replace the entire tank, pump, heater, and temperature sensor as a single unit. The heater is not offered as a single replacement part.

I can see why they do that. Removing the whole thing is a pretty easy job, taking about 60-90 minutes.  Drain the tank, remove eight bolts, disconnect a few wires and a hose, then pull the tank out and swap in a new one.  A dealership technician can do that quickly and not worry about the customer coming back for another problem in the same system, since everything has been replaced. And happy-happy-joy-joy, the dealer makes a pile of money charging $1,800 for the tank and about $600 for labor and supplies.

Adblue tank connections

On the other hand, replacing the heater alone is cheaper but requires some additional work for disassembly, a few more tools, soldering, etc.  That’s the kind of thing I can do myself if it saves a pile of money. I found a company that sells an upgraded version of the tank heater for $300, and with some help from Nick, installed it in a few hours. Eleanor helped me re-assemble the car afterward. Bottom line: The “Check Engine” light is off and all is well.

It’s funny how the elimination of that little fault indicator can suddenly make the car seem like new again. Having the satisfaction of fixing it myself (and saving a pile of cash) makes it even better. I took the GL out for a test drive and everything is humming along just as it should.  Now I’m perfectly happy with the GL—why was I ever considering selling it for a pittance and taking on a massive debt load?

Anza Borrego GL and Caravel 2014-01

In the next week or so I’m going to tackle a major Airstream electrical upgrade with my friend Nate. It’s the kind of thing that an electrician could do for $500 or so, but by doing it myself I know it will be done exactly the way I want—and once again I’ll probably learn a few things (from Nate) in the process.  You can read about it here soon.

10 little things you should have in your Airstream

We all carry lots of stuff in our Airstreams, and over time it seems to accumulate. People who want to take care of little repairs and maintenance themselves especially are prone to the problem of stuff accumulating, because there’s always another tool or spare part you might need someday, and could carry around “just in case”.

That’s why I’m always hesitant to recommend that Airstreamers carry specific things.  What you “need” in your Airstream depends mostly on your personal inclinations.  I know some people who go camping with concrete blocks and wood saws, for example, and I would personally never use up our weight and space allowance with those things. It’s a personal choice.

The two things I tend to emphasize that everyone should add to their Airstream are tools for changing a tire, and a First Aid kit, since neither is supplied by Airstream. After that, it’s up to you.

My favorite non-tool things to carry are those items that are (a) small and lightweight; (b) hard to find on the road; (c) can solve common and annoying problems quickly. I’ve got a whole tackle box full of various spare bits and bobs, most of which I never have used, so yesterday I went through the box in search of the items that are needed the most.

9 little thingsI came up with just ten things, most of which are pictured at left.

  1.  Silicone spray.  Not WD-40—that’s not lube!  Real silicone spray leaves a lasting film that provides excellent light, non-greasy lubrication on all kinds of things.  It’s perfect for squeaky hinges, sticky window and vent seals, locks, window latches, the coupler latch, and other “light duty” items.
    It’s not a replacement for grease, however, so don’t use it for lubricating your hitch or hitch ball. Use it to sweeten your life by stopping squeaks and things that stick.
  2. A spare water heater drain plug.  You can buy this for pennies at a hardware store. If you ever have to do an on-the-road winterization, or drain the water heater for a repair, you’ll be glad you have a spare plug handy. They are made of nylon and break easily.
  3. Soapy water solution in a spray bottle.  Perfect for chasing down propane leaks. If you smell gas near the regulator or propane “pigtails”, a few spritzes of this stuff and some careful observation will help you find the leak quickly.
  4. Teflon “plumber’s” tape.  Any type will do for fixing leaky threaded plumbing fittings (including those worn-out campground spigots that won’t stop dripping!) but if you get a type that is also rated for petroleum contact, it can be used to seal threaded gas fittings too.  So it solves two kinds of problems: gas leaks, and water leaks.  Indispensable.
  5. Automotive-type blade fuses.  Get a multi-pack of all the different amperage ratings (red, blue, yellow) that are found on your Airstream’s fuse panel. Why? Because fuses generally blow late at night when you are camped 20 miles from a hardware store.
  6. Clearance light bulbs.  If you have a trailer with incandescent clearance lights (not LED) you should carry a few spare bulbs. They are usually type 67, and they can be hard to find in stores.  Replacing a clearance light bulb is dead easy: one screw to remove the cover, and then just swap out the bulb with a simple twist, but you can only do it if you already have the bulb handy!  You might also consider some 1157 or 1141 bulbs if your Airstream uses those in the overhead lights or taillights.
  7. Vinyl disposable gloves or mechanic’s gloves.  Not absolutely necessary but if you’ve ever had to do a dirty repair by the side of the road you’ll appreciate these.  Also very useful when you have to deal with nasty sewer hoses, toxic chemicals, or car repairs.
  8. This one is for owners of Hensley hitches only. This spring-loaded grease fitting is only available from Hensley. If one wears out, you’ll know because the weight transfer bars will fall down to the ground when you unhitch.  Order a spare now because the only way to get one is to mail order it.
  9. A dumb ol’ cotter pin. Because I can’t hitch up without it. Imagine how frustrated you’d be when trying to hitch up to leave camp and the cotter pin is missing.
  10. (Not pictured)  Spare Airstream keys in a safe, accessible place. I hate hearing stories about people being locked out, and it happens all the time.

There’s actually one more little thing that I recommend: a spare propane pigtail or two. They don’t last forever. I seem to replace one every year or so, always during a trip, so I always carry two spares.

Of course, I haven’t listed tools here.  You should always have a few basic tools in your Airstream, like a Phillips-head screwdriver, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog entry.  Right now I’m just talking about parts and stuff.

I’m sure you can come up with lots of “little things” to carry.  The point is that having a few bits like these (and knowing how to use them) can easily mean the difference between a happy day and a day lost trying to fix a problem.  All of these things solve problems in seconds or minutes, whereas not having them can leave you with a major inconvenience.

Even if you add in all the other little things I carry, they can easily fit in a gallon-sized resealable bag and all together I doubt there’s more than $30 worth of stuff there. (Except the Hensley grease fitting, it’s moderately expensive.)  A few well-chosen items can be cheap insurance against common problems.

Winter hitch maintenance

I’ve put off my major Airstream and car projects since we got back to home base in October.  Now it’s time to get going.

Our trusty tow vehicle (and regular consumer of spare parts), the Mercedes GL320, has a problem involving the diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) tank heater that I’ve decided to fix myself.  The dealership will gladly do this job for $2,000 but I’m hoping Nick and I can tackle it for less than $400.  I’ll blog that later, once it’s done.

The DEF tank on our car is trapped by the central reinforcement of the receiver hitch, so to get it out for the repair I have to remove the entire hitch.  Since it was out, I figured this was a good opportunity to do a hitch inspection. I casually check it every year but haven’t really done a thorough inspection since April 2012.

By the way, you don’t have to remove your hitch to check it.  You can just get under the car with a flashlight like I described in an earlier post.  It’s just a little harder to see everything that way.

receiver-hitch-repaint_

Our hitch looked pretty good.  After washing off the hitch I saw the usual surface rust, particularly around welds where we’d added reinforcing gussets, which was expected.

receiver-hitch-repaint_-2

Nothing jumped out as suspicious, so this job was limited to washing the dust off, wire-brushing the rust (with a rotary brush in a cordless drill), roughing up the painted surfaces with the brush, and repainting.  It took less than 30 minutes to do it all.

receiver-hitch-repaint_-3

In the photo above you can see the welds after they’ve been wire-brushed.  Nice shiny metal, and best of all no cracks.  I found a small amount of stretching in the receiver box (fairly normal considering this hitch has towed for about 100,000 miles) and one factory weld with a slight gap that’s probably been there since it was made.  Nothing to worry about. This hitch is ready to go back on the car.

receiver-hitch-repaint_-4

And finally, with a quick touch-up coat of glossy black spray paint, it looks like new again … for the third or fourth time.

I know a lot of you are in the snow right now, so the idea of crawling under your tow vehicle to do a hitch inspection is probably not appealing.  I suggest you put it on your list for spring maintenance, right before you start going camping again.  A hitch inspection takes only a few minutes and can save you from a ton of hassle.

Xantrex inverter update

Last January we installed a “whole house” inverter by Xantrex, and it really changed the way we live when we are boondocking. The inverter, a very full-featured 2,000 watt “pure sine” model, is so powerful that it can run our microwave oven, or a toaster or other typical appliance. Most of the time we use it to watch movies on the big screen during dark lonely nights out in the southwester desert somewhere.

(I’ve been reminded by an eagle-eyed reader that this Xantrex Freedom HFS is actually a combination inverter/converter.  That means it also charges the batteries of the Airstream when we are plugged in.  But for the purposes of this discussion I’m going to just call it an “inverter” since that’s the function I’m talking about.)

There have been two problems with it, however.  Both of them are the result of how the inverter was installed, rather than the device itself.  The installer decided that rather than putting in an electrical subpanel (I’ll explain in a moment) he would wire the inverter directly to the main electrical bus. This saved him some work but it gave us a headache.

If that’s gibberish to you, let me make it simple.  His way of wiring meant that every AC appliance in the Airstream is connected to the inverter—including the air conditioner and refrigerator.  That’s not great because it means that when we are plugged in to power at a campground with the air conditioner running, and there’s a momentary power loss (or someone unplugs our trailer, which happened this summer), the inverter automatically will try to power everything by itself—which it can’t do.

So instead it goes into overload and shuts off AC power, with an alarm shrieking until someone comes along and resets it. Even if the air conditioner is off and the inverter doesn’t overload we’ll still have a problem because the inverter will provide AC power to the refrigerator.  That means instead of switching automatically to propane, the refrigerator will drain the trailer batteries instead, in just a matter of a few hours.

I realized this not long after the inverter was installed, and worked around the problem all summer by manually shutting down the inverter entirely whenever we were plugged into shore power.  But it was a nuisance, and sometimes I forgot, with predictable consequences.

The bigger problem became apparent in May when we tried to plug into a regular household 15-amp power outlet while “driveway camping” at someone’s house. The Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) in the household outlet tripped instantly. Most outdoor outlets have GFCI built in these days, and so we were unable to get power from the house.

It turns out that the fix for all these issues is to wire the inverter up properly, which I guess should be no surprise.  Xantrex has issued a technical bulletin to explain why our wiring scheme trips GFCIs, and how to do it correctly. It took me quite a while to find the Xantrex bulletin so I’m posting it here for anyone who also has a similar set of problems.

The solution is to install a second electrical breaker panel (called a “subpanel”) to which you wire all the AC-powered devices that the inverter should power. In our case this includes the wall outlets, microwave, and TV.  Things that the inverter should not power, like air conditioner, refrigerator, or electric water heater, stay wired into the main panel.  Then you connect the inverter AC input to the main panel on a separate circuit breaker and connect the inverter AC output to the subpanel.

With this arrangement, everything gets juice when the Airstream is connected to shore power, either from the main panel or the subpanel.  The transfer switch built into the inverter simply passes the AC power it receives through to the subpanel.  When the shore power is removed, the main panel has no power so the air con and fridge don’t run, but the inverter will turn on automatically and supply the subpanel using battery power.  For a bit more detail on this, click here.

Not only does this prevent the problem of the inverter accidentally powering things it shouldn’t, but this arrangement also fixes the electrical quirk that causes GFCI outlets to trip when you plug the trailer into them.

I haven’t gotten around to this project yet but I will later in January.  Once I have the parts in hand it should be a fairly easy fix, since there’s plenty of room in the compartment when I have to work (near the existing breaker panel) and there’s no need to run additional wires.  I’ll document it with photos at that time.  Meanwhile, if anyone else has already done this upgrade I’d be interested to hear from you.

Thinking forward to Airstreaming 2017

Each year around this time I usually find myself considering our prospects for travel in the coming year.  This is when we start to sketch out a rough plan, starting with a possible post-Christmas or early January break.

(I know for most people in North America a trip in January isn’t very practical, and you have my sympathies. When we lived in Vermont all I could do in January was measure the depth of snow covering our ’68 Caravel, and periodically peek inside to make sure all was well.  It says something about our family’s dedication to Airstreaming that we chose to relocate to a place where it stays reliably above freezing day and night most of the winter.)

tucson-neon-signBut this year the Airstream has been mostly left to sleep through the winter in the carport, under cover.  It has served as our guest bedroom and spare refrigerator instead of as a travel vehicle. While I still have a list of improvements and fixes I want to make before we head out again next May, for now we’re staying put and focusing on other things.

This is why I’ve been silent on the blog since we returned to home base back in early October. I came back from our summer of travel thinking that it was time to take stock and focus on personal projects for a while. The break has been good, an opportunity to look at the big broad world and consider my place in it for the next decade. To do that, I forced myself to step away from the “usual” and build time into each day to think about something completely different.

I don’t know what’s coming out of that yet, but it has been a meditative sort of exercise and thus well worth doing on its own virtues. As an entrepreneur I’m accustomed to the ground moving beneath my feet, so once in a while it’s good to stop the motion and just feel the earth beneath—metaphorically speaking.

Still, life goes on and periodically I have been forced to come out of my trance to engage with it. On January 17 at 1:00 pm I’ll be at the WBCCI International Board of Trustees (IBT) rally in Casa Grande AZ to speak about Airstream maintenance stuff.  This IBT rally is an obligatory one for officers of the club and so the program tends to be loaded with business meetings rather than the sort of stuff we do at Aluma-events.  I figured the attendees might like something a little different, so I’ll try to be that.

Brett & I are also working on Alumaflamingo, since that’s right around the corner in February (20-26, in Daytona FL. Brett is handling the heavy lifting on that one (I did the same for Fandango last September, so it’s his turn). I’ll be there for 5 days and probably doing a talk or two on something. If you are going to be there and have a request for a seminar or workshop, let me know.

The Alumapalooza schedule is also underway. That event, our “signature” one at the Airstream factory in Jackson Center OH, will be May 30 – June 3.  Once again much of the program is changing; we’re going for a heavy hands-on workshop format in 2017, so there will be at least two different workshops every day for you to try.  No experience needed, and I guarantee you’ll learn a lot. Of course, we’ll still have lots of entertainment and fun, too, so don’t feel like you’ll be forced to work and think while you’re on vacation!

People are already asking if we are going to hold another Alumafandango in California in 2017.  Sorry, not in 2017 but there will be some sort of west coast event in 2018.  We’re working on locations right now.

My zen state has also been periodically interrupted by Airstream’s relentless development of new products.  You already probably know about the upcoming Nest fiberglass trailer. It’s in development and is expected to be released as a 2018 model year product but official details haven’t yet been released regarding how it will differ from the Nest prototype that you can see on the Internet.  We’re going to do an article on it in the Fall 2017 issue of Airstream Life.

The Basecamp (version 2) is already out and we’ve got a big layout coming in the Spring 2017 issue of Airstream Life.  You’ll see that in February, both in our print version and online versions. The new Basecamp looks cool and I predict it will be a success.

And then there’s a new Airstream trailer motif that I’m not allowed to talk about until January.  All I can say is that you’ll see it on the cover of our Spring 2017 issue and subscribers will see a beautiful photo spread with all the details.

And then … well, there’s more stuff in the product development pipeline in Jackson Center.  I won’t even give a hint of what’s coming (not yet, anyway) but rest assured the folks at Airstream are definitely not resting on their laurels. I really have to hand it to them. With sales growing year-on-year for five years in a row, other companies might be tempted to “innovate” in RV industry terms. That means putting a different color of swoopy vinyl decal on the outside and adding some LEDs. But Airstream is stretching the boundaries of what it has traditionally done, with entirely new concepts for travel vehicles. That takes guts, willingness to accept risk, and forward thinking.

That’s a good example for anyone in business. I’m going to be doing a lot of similar things in 2017, mixing up the staid old formula anywhere it needs to be invigorated. Or to put it another way: I’ll be trying to obsolete my own ideas before someone else does.

Having a travel trailer is a great tool for that. You can sit at home all day thinking but sooner or later you’ve got to cross-pollinate, share ideas, get inspired, challenge your own thinking, etc.  And what better way than to find all those opportunities than to hit the road next spring?

So I can see a 2017 travel plan developing. Our Airstream, when it wakes up, will find a whole new set of roads ahead to explore. Where they lead, I can’t say.  For now I guess it’s good enough to start thinking about the first mile of exploration. After that, the story tends to write itself.