An All-American Stop: Zip Dee

As always, the stop that takes a little extra effort is more rewarding.  In this case, stopping at Zip Dee was a great choice. I’ve wanted to visit this facility for years, but never made the detour from our travels and braved the Chicagoland traffic to pull the Airstream up to Elk Grove Village before.  

The factory is not open to the public, but since we are carrying Zip Dee chairs, bags, and other accessories in the Airstream Life Store, I wanted to get a peek inside to see how it’s all made. These days it’s rare to find a product made in the USA, and the folks at Zip Dee pride themselves on that.

I talked to Jim Webb, the president, and he emphasized how even the screws and bolts are made in the US.  He said he could tell the difference between a US-made bolt and an imported bolt just by the way the bolt threads catch when starting to insert the bolt. The US ones are smoother and the metal (always stainless steel or aluminum on Zip Dee products,so they never rust) is more consistent. That obsessiveness about the source and quality of materials is everywhere in the building.

Most components of the company’s products are hand made.  I didn’t see a single robot or other automation in the assembly area. About 30 people currently work there, and most of them are engaged in bending, cutting, drilling, sewing, and packing. There’s a lot of hand labor that goes into building every awning, chair, and every other product they make.

I learned something reassuring while talking to Jim. Zip Dee simply won’t make cheap stuff. When pressured by major distributors and retailers to cut the cost (and quality) of products, Jim’s answer is simple: “We aren’t in that business.”  Plenty of other companies will make low-cost, lower-quality chairs, awnings, shades, bags, etc., so why play that game?  This is a company that takes pride in building something really good—something that will last.

Parked at Zip Dee Inc, Elk Grove Village IL

Zip Dee has one RV space next to their building for customers who arrive to have awnings installed, so we took that. As urban camping goes it was fine. Not too noisy even with O’Hare only a few miles away.  I prefer the occasional sound of a jet to train horns at night.

The outdoor GFI outlets in the RV space all kept popping on us so we skipped using the shore power and relied on our battery  exclusively. We used a lot of power.  It was well into the 80s all day and didn’t cool off much at night so we ran all 3 fans all night, plus we watched a movie using the inverter and charged up laptops.  The  net results was that our battery was at 29% capacity by morning (down 74.5 amp hours), the lowest we’ve ever gone with this new Lifeline 8D. 

Solar brought it back up to 51% by 4 pm and I figured that was plenty until I saw the sites at our next stop, the Dunewoods Campground at  Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.  Every site deeply shaded and no chance of meaningful solar gain. Oh well, that’s why we have a big battery.  We spent the night like tent campers, laughing over a game of cards and ice cream instead of a movie, and saved the power to run the fans again during the humid night.  We woke up to 19% capacity, which will be fine if we get a few hours of sunshine while towing down to Indianapolis today.

Rallying in Fort Collins, CO

I hate to leave people in suspense.  We left off with the refrigerator being balky on propane back at Sylvan Lake, so let me start by saying we have a good theory as to what happened with that.

By the morning the fridge was running well again and our trip to Fort Collins was thankfully uneventful. When we got parked at the campground and settled in for the three-day rally that’s going on here, I started calling the Brain Trust and local propane suppliers to try to get an answer as to why we had trouble.

The leading theory is that oil and heavy hydrocarbon contamination (from a variety of sources during processing, transportation, and storage) has formed a gooey clog in the line. This clog usually has a strong smell because the ethyl mercaptan used as an odorant in propane concentrates in the oily residues.  So people assume it is the odorant, but it’s really oil.  Whatever—I just want to get rid of it.

Since things are currently normal, we’re going to keep an eye on it for the next week and then do a preventative service in Ohio with Super Terry.  We’ll disconnect the propane line and blow it out with compressed air, clean the refrigerator jet if it needs it, and inspect the pigtails that attach to the propane tanks. I’ll be interested to see what comes out.

Meanwhile, we’re at a rally, and it’s a good time.  We haven’t attended someone else’s rally in years, and it’s nice to kick back and be a customer for a change.  The Rocky Mountain Airstream unit is composed of some really great people, including quite a few folks who have been friends for years (but who we haven’t seen in a while) so it’s also a sort of reunion.

We’re just doing the typical rally stuff: eating, socializing, exploring Fort Collins, eating, Open House, and eating. I joined Luke Bernander on Saturday morning to present a little seminar about all kinds of Airstream maintenance stuff, but that’s the limit of my effort here.  (I’ve got other “real” work to do back at the trailer between meals and social gatherings.)

Ft Collins rally Argosy 20 moho

What I really like about these events is the opportunity to see some exceptionally rare Airstreams, or just interestingly modified ones.  The pair above is a polished Argosy 20 motorhome pulling a polished Argosy 24 trailer.  Argosy trailers had galvanized steel roof end caps, which doesn’t polish up nicely.  That’s why the owner (Patrick Phippen) painted them black.

Ft Collins rally Wally Bee

This is a one-of-a-kind trailer.  The Wally Bee was a prototype fiberglass trailer from the early 1950s, of which two were made.  Only this one survives, and it was just a ragged shell when Luke Bernander saved it. The outside is done, beautifully, and he’s at work on the interior. It’s kind of neat to see in the context of Airstream’s recent announcement about launching the Nest fiberglass trailer, which resembles this slightly.  Over 60 years later, they’ve come full circle.

Ft Collins rally Lotus Europa

And of course you don’t just see cool trailers at these things.  In the foreground of the photo above is a 1972 Lotus Europa. It’s absolutely beautiful and I couldn’t stop looking at it.  Never seen one before!  Behind it is a customized 50’s Airstream turned into a mobile bar.  There are two mobile bars at this event, which kind of gives you a peek into the party-hearty nature of this WBCCI unit.

I’ll be sorry to leave tomorrow. This has been a great opportunity to catch up and relax a bit, and Fort Collins is a cool town with a lot going on.  We could stay another day or two but it’s a choice between that and some other things in Nebraska or Chicago that we are considering, so I think we’ll be moving onward.  I’m not sure where we will be the next couple of nights, but one thing is certain: we must cross the vastness of Nebraska. Might as well get a start on it.

A little trouble at Sylvan Lake

Driving through Colorado is always nice, especially on some of my favorite routes like Route 50 that wind through the mountains and offers incredible vistas.  Today’s drive was mostly I-70 but the western part of I-70 in Colorado is one of the nicest Interstate stretches in the country, so I don’t dread it as I do other stretches of the highway.

Eleanor was driving the first leg from the Colorado River in Utah when we heard some squeaking from the hitch.  Now that she’s in the driver’s seat, she’s attuned to the little things that formerly she wouldn’t have noticed.  This sound was a familiar one to me, indicating that it was time to add some grease to the hitch ball.

On a Hensley hitch it’s a little tougher to access the hitch ball, so I’ve worked out a technique, which I demonstrated for Eleanor. I’ll put that part indented here so those of you who don’t care can skip ahead.

Basically you leave the trailer hitched to the car so that the car supports the heavy part of the Hensley for you. You do this by loosening the weight distribution strut jacks, then the hitch head struts, then disconnecting safety chains and 7-way cable, and releasing the hitch coupler.  With the power tongue jack it’s simple to lift the upper part of the head up and off the ball. The lower part of the hitch stays with the car.

I put in a pair of disposable gloves for the next part. You just squirt some heavy grease on the ball and work it all over with your fingers.  A thick coating on the ball is best, so that some of the grease coats the underside of the coupler too.  Then you lower the power jack back down until the ball is reseated, and reconnect everything. 

The trick is to count the number of turns you loosen the hitch head struts, so you can tighten them by exactly the same amount. This keeps the head in alignment with the trailer, so you don’t have the trailer pushing the tow vehicle sideways when braking.

With that job done (in a pullout, in about 5 minutes), we had a very pleasant drive through Colorado. But along the way we discovered a real problem.  The refrigerator had mysteriously switched off during the night (with a “CHECK” light indicated on the control panel) and we had re-started it before we left.  At one of our stops we found it had gone off again. When I restarted again I could hear the gas flame making a lot of noise, like a rocket launch, sputtering, and going out frequently.

Uh-oh. Time for some diagnosis before our Klondike bars melted. Now, normally I would pull out my copy of “The (Nearly) Complete Guide To Airstream Maintenance” for some help, but since I wrote that book I already know that this particular problem isn’t covered. I made a mental note to add this situation into the next edition.

The flame looked pretty good on the refrigerator when it was burning, but it kept going out. So the process was to figure out whether the problem was in the refrigerator, the regulator, the lines, or the gas tank. Switching tanks didn’t seem to help. The regulator was newly installed in January and looked perfectly clean.  I couldn’t check the gas pressure because I left my manometer at home, but I could light the stove and see that the flame looked good—and to add to the mystery, the furnace ran without a problem. I crawled under the trailer and inspected the gas lines for damage but they were perfect. Even the refrigerator was new in January, so I was really mystified.

This left me with three theories: 

  1. The gas valve on the refrigerator was failing.
  2. The gas jet on the refrigerator needed adjustment and/or cleaning.
  3. There was some sort of contamination in the propane that was intermittently clogging the jet on the refrigerator. 

At this point on the drive, I couldn’t do more, so I coaxed the fridge into running simply by resetting it (power cycling it) many times until it finally seemed willing to stay lit.
Now, if I had been thinking about the refrigerator later in the drive we probably would have opted for a campsite with electricity so that the fridge could run on electricity instead of gas.  But we forgot all about it and decided to drive up to remote Sylvan Lake State Park, near Eagle CO. 

Sylvan Lake State Park

I’ll post a review of Sylvan Lake on Campendium later so you can get the details about this place, but right now all you need to know is that it’s beautiful and isolated. Zero cell phone service, which meant that when we arrived and found the refrigerator off again, I couldn’t call my usual brain trust for ideas. Also, the climb up to Sylvan Lake is 2,000 feet of elevation gain above Eagle, the last 4 miles or so are rough, potholed red dirt road, and towing above 10 MPH was not possible most of the way. So we were fairly committed once we arrived.

A thunderstorm had just left the area, but not before pelting Eleanor with sleet and small hail as she directed me into the campsite. The temperature up at 8,500 feet was a mere 46 degrees.  It was not the most inspirational start, but once we got settled in we discovered what a lovely place Sylvan Lake really is.  We took a walk around the lake (about 2 miles) and threw some snowballs at each other, and eventually we were glad we’d made the effort to be here.


Back at camp, the refrigerator still had problems, and we discovered the water heater wasn’t too happy either. This narrowed my theory to one: gas contamination.  The appliances with tiny calibrated gas jets (water heater and refrigerator) were having trouble dealing with the gas, while the less fussy appliances with big jets (stove and furnace) were fine.

I’ve read about ways that propane contamination can occur, but since I’m writing this in a no-Internet zone I can’t study that subject right now. As I recall, the solution is to have the propane tanks purged. I suspect the problem to be from only one of the two tanks, since I had one filled this week in Tucson and we were not using that one when the problem appeared.

For now, we are burning propane only from the Tucson tank and hoping that the contamination in the lines eventually works its way out.  I’ve had to reset the refrigerator several times since last night (most notably at 1:10 AM) and it’s still intermittently shutting down, but with luck we can limp into Ft Collins later today without a complete ice cream meltdown and at that point we can switch to electric cooling while I find a propane service center in town.

Eleanor earns her paycheck in AZ

Homolovi State Park, Winslow AZ

It’s always nice when the first day out goes well. We are trying something new: Eleanor is driving. For the past 11 years I’ve done all of the towing because she just wasn’t psyched. That was OK with me, because I like driving and I’ve taken some pride in wrangling the big Airstream into and out of tight spots.

The past few years I’ve been getting a little bored with the long drives, where we are just logging miles across the Plains or in a hurry to get somewhere, and with the prospect of 10,000 miles of towing ahead this summer, Eleanor stepped up and volunteered to learn the mechanics of towing a 30-foot trailer. That will make my life much easier, especially on those days that work is blowing up and I need to be responsive on email and phone to my associates.

Since she has prior experience with our 17 foot Caravel and she’s a pretty good driver anyway, the transition hasn’t been too hard.  Yesterday she did over 250 miles up I-10 and I-17 to Flagstaff, and then east in I-40 to our overnight stop in Winslow AZ.

The real trick to learning to tow a big trailer is not the technique of getting it around a corner or backing in (although those are real skills). The hardest part is the psychological challenge. It all seems fine on a flat Interstate, but then there’s that moment with the construction zone, Jersey barriers and rough pavement on an 8% downhill grade—and that’s when the driver earns his/her paycheck. The sensation of a heavy trailer pushing you down a hill as you fear losing control from braking too hard, with your family’s lives depending on what you do next, separates the timid from the brave.

Eleanor got a good taste of all that yesterday and it scared her as much as it should have, but she also gained confidence from the experience and you can’t put a price on that. In fact she seems to have doubled down on the whole towing commitment, so when we arrived at Homolovi Ruins State Park in Winslow AZ she insisted on backing in to the campsite. That took a few attempts but when things looked bleakest and I offered to take over, she decided to tough it out. She got the trailer into the space after two more passes, and I was impressed. She has definitely acquired the right mindset to succeed at towing. That’s going to make this trip a lot easier for me.

The Airstream has performed perfectly, which was expected but still nice to confirm. Super Terry has been asking what service we might need to do on the trailer when we meet in Ohio but so far all I can come up with is a little bit of touch up on some sealant and possibly replacement of the Hensley hitch bushings. Otherwise, all systems are go.

Last night at Homolovi we decided to take advantage of the new battery and inverter we installed in January, and get a non-electric site for $7 less. It’s still a geeky thrill to be able to run the TV, coffee pot and microwave oven using just the battery. The price for such extravagance (plus some furnace time—it’s 6,000 feet elevation here) was that our battery got down to 61% after the coffee was made, so we broke out the folding solar panels to augment our roof panels and watched as the combination pumped 16 amps into the battery all morning.  Awesome.

By the way, I’ve written a review of those folding solar panels with much more detail about how they work and what you might want to consider. That review will appear in a future issue of Outside Interests, so keep an eye open for that in the next few weeks.  If you aren’t subscribed to Outside Interests, check it out—it’s free.

Today we plan to take a fairly leisurely drive up through the Navajo Nationa and perhaps end up somewhere near Moab.  Not sure yet, but in this region of the country you can’t go wrong.  Virtually every route is beautiful and relaxing, so I am looking forward to the drive—especially if Eleanor drives.

Why I launch slowly

Tomorrow, the Airstream will leave home base and begin its annual trek across the USA, not to return until probably October.

The Airstream sits in the carport tonight, fully loaded for the expedition, tested, and hitched. After the weeks of preparation and packing, it feels like a quiet moment before a storm, full of anticipation of the unknown experiences to come.  It’s exciting and a little scary.

I like to tow the Airstream out very gently as it departs its winter shelter, like a mighty ship slowly breaking free of dock. There’s a practical reason for this: with the windows rolled down I can listen carefully for anything that might be amiss, perhaps something dragging, an unexpected squeak from the wheels, a scrape or a hiss.  Of course I’ve done a careful pre-trip inspection and walked around the trailer doing final checks three times, so the precaution of listening should be unnecessary, but I like to have that last moment of assurance before we head toward Interstate 10 and accelerate to full cruising speed.

From that point the Airstream will be expected to roll smoothly and quietly for many thousands of miles.  Our trip plan calls for heading up to northern Arizona as far as we can get on our first day, stopping somewhere in the Four Corners area, then gradually continuing on to Ft Collins CO by Thursday. After a rally, we’ll make stops in the plains states and eventually Chicago, then over to the Airstream factory for Alumapalooza.

After Alumapalooza we’re going to make a stop or two in PA and NY, eventually ending up at Colin Hyde’s shop in Plattsburgh for some upgrades.  (I’ll talk more about that in a future blog.)  Then to Vermont to see family, and later in the summer we’ll head west all the way to the Pacific Ocean and down to central California for Alumafandango in late September. The end of the trip will be in early October, probably, back at home base in Arizona.

It’s an ambitious plan and in the course of it the Airstream and its tow vehicle will accumulate perhaps 8,000 – 10,000 miles.  We’ll spend about 130 nights in the Airstream (I’ll spend a bit less because I’ll be TBM in Arizona for a month) and sleep in about 18 different states.  But we do something like this every year, so the “trip of a lifetime” by most accounts will be just “the summer” for us. After a decade it has become something we are used to, but it’s no less exciting for that.

I often read comments from bloggers and people on forums, asking for advice and expressing their concerns about launching on a big trip.  That is understandable if you’ve never done anything like this before, but if you are one of those people let me give you my bit of advice: it’s easier than you think.  You can do it. You’ll figure it out and probably have a great time in the process. Just take a moment to breathe before you go.

Even now, after literally years spent in our Airstream and who-knows-how-many miles, I have a little trepidation as we pull out of the driveway. That’s the other reason why I listen to the Airstream and launch it slowly, majestically, into the sunlight and down the road. I’m really just giving myself time to absorb the change, and gather courage for the challenges and adventures that will soon follow.

Starting Monday I’ll be posting more frequently with photos and stories from the road.