Plumbing on the snow day

Yesterday my iPhone emitted a terrible sound from my pocket, one I’d never heard before.  It turned out to be warning me of an impending “blizzard” coming to Arizona.

A what?

Yep, this morning the snow level, which usually stays well above 4000 feet, dipped down low enough that we have gotten considerable snow here at 2,500 feet.  This is a rare event for Tucson, one which brings everyone out to look at the strange white stuff, take pictures, and slide around on the roadways.  Having seen my share of snow from life in the northeast, I was not impressed until  I saw it decorating the Caravel, and then I succumbed to the temptation to take a few pictures myself.  I really don’t know why.  I have lots of pictures of the Caravel buried in deep snow from Vermont, but I took a few more anyway.

There’s a little electric heater in the Caravel to keep it from freezing at night, and that makes the interior cozy enough for me to keep working on the plumbing project.  I had run out of Teflon plumber’s tape yesterday, and I needed to ponder the complexities of the next major phase, so I paused the project overnight.

Today, with large, wet snowflakes pattering on the aluminum skin, I got back inside to figure out what I’ve been mentally calling “the dreaded closet manifold.”  One of the narrow bathroom closets had housed a strange collection of plumbing intersections, and it was all wedged into a space only about 1 foot wide and three feet deep.  This made just reaching the plumbing a difficult task, since I don’t fit into spaces that small and my arms aren’t that long.

In rebuilding this rat’s nest of plumbing I wanted to design something that would be much easier to access and service in the future.  There was a shutoff valve that could only be reached if the gaucho cushions were removed, for example.  The city water fill lacked a check valve and a pressure regulator, so it needed wholesale replacement but couldn’t be accessed without disassembling half the bathroom.  Much of my time was spent figuring out ways to remove the whole mess before I could even get started on building a new system.

Eventually, with lots of struggling, cutting, use of extension tools, and even duct tape, I got the plumbing out. A neat new plumbing manifold was designed after lots of headscratching.  You can see it below.

Although it doesn’t look like much, this little bit solves several problems:

  1. It connects the water pump, city water fill, toilet, and main cold water line to the rest of the trailer.
  2. It fits in the exact center of the available closet space, on the floor, with room to swing the shut-off valve if needed.
  3. Nearly all of it can be easy accessed from the door without requiring the help of a small person.

It took Eleanor and I about 10 minutes to crimp all the fittings once I had the basic layout measured and cut.  In this type of job, it’s definitely a “measure twice, cut once” situation.  Actually, being a newbie to this, I measured about four times for each piece.  So although you may scoff, I regard this little bit of plumbing as a work of art.

Getting it into place was another matter.  I could easily make one of the connections, but for the two low elbows I needed four hands to hold everything in the right position when crimping.  Eleanor was recruited.  At one point she had to wedge herself into the closet, because she’s thinner than me.  And I’m not particularly big, so you can get an idea of how tight it was.

Or maybe this picture will help.

And now that part is done.  I won’t rest easy until we pressurize the system and verify there are no leaks, but I’ve done everything I can to ensure that it will be perfect.

So now onto the next phase.  Believe it or not, the plumbing project is almost half done.  We have gone from the fresh water tank  to the bathroom, which means the water pump, winterization valve, and toilet are connected.  I still have to rig up the new city water fill, water heater, and both sinks.  (The Caravel doesn’t have a separate shower connection, since it uses a takeoff from the bathroom sink.)

Time elapsed so far is probably about eight hours, not counting trips to the hardware store or pre-planning.  I think that’s not bad for a first effort.  I’m actually looking forward to tackling the under-sink areas and the water heater, as (again) they are a mess of stressed connections, all of which are in the wrong place.

I discovered today the real danger of doing this and blogging it: my Airstream friends might ask me for help with their trailers.  Well, let me say this:

  1. I’m still definitely not an expert.
  2. You can borrow my tools.

Farewell to Billybob plumbing

With Alumafiesta behind me and some Airstream travel coming up, it’s time to get serious about maintenance again.  I’m starting with the Caravel, because it sprang a few leaks recently and I really want to get those under control soon.

The big job is the fresh water plumbing.  This is the only major system of the trailer that didn’t get refurbished over the past several years.  It’s a horrible hodge-podge of “home handyman” work, with at least four different types of hose (PEX, braided stainless steel, PVC, and clear) and many different connectors.  The hose clamps in particular are a problem because they work loose during travel and are a constant source of leaks, but the braided stainless faucet connectors haven’t been very reliable either.

When it became apparent that repeated patches to the system would only result in repeated frustration and new leaks sprang up, I decided to just completely replace the fresh water plumbing—every piece of it except the faucets and water pump.  I rationalized this as an opportunity to learn something new.  More importantly, a complete refurbishment of the system would allow me to rectify all the little dysfunctional annoyances caused by the prior hack jobs.

For example, the water shutoff valves for the kitchen sink are nearly inaccessible behind the cabinetry.  A few inches to the left and they’d right where you’d want them; easily reached without removing all the contents of the cabinet and turned off in a flash if need be.

Somebody who worked on this system apparently had a phobia of 90-degree elbows.  Rather than plumb elbows in where they were needed, he just bent the plastic pipe around corners.  This works—sort of—but it puts huge stress on the connections and fittings.  This is probably the reason a line near the water heater sprang a pinhole leak just before Alumafiesta. Studying the system, I began to see all those stressed connections as leaks waiting to happen.

And then there was the shut-off valve installed where there should be a check valve (a one-way valve).  And the frequent use of screw-on plastic compression fittings that weep randomly, mostly when you’re 500 or more miles from home.  And the lack of a pressure regulator.  It’s all a fine example of what my friend Colin calls “Billybob plumbing.”

So out it goes.  I did some research and decided to go with a professional grade system.  I read a few restoration blogs, then looked inside a new Airstream to see what the factory is using these days.  They’re using PEX with copper crimp fittings.  It’s the same system we have in our 2005 Safari, and it has been utterly reliable.  The PEX is tough stuff and should be a “lifetime” installation.  This is the same stuff used in houses, rated for use in inaccessible locations.  That’s the quality I want.

Left:  “Before” in Hose Clamp Hell.    Right:  “After” PEX with crimp rings (except one pair of legacy clamp rings).

This system is really simple.  You cut the PEX pipe to length, slip a copper ring on the outside, slip a the fitting inside (elbow, coupling, whatever), and crimp the copper ring with a big hand tool.  It’s easy and the connection is permanent.  It won’t leak, and just to be sure there’s a gauge provided that you can use to check each crimp as you go.

RJ Dial’s website tipped me off to PEXSupply.com, where I bought about $380 worth of parts and tools to do this job.  I bought rolls of blue and red PEX-A (the good stuff, more flexible than the hardware-story-variety PEX-B and more resistant to freezing), about 50 various brass fittings, a bag of copper crimps, and a pipe cutter.  There was no need to get color-coded PEX for the hot and cold water, but I figured if I was going to do this I would make it a work of art.

The big expense was a pro-grade crimping tool at $119.  My friend the sword-swallower Alex confirmed this choice, saying that the off-patent ones for $30-40 really weren’t worth using in his experience.  I don’t know about that personally but I can say that this tool is really sweet, easy to use, and does a great job.

My plan is to go out to the Caravel every day and work for a few hours or until I realize I need to get something at the hardware store.  Today that point came after about four hours of work, which was more than I had planned, but I was having fun with it. It’s great to disassemble and toss out the crummy old plumbing and zillions of hose clamps, and replace it with a carefully structured system that will hopefully never give me trouble.

The job will take a long time because I am being very methodical.  Every pipe thread fitting will have Teflon tape and be carefully torqued, every crimp will be gauged, lines are being re-routed to avoid stress and clutter, etc.  I’m only planning to do this once, so I want to do it right.  Much of today I spent relocating the water pump & winterization valve, and rigging up a system to reduce water pump noise.  The old plumbing made such a loud noise when the water pump was run (rattling the rigid plastic lines) that it would wake the dead and scare small children.

Now, as recommended by the manufacturer, the water pump output goes to an 18″ clear flexible hose in a loose loop to reduce vibration transmission down the line.  I also installed some foam pipe insulation and a clamp to try to dampen vibrations, and I moved the water pump to where it’s (a) no longer in the way of storage, and (b) easily accessed if it needs to be replaced.  It feels good to finally get these things right in the Caravel.

Besides having a leak-free fresh water system in the future, an incidental benefit is that I’m learning how to repair or modify the plumbing in the Safari, and I have all the tools to do it.  We’ve discussed changing the kitchen sink and countertop, but I’ve shied away from it because of the need to re-do the kitchen plumbing.  Now, it’s a completely non-threatening job. So despite the fact that I’m once again putting time and money in the trailer we barely use, it’s a good project.  I’ll update later when things get a little further along.