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.

You can’t change a tire? Oh no.

Tell me if this sounds familiar:

“We’re going out on a long Airstream trip.  What sort of Roadside Assistance (AAA, Good Sam, etc) should I have, in case I get a flat tire?”

…. sigh …  I hear variations on this all the time. And I get a little sad every time I hear it, because too often things don’t work out well with this strategy.

The best roadside assistance program you can ever have is yourself. Even if you aren’t “mechanically minded,” or even if you have a physical disability that prevents you from being able to do a tire change, you need to know how to change a tire, and you need to have the necessary equipment on hand.

Why? Lots of reasons:

  • Roadside assistance often takes hours to show up. You, or someone you know, can change a tire on your Airstream in about 10 minutes. Why wait all that time?
  • Deliverance teethFlats happen in all kinds of places, including places you really don’t want to be parked for long time. Like by the side of the highway, or in a rough neighborhood.
    You might start to feel like you’re in a scene from Deliverance.  It’s a hard transition from independent traveling Airstreamer to completely helpless potential target.
  • Not all mechanics have familiarity with Airstreams, or the proper tools for the job. Someone who doesn’t know that they shouldn’t put a jack under most parts of the belly pan, or the axle, can do serious damage.  A heavy-handed mechanic with an air wrench can do a lot more harm than good. (I learned this one the hard way myself.)
  • Roadside assistance programs don’t always cover every place. And cell phones don’t work everywhere. What would you do if you couldn’t reach the toll-free number, or they told you (as happened to a friend of mine) “you’re in a non-service area.”
  • A few tools are a lot cheaper than paying for roadside assistance year after year.

Airstream tireFortunately, it’s really not hard at all to change a tire.  Even if you physically can’t do it, having the tools on hand and knowledge of the correct procedure means someone else (perhaps a Good Samaritan) can help you.

I wrote a book about Airstream Maintenance that includes a big discussion explaining exactly how to swap a tire. But if you don’t want to buy the book, you can learn the procedure from a six-page booklet I published.  A free copy comes with every tire changing kit we sell in the Airstream Life Store. (That kit includes all the tools you need to swap a tire, and every Airstream owner should have those tools with them on every trip.)

Now, just so you realize I’m not just blogging this solely to promote my store:  I don’t care if you copy down the list of tools provided in the kit on the Airstream Life Store and go buy all the parts yourself at local stores. Just make sure you have them.  If you travel a lot, sooner or later you will need those tools.

One of things I always point out to people is that you don’t have to be very strong to do this job. For example, to get the tire out of the spare holder without lifting (after you’ve lowered the holder to the ground) just sit on the ground and push the tire out with your feet.

Sometimes the job seems hard because you’re doing it the hard way, so a little practice will help a lot. Try it in your driveway, or this June at Alumapalooza where we will have a tire-changing class & contest.

You might be thinking that flats are pretty rare, and you’ll take your chances. That’s OK, but there are other reasons to have the tools & knowledge handy. For example, sooner or later you’ll need a fresh set of tires. Have you ever had a tire shop act like your trailer was some sort of dangerous object?  I’ve heard things like, “I’m not allowed to take a wheel off a trailer,” and “We don’t have a jack big enough for a trailer like that.” Having the ability to swap a tire yourself can help a lot in such situations.

Stay independent, my friends.  Being prepared for common problems like flat tires will help keep your Airstream experience fun.

Winter camping in the southwest

We are back home now and I’m amazing that in the three weeks we were on the road I had so few opportunities to update the blog.  While it would be easy to blame it on a lack of good Internet opportunities (which was the case for four days in Death Valley and six days camped up by the San Francisco Bay area if you can believe that), the real reason has been that I often made the choice to spend time with people rather than with the computer. I guess that’s a good sign that my priorities were straight during the trip.

IMG_5789

We went to Death Valley to be with Airstream friends as much as for the national park itself. Then we migrated to Thornhill Broome beach (Point Mugu State Park, on the California coast) for three days and met other Airstream friends there, and picked up my mother at LAX.  The four of us then towed up to Anthony Chabot Regional Park near Castro Valley CA (east of Oakland) and spent six days with yet another group of Airstream friends (from Europe), attending their wedding and touring San Francisco.

Then it was back down the coast, drop off Mom at the airport, and back east toward home. Three weeks fly by when you are traveling and doing lots of things. By the time we got back to Quartzsite for a final night, about to go home to Tucson, it seemed like we just got started.

Camping in winter, even in the southwest, presents special challenges. First, you’ve got to pick the right places to go. Snowbirds aren’t interested in encountering blizzards and we definitely don’t want to think about winterizing.  So the possibility of snow and freezing temperatures keeps us to the lowlands. Northern Arizona, northern New Mexico, and the Sierra Nevada range are strictly off limits because they are high elevation areas. Most RV’ers seems to cluster around a few reliably warm places strung along I-8 or I-10: Los Angeles, San Diego, Yuma, Quartzsite, Phoenix, Tucson.

The Pacific Coast is also OK but it’s hard to camp along the California coast sometimes. There aren’t enough places for everyone who wants to camp on the weekend, and prices are high especially since the state hiked prices at all the state parks. We spent $70 for one night at a decent RV park, which wasn’t an unusual price.

The short days of winter and cloudiness from this year’s El Niño storms in California made it hard to rely solely on solar for our electricity when we were boondocking.  Even in a less-stormy winter, desert temperatures drop fast at sunset and there’s usually a lot of furnace use.  We relied heavily on our catalytic heater because it doesn’t use electricity.

In the winter certain problems crop up that you wouldn’t notice in the summer camping season.  For example, the propane regulator has been “singing” various songs for a couple of years now, whenever a propane appliance is drawing gas—but only when it’s cold outside.  Since the regulator is right outside the bedroom, we were hearing it a lot on cold nights. Eleanor has been asking me to solve the problem for a while but until recently I wasn’t sure whether the tank, regulator, or propane hoses (“pigtails”) was the cause. Turns out it can be either the regulator or the hoses–or in our case both.

The noise (which varies from a low humming to an oscillating note) has gotten louder and finally one night it was too much.  I found an RV repair place in Ventura CA that stocked our regulator and swapped it out while we were camped at the beach later that day. It’s not a difficult job, taking about 20 minutes if you have the right wrenches on hand. That reduced the noise considerably but I still had to replace the pigtails later to get back to complete silence.  I’m adding “replace propane regulator” to our routine maintenance list, once every 10 years.

Airstream at Anthony Chabot Regional ParkAnother challenge of winter is condensation.  On this trip the El Niño rains and cool temperatures kept the Bay Area near Oakland right around the dewpoint during the day, and combined with four people in the Airstream it added up to lots of humidity inside. Two or three days we woke up to water dripping from the window glass, and that’s not good.

Why?  Because that amount of water condensing on the glass means that it’s also condensing in other places you can’t see.  Between the two aluminum sheets that comprise the exterior of the Airstream is a layer of fiberglass insulation.  Sometimes there are bare patches where the fiberglass has been pushed aside for something else, like an exterior water connection or a speaker in the ceiling.  When the humidity in the trailer is too high, the moisture will start to condense on the interior side of the aluminum skin, and soak the insulation.

You might not notice this until it gets severe enough to drip out from a seam, but it’s always a problem.  Repeated bouts of heavy condensation mean corroded wiring, rotted floors, mold, stains, and smells–all in places that are difficult to access and repair.

The solution is ventilation.  We didn’t open the windows enough to compensate for four people breathing, washing, cooking, and using a catalytic heater.  (The cat heater produces quite a lot of water vapor during operation.)  It is counter-intuitive to open the windows and roof vents when you’re trying to stay warm, but you have to do it.

Yesterday, five days after the last rain, I removed a ceiling speaker in the Airstream and found water droplets still collected on the aluminum above.  Once the moisture gets in there, it takes quite a while to dry out, even in the arid desert of Tucson. Imagine how long it stays—and how much damage it does—if you live in a damper climate.

Last year we were towing from Arizona to Florida in February and ran into cold temperatures and rain in Texas.  We didn’t winterize the trailer because we were towing along I-10, deep in the south.  That episode taught me another lesson about winter travel because along the highway the city water fill froze, cracked, and sprang a leak inside the trailer. Sometimes you just get unlucky.

It’s a tricky time of year to do much with a travel trailer, but still the opportunities and cost savings are worth it.  Our trip to Los Death Valley, Los Angeles, and San Francisco wouldn’t have been possible without our Airstream.  I’ll just remember that winter makes things a little more complicated … and go anyway.

The inverter

One of the nice things about having a well-seasoned Airstream (that’s a euphemism for “older”) is that I get to upgrade things (that’s a euphemism for “get new toys”) using either repairs or “testing” as the excuse.  For years I’ve wanted a really nice inverter so that we’d have AC power for things like Eleanor’s coffee maker when we are boondocking, and this week we finally got one.

An inverter, for those who aren’t sure, is simply a device that turns the battery power (12 volt DC) into the type of power you’d get from a plug in your home (120 volt AC).  Garden-variety inverters that plug into cigarette lighter sockets are pretty cheap and we already had one of those, but they aren’t great.  Instead of producing nice clean smooth electrical current, they produce a sort of choppy electricity that makes some appliances hum and buzz. The TV and the chargers for our Macbooks particularly don’t like it.

Moreover, the plug-in inverter we have been using isn’t powerful enough. It is rated to produce 300 watts of power, which is plenty for the TV, but hopeless for something like a coffee maker, stick blender, hand mixer, toaster, vacuum, or microwave—all of which we have in our Airstream.

So my dream was the ultimate: a “whole house” inverter capable of producing 2,000 watts of utility-grade power at every outlet in the Airstream. Not only would we be able to recharge myriad AC devices (Nintendo game, electric toothbrush, camera batteries, cordless drill, etc) but would be able to—oh miracle of miracles—warm up leftovers in the microwave.  You might think that’s a joke, but I love eating leftovers of the things Eleanor makes. It has always been one of the great tragedies of our camping style that I can’t do that when we are off-grid.

When I was at the annual RV industry convention a few weeks ago the guys at the Xantrex booth told me about their new product, the Xantrex Freedom HFS Inverter/Charger.  They shipped me one for evaluation and I couldn’t wait to get it installed in the Airstream.

Problem was, I felt the installation was a bit beyond my abilities.  I had no trouble installing their Xantrex TrueCharge2 last April but the inverter required making some really huge cables and doing other things that I didn’t have tools for, so this time I opted to take it to Quartzsite to go see Solar Bill.

We last visited Solar Bill in January 2010, to have a big Lifeline 4D battery installed.  These days he’s across the street from where he used to be, but Bill is still the same friendly and chatty guy he ever was, still happily installing solar panels, charging systems, battery banks, and similar stuff after 37 years in the business.

IMG_5788The installation was pretty smooth, and Bill’s tech was pretty impressed with the Xantrex HFS (he hadn’t seen one before because it’s a new product). We put it in the front storage compartment next to the battery, because you always want the shortest possible DC wiring run from the battery to an inverter.

Our first test was a failure.  I turned on the inverter, fired up the microwave, and everything was fine for about 10 seconds. Then the battery faded and the inverter shut off. Turns out our battery was just not up to the task, after six years of use. Time for a replacement.

They didn’t have any Lifeline 4D (or equivalent) batteries in stock and we were itching to get to Death Valley, so I decided to upgrade to the Lifeline 8D. It’s not twice the battery as the name implies, it’s about 20% more capacity.  Also 20% more weight, bulk, and cost.

Our front compartment is now carrying 165 pounds of battery, but don’t worry, it’s still not overloaded.  The battery sits atop a very sturdy part of the frame and since we aren’t carrying anything in the original battery box (which is mounted further forward on the A-frame) the net impact on tongue weight compared to the original spec is minimal. If this sounds like gobble-gook, just trust me, it’s fine.

The upshot is that now we can run laptops, kitchen appliances, and yes even the microwave oven when we don’t have an electrical hookup.  It’s amazingly cool. In fact, the microwave oven runs better than it usually does on campground power. That’s because the Xantrex HFS produces a perfect 120 volts all the time, whereas we usually find campground power sags to 114-116 volts under load.

Of course there’s a price to be paid for this convenience.  Making a pot of coffee requires about 5% of our usable battery capacity. Running the microwave really burns the electrons at the rate of about 2% of our battery every minute. So we have to be judicious about how much of this luxury we enjoy.

The inverter just got put to the test.  We headed to Death Valley for four nights to camp, completely free of hookups, with our friends Kyle, Mary, and Kathryn. Besides being a great trip, it was the perfect environment for an inverter.  We ran nearly every AC device we have, and recharged the batteries daily from the sun. At the end of the four days, we still had 69% of our usable battery capacity left.

We’re now heading to the Los Angeles area, where we’ll boondock for another three days by the beach.  So far I’m impressed with the Xantrex, but I’ll put my full report in an upcoming article at Outside Interests.