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.

An existential crisis for the Mercedes GL

When I bought the Mercedes GL320 in 2009 to be our new tow vehicle, I knew I was taking a big risk.  At $66,000 (out the door, tax included), it was almost double the price of the most expensive vehicle we’d ever purchased.  Mercedes has a reputation for expensive repairs and maintenance, and their dealer service network is small compared to just about any other brand.

The justification for taking this risk is complicated, but the major factor was the diesel powertrain.  At the time, only the European brands (Audi/VW, BMW, Mercedes, Land Rover) offered diesel SUVs, and they rack up impressive performance stats.  In 2009 when we made this purchase, we were planning on many more years of Airstream travel, so it made some sense to invest for the long term. I felt confident the Mercedes 3.0 liter turbodiesel could last for hundreds of thousands of miles while carting as many as 7 people in comfort and delivering fuel economy (not towing) in the upper 30s.

airstream-mercedes-mountain-pass

In the past decade the European diesels have also been impressive for their emissions improvements and quietness. I can start my diesel dead cold in the morning at a campground and hardly anyone will even notice the sound, while the exhaust is scarcely more offensive than baby’s breath.

north-cascades-np-towing-airstream

That’s all very nice, but there is one thing that a tow vehicle must be able to do to justify its existence: tow.  Our GL320, despite having 127,500 miles on it, has done as good a job of that as it ever has—until this week. One tiny problem this week managed to cripple it, rendering the GL entirely worthless as a tow vehicle.

We had a gentle rain on our last night at Beachside State Park on the Oregon coast.  Over a period of hours, a drop or two of water managed to work past the gasket on the right rear taillight, wick through some insulation on the inside, and drip down to a black plastic cover below.  This cover has thin vent slits in it because it houses a very expensive electronic device called a “Signal Acquisition Module” (SAM).

The water dripped through the vent slits and down to the exposed circuit board inside.  When the SAM gets wet, it behaves like any other electronic device when wet: it malfunctions spectacularly.  This SAM happens to control most of the functions in the rear of the vehicle, including trailer lights and brakes. Just one tiny drop of water in the right spot means no trailer lights or brakes.

This has been a recurring problem.  It first cropped up in February 2015 at Alumafiesta after a heavy rain, with the symptoms being taillights that didn’t work for a few hours. I didn’t find the cause until May 2015 at Alumapalooza when it happened again.  I dried the computer with a hair dryer and took it to a northestern Mercedes dealer in June.  The dealer service tech glopped everything up with black sealant and pronounced it fixed, which it wasn’t.

Water hit the SAM again in January 2016, so I dried it again and took the car to another Mercedes dealer (this time in the southwest) and they replaced the right taillight, noting this the leak was a known problem. They said the magic words that they say every time I have to buy an expensive replacement part: “This is an upgraded design, so it won’t have that problem again.”

That was a nice warm and fuzzy thought, but three weeks later the SAM decided it had suffered enough from the prior repeated water intrusions, and it died without warning—while towing in downtown Castro Valley, CA.  Imagine the fun: suddenly, no brakes and no lights on a 7,500 pound trailer in heavy traffic.

This time the hair dryer trick wasn’t going to work.  I had to tow the Airstream through city traffic for a mile with no brakes, signals, or lights to a Walgreen’s parking lot large enough to dump it.  Then I had to convince the manager of the pharmacy to let me leave the Airstream overnight.  Then I had to find a Mercedes dealer and pray that they had the part I needed—on a Friday afternoon. Fortunately Mercedes Benz of Pleasanton had the part and installed it the same day, for $1,300.

All was well until last week, when mysteriously the upgraded taillight assembly let in just a couple of drips during an Oregon sprinkle, and our expensive new SAM got wet for the first time.  You can imagine my reaction when I got into the car and the dash lit up with five warning messages—and of course, no trailer brakes.

After I ranted for a while, Eleanor and I got to work.  About 45 minutes of the hair dryer treatment got everything working except the left turn signal and taillight.  We decided to start towing toward Eugene OR (nearest dealer location).  Two hours later the left turn signal began working again.

In Eugene I had a friendly chat with the service tech, in which I explained that intermittent lack of brakes and lights means the car can’t tow. That triggers what I would call an existential crisis for the Mercedes GL320.  If it can’t tow reliably after a light rain, I can’t use it. He understood the conundrum, but had little to offer other than tearing apart the interior of the car to look for other possible leak points—at $140 per hour, my expense.

I talked with Andy Thomson of Can-Am RV about possible replacement vehicles. Andy has been a very reliable source of information over the years, despite his tendency to terrify Americans with his non-truck towing suggestions. He listed the Audi Q7, BMW X5, and the new Durango (based on the Mercedes platform) as possible replacements, but pointed out that my GL has relatively little trade-in value.

Worse, there are no suitable new diesel SUVs available.  VW screwed us all on that one. Friends at Mercedes dealerships have told me that Mercedes has quietly suspended shipments of new diesel SUVs to the US. Audi and VW of course are out of the question, and BMW’s X5 might be available but it’s too small for us.

So we’ve taken the path of least resistance. The taillight assembly has been replaced again but I’ll never trust it.  We are going to rig up a plastic shield over the SAM to block the water droplets. It’s a low tech, easy fix that will probably work just fine for the life of the car.

And, despite my momentary lapse of confidence, I think we’ll stick with the GL.  Hopefully the SAM will survive this one episode of water intrusion. To be sure I’ll test it a week or two before every trip. I still want to see the odometer turn over 200,000 miles before we re-consider getting rid of it, and more miles would be nice.

On balance the car has been everything I hoped it would be: a comfortable, confident driving, capable tow vehicle. It’s amazing to me how something so small—a drop of water— can entirely destroy the practical value of the car.

[Nerd Alert]  I’m reminded of that scene in “The Fifth Element” when the evil Zorg chokes on a cherry and Father Vito Cornelius says, “There, you see how all your so-called power counts for absolutely nothing now, how your entire empire can come crashing down because of one little cherry.” [/Nerd Alert]  We live by a tenuous thread all the time, and little moments like this make that thread briefly visible.

I guess there’s nothing for it but to keep on towin’. We’re heading to the California redwoods next.

The fall of TBM and the resurrection of the hitch

“What ever happened to TBM?”  I’ve been getting this question a lot lately.  I have hesitated to tell the truth because so many millions of men around the world look up to him —but the awful truth must come out.

TBM was vanquished by work. Yes, that killer of adventure, soiler of fantasy, shroud of exploration … sheer, overloading obligation.  I tried valiantly to break away for a few days of tent camping in the cooler mountain elevations of northern Arizona, and some day trips, but again and again I was restrained at my desk by 1,001 projects that all needed attention.

Well, don’t feel too badly for TBM.  I still ate out at a few favorite restaurants, watched a few guy movies, met some local friends, went to a car show, etc—so it wasn’t all bad.  And to rationalize the situation, I resolved that in exchange for a late summer of Airstream travel (which we have since begun) it was a reasonable tradeoff to spend a few weeks in advance chained to a desk.

I also resolved that this won’t happen again if I can help it, so I’m cutting back on various obligations and hiring some more people to help.  A new Associate Editor is taking off quite a bit of workload on the magazine, and I’m drastically reducing my involvement in events since they take a massive amount of time.  (But don’t panic—Alumapalooza will be back in 2017!)

Hensley hitch refurbishedBack in New York at Colin Hyde’s shop, our Hensley hitch was being refurbished, and boy did that turn out to be an eye-opening experience. You might recall that we disassembled it and found many more worn parts and cracks than expected.

As Colin predicted, Hensley replaced the entire lower unit under the lifetime warranty rather than trying to repair it. When Colin’s shop got the unit back, they scuffed the paint and then repainted everything (top, bottom, bars, etc) with a really good automotive enamel so it will hold up better than the paint Hensley uses.  (The orange in particular is famous for fading quickly and deteriorating.)

All the new parts were installed, and then of course we greased it, installed it, and adjusted it.  It looks better than new now, which is good because the grand total for this job was more than half the price of a new one.

The eye-opening part was discovering all the parts that had failed without our knowledge.  I knew the lower unit had cracked and suspected that the cadmium-plated steel bushings (“binoculars”) were also cracked.  I didn’t know the extent of the cracking—and it was extensive—nor that the steel cylinders where the weight bars are inserted had stretched beyond repair.

The really shocking part was the bearings. There are eight of them in a Hensley, standard automotive-type bearings and races.  You’d think that since they barely turn they wouldn’t wear.  In fact the opposite seems to be true.  Despite being packed with grease, all eight bearings and races were seriously rusted.  It seems that the lack of spinning allows water to settle without being evaporated. The “dust caps” on the top and bottom aren’t waterproof, so water gets in and stays there, particularly on the bottom bearings where the dust caps actually trap water.

Hensley hitch rusty bearings and races

The picture says it all.  Look at the rust on the bearings and the wear marks abraded into the races. These bearings were about six years old. All of them were bad.

The bearings are user-replaceable but the races are not.  Colin’s guys found a way to remove the races, which involved welding little tangs on the races so they could be punched out, but for most people the solution will be to return the unit to Hensley under warranty.  My recommendation to all owners now is to do five-year inspection and/or disassembly to check the state of these bearings, particularly in a wet climate.  When you look at this picture, keep in mind that my trailer spends 8 months of the year in sunny dry Arizona.

BMW motorcycle Quebec ferry

The end of the story is simple. I flew back to Vermont in late July, reunited with my family, cleaned up and prepped the Airstream, installed the hitch, and we got on the road.  (But in the midst of that, I did manage to sneak out two quick days of TBM activity: motorcycling north from the Lake Champlain islands, up the Richelieu River all the way to the St Lawrence through the beautiful French heart of Quebec.)

We’re now in the Airstream on a two month adventure that will take us from east coast to west, at least six national parks, and many interesting stops.  So buckle up: the blog is about to get busy again.

Refurbishing the Hensley hitch

Remember last November when we found a crack in the Hensley hitch?  We took it to a local welder in Del Rio TX and got a quick fix on it.

Well, of course that wasn’t the end of the story.  For years I’ve been saying that the hitch was due for a complete overhaul, so I took the opportunity this summer while the Airstream is parked in Vermont.  I removed the hitch and toted it across Lake Champlain to Colin Hyde Trailer Restoration.

That poor hitch was looking pretty awful.  The orange paint flaked off a long time ago, and I’ve been patching it periodically with silver spray paint. It was a patchwork of rust, flaking paint and grease. From prior experience I knew it would have a broken internal bushing (the “binocular” part) and during inspection Colin and I spotted elongated holes in various places.

Hensley broken binocular bushingsSo I called up Hensley and ordered every part that was worn or which might fail in the future, which included 8 bearings, the “binocular” bushings, some new U-brackets, dust caps, spare zerk fittings, and even a full sticker kit so we could make it look like factory-new again.  That was about $250 in parts (they threw in the stickers for free).

Hitch ball no greaseNow, Hensley doesn’t have a recommended service interval, so owners are left to their own judgement as to when an overhaul is due. I think I waited too long. It has been seven years and certainly well over 70,000 miles of towing since we got this unit (itself a replacement).

Colin called me a couple of days later to say that mine was “the worst” Hensley they’d ever seen. Apparently the battered nature of my hitch was the subject of some amusement over at the shop.

The bushings were broken not just once as expected, but into three separate pieces.  The chrome had been worn off the hitch ball.  One of the lower bearings had rusted (due to water intrusion through the dust cap).

Hensley lower cracksThat crack we thought we’d fixed?  Now it was three separate cracks running across the bottom unit, hidden by a layer of dried grease.

Worst of all, the tubes that accept the binocular bushings and weight transfer bars had stretched. Now they are oval, to the tune of about 1/10 of an inch and they have separated from the main body. The new bushings won’t even fit in.

So, after Chris spent some time at the shop degreasing and sandblasting away endless layers of paint, it was decided that the entire lower section of the hitch needed to be sent to Hensley for warranty repair.  They received it this week, and have promised I’ll get it back well before it’s time to hit the road in later July.

Hensley disassembledColin says they’ll take one look at it and decide to melt it down, but I think Hensley will repair it. It will be interesting to see what comes back.

Meanwhile Colin’s guys will continue working on the rest of the hitch. There’s really not much left of it, once we figure in all the new parts I bought, and the replacement lower unit.

We’ve decided to restore the famous Hensley orange paint (but a better, longer-lasting version, says Colin).  I have some suspicions about that too.  I figure it’s all a learning opportunity.

For now there’s nothing to do but wait. Assuming everything goes as planned, we’ll have the hitch reassembled and ready in late July, just in time for us to launch again across the country.  Our schedule calls for departure before August 1, in order to spend six weeks transiting the north country from Vermont to Seattle WA. It will be nice to take off knowing the hitch is back up to 100% again.