Why you might be wrong about everything

This week I bought the Airstream Safari a new set of tires. There wasn’t anything wrong with the old tires, other than being old.  The tire industry makes various recommendations about replacing tires—I’ve heard anywhere from 4 years to 10 years, and the length of time seems to correlate with the confidence the manufacturer has in its product.

Old Michelin tires

In this case the tires were Michelin LTX that we installed in January 2010, and although the tires were only used for five years and eight months, they were manufactured in late 2008 and early 2009.  Tires begin to age from the day they are made, not the day they are installed, so I considered these to be nearly seven years old.

Old tires checking

That didn’t bother me much, but on close inspection some fine “checking” (which is the tire industry term for cracking at the surface of the rubber) was apparent. Since my Airstream, livelihood, and family all depends on safe and reliable operation of these tires, it seemed like the time to swap in a new set.

In a way, the Michelins have been an experiment. Those of you who have read my blogs from 2005-2010 know that we historically had terrible results from using ST (Special Trailer) type tires on the Safari. After years of constantly replacing them because of on-the-road failures, I took the advice of Andy Thomson at Can-Am RV and installed the Michelin LTX instead.

As always, Andy was spot-on with his advice. We’ve never had a problem since. Those tires have traveled over 45,000 miles and the tread is still good.  Not one tread separation or flat, whereas I was accustomed to dealing with a problem every few months when I was trying various brands of ST tires. In other words, the Michelin experiment was a success.

So it’s probably no surprise that I ordered up a fresh set of the same tires again (from Tire Rack).  It was interesting to note that Michelin has re-designated them. Before they were Michelin LTX M/S LT235/75R15  104/101R. That decodes as follows:

  • M/S =mud and snow
  • LT = Light Truck
  • 235/75 R15 = the size of the tire. My Airstream came with a Goodyear 225/75, so the Michelins are just a little wider. R15 means they go on a 15″ wheel.
  • 104/101 R is their weight carrying capacity. In this case, they had two designations. 104 decodes as 1,985 lbs of weight per tire, which means all four had a capacity of 7,940 lbs. That’s a few hundred pounds more than our Airstream typically weighs when loaded.  (The “101R” adds a caveat. If you want the tire to go up to 106 MPH, don’t exceed 1,819 lbs per tire.)

The new tires are Michelin LTX M/S 2 P235/75R15 108T. For whatever reason, Michelin is now calling them passenger tires (that’s what the “P” means) and giving them a higher load rating of 2,183 lbs per tire. But that’s really misleading. The industry says that if you want to use them on a truck or trailer you should divide by 1.1, which brings the load rating right back to 1,985.  (Isn’t it fun, all the secret codes and hidden rules they have? No wonder people get confused.)

The speed rating went up too: “108T” means now we can theoretically tow at 118 MPH, as long as we keep under 2,208 lbs per tire.  Sounds like fun.

I don’t hesitate to recommend these tires to my friends who ask for advice, because I’ve had this very good experience. But if you are happy using some other tire and having no problems, I don’t see a need to switch. Our 1968 Caravel does very well on ST tires, probably because it covers relatively few miles and is a much lighter trailer.

Now, having said all this, I’ve exposed myself to a small controversy. Some people like to debate this subject—and many others, such as tow vehicle choice—and undoubtedly one of them will either get in touch with me to inform me of my poor choice or open a thread on an online forum somewhere to discuss it. I have been intrigued to study the reasons why this continues to happen.

It’s perhaps oversimplifying, but I see two basic groups in every perennial online towing debate.

On one side you have what I’ll call the Rationalists. They look at the numbers and the guidelines. If, for example, the industry says that ST tires are engineered specifically for the needs of travel trailers, with reinforced sidewalls and special tread designs, that’s what the Rationalists will go by. After all, that’s what the experts say—and who are we to second-guess the engineers and the RV industry? They are the ones who made the things! Using LT or P tires is a sort of “off label use,” which might open you up to liability if something bad happens. And finally (say the Rationalists) just because those tires work for a few people doesn’t mean they’re a good idea.

On the other side you have the Empiricists. They look at actual experience, and argue that it has more value. If hundreds or even thousands of people are using LT or P-designated tires with a much higher success rate than the ST tires, who cares what the industry claims? Clearly their claims have been disproved by reality. This brings into question the industry motivations for steering us toward an inferior product (perhaps it was because the RV industry loves a low price? or perhaps to maximize profits?), which leads to deeper suspicion of industry guidelines.

Usually, both the Rationalists and the Empiricists firmly believe they are right, and they’ll often defend their position to the point of spoiling a party. (I used tires as an example, but the real fireworks get started over tow vehicle choice.) The problem is that neither side really has all the data.

The Rationalists don’t really know if the information they have received is correct. They’re just trusting what they see as the most authoritative source, and as we know, seemingly-authoritative sources can be dead wrong, biased by economic considerations, or distorted. The Empiricist can’t prove the validity of experience without a statistically valid survey. They’re just trusting what they’ve learned anecdotally. Neither side can definitively disprove the claims of the other, so the debate never ends.

Both sides will occasionally invoke the mythological concept of “common sense”.  There is no common sense related to complex decisions like tow vehicles or tires. You might think that over time, a consensus would emerge from the Internet based on an averaging of real-world experience, but it’s no more reliable than standing in the middle of a stadium and asking everyone to tell you which football team is best.

Another favorite argument is the “laws of physics”. Nobody ever explains which laws of physics (Newton, Bernoulli, Avogadro?) they are invoking. Since there are many physical laws and the dynamics of towed vehicles involve many of them at the same time, I suspect that really the claimants are speaking of an imaginary law that says everyone must agree with them.

Since nobody knows everything, it’s easy for one side to introduce doubt into the other side’s argument, by suggesting possible (and unprovable) reasons why their position has a fatal flaw. Often this takes the form of suggesting a hidden liability or potential negative outcome that has been rumored. This puts your opponent on the defensive, but beware, because both sides can play this game.

Copernicus believed the sun was the center of the universe, altering a 2,000 year-old belief stemming from the ancient Greeks that the Earth was the center.  Turns out everyone was wrong, and they were the smartest people on the planet at the time.

So my advice to people who get all worked up in debates about tow vehicles, tires, catalytic heaters, running the propane while towing, and other similar subjects is simple: remember why you got into Airstreaming. I’m guessing it wasn’t so you could argue with other people.

Anyway, you’re probably both wrong. Go camping and forget about it!

Something useful and beautiful

I’ve always had mixed feelings about our 2005 Airstream’s awning.  The awning is a unique feature for travel trailers. If you don’t have one, you might not understand how its value goes far beyond providing shade. I know when we got our first Airstream (which didn’t have an awning) I didn’t really see the value in them.

Then we got this 2005 Airstream Safari bunkhouse, and it came with a massive (21 foot long) Zip-Dee awning.  I unrolled it for the first time and was struck by the impact of it: instantly creating a welcoming space outside the trailer where before there was nothing. Suddenly I wanted to get a few chairs and table, perhaps a cooler of icy drinks, and sit out there all day watching the sun set.  Then, like a lot of Airstreamers do, turn on a decorative lamp for the evening and have dinner with some friends.

All that inspiration from a big piece of fabric overhead.  Who’d have thought it would transform a patch of gravel into an outdoor living room?

A-B Airstream morningThe only problem with this inviting tableau was the color of the awning.  Airstream was installing a dark gray awning on most Safaris at that time, which I didn’t like at all.  To me, an awning should be colorful and a little festive. The gray was monochromatic and tended to get hot in the sun, generating a layer of warm air underneath that inevitably got sucked into the trailer through the entry door screen.

But awning fabric is expensive, so I ignored the dullness of the fabric for a decade, although I winced inwardly a little every time I had to deploy it.

About five years ago when carpenter ants nested in the awning and chewed a few holes in it, I considered replacing the fabric. But that Sunbrella fabric is tough stuff and the rest of the awning was fine, so instead I called Zip-Dee and they sent me a swatch of replacement fabric to match patches. Eleanor and I cut it into squares with some pinking shears and attached the patches with fabric glue.  (Zip-Dee recommends clear silicone caulk, which works well too.)

Those patches were holding up well right up to the day we replaced the fabric. We didn’t need to replace it even after 11 years of use; I just got sick of gray. We also had installed a used window awning that came with fabric that didn’t match, which gave us the final push to change both sides of fabric to something we’d really like. Eleanor and I spent some time going over the Sunbrella swatch books at Alumaflamingo in Florida last February, and settled on “Coastal Spa” #4851-0000.

Airstream new Zip-Dee awning-2

It might seem strange, but one of the reasons I was willing to go to the expense of swapping out perfectly usable fabric on both sides of the Airstream was because I trust Zip-Dee. Jim Webb, who is the president, has come to Alumapalooza every year to do demonstrations and help customers. He personally installed our window awning last year—in the dark!—and if that isn’t proof that he’s a nice guy, I can also mention that he has supported Airstream Life magazine for many years with Zip-Dee ads.

Plus, Zip-Dee just makes an excellent product. Their awnings have been synonymous with Airstream trailers for over forty years. They last forever, they are easily repairable, and the company’s customer support is superb. Plus, they are one of those rare products that are still made in America (just like Airstreams) and world class. So I felt pretty strongly that not only would Zip-Dee treat me well, but that I’d be very happy with the upgrade.

Airstream new Zip-Dee awning-1No surprise then that Jim drove from Chicago with his son Alex to personally demonstrate to an interested crowd exactly how to replace the fabric on a Zip-Dee awning, using our Airstream. In the photo you can see the old gray fabric on the ground, as Alex and Jim prepare the new fabric to slide into the awning tube. They had the job done in about 45 minutes.

I love the way the new awning reflects on the Airstream, and the patterns of light it creates below. It simultaneously feels festive, relaxing, and (to me, at least) evocative of green subtropical waters by the beach.

There are lots of upgrades you can make to your Airstream, and we’ve done most of them big ones. But I have to say, for some reason this little change is one of the most pleasing. Now I look forward to sunny days so that I can put out the awning.

At least for us, our Airstream is our second home. Periodically spending some money to make it as nice as it can be seems frivolous, until you think about why you have it in the first place. An Airstream isn’t just a convenient way to travel; it’s also a place to relax, change perspective, and simplify. Why wouldn’t we make it as enjoyable as possible?

Airstream new Zip-Dee awning-3

I subscribe to William Morris’ famous advice: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” In this case, the Zip-Dee awning is both at once, and that’s a big win in my book.

How to keep your Airstream traveling forever

It’s hard to convey how happy I am to tell you this:  My long-awaited Airstream maintenance book is finally coming out!

I’ve been working on it for years. It covers everything you need to know to keep your Airstream travel trailer in great running condition for decades, by yourself, with simple tools and no prior experience.

Maintenance of your Airstream is not nearly as difficult as most people think, and with just a few basic tools and this guide, I think you’ll find you can do almost every routine task yourself. No more trips to the service center for every little thing.  No more feeling like you are at the mercy of the mechanic because he recommended changing the air in your tires and replacing the blinker fluid.  You might even find that this book saves one of your vacations, if something goes wrong on the road!

Let me tell you, writing this book was therapy for me. When I started Airstreaming in 2003, I knew nothing. I didn’t know how to fix anything, or even where to look to find the cause of a problem. I got a little better by 2005, when we went out on the road full-time. The next three years were trial-by-fire, because all kinds of things started to happen to the Airstream, and inevitably they’d happen when we were 200 miles away from the nearest assistance, so I had to call my friends and have them tell me what to do.

That’s the hard way to learn. So I wrote this book, with help from those same friends & Airstream Life contributors, to collect all the knowledge into a single volume.

I thought I had learned a lot about Airstreams after seven years of intense travel and lots of on-the-road repairs, but during the next four years (while I was writing this book) my eyes really got opened. I had long talks with Airstream personnel.  I read every guide I could find from every major supplier to Airstream, including Dexter, Alcoa, Atwood, Wineguard, Parallax, Hehr, Dometic, Marshall, Cavagna, Fantastic Vent, Zip-Dee, Corian, Forbo, and many others.

I collected articles from decades of “Schu’s News” and read several other “white box” maintenance guides cover-to-cover.  I talked to dealers, polishers, repair shops, and restorers.

And when I finally had a draft written, I put every word through intense review by experienced Airstream mechanics, retired factory staff, and knowledgeable Airstream owners. At the end, I realized I had often been confused, deluded, or just plain mis-informed by half of the junk I’d read online from self-appointed “experts”.  (They make things so much more complicated than they need to be!)

I think you and every other Airstreamer can benefit from the last four years I’ve spent working on this project.  I wrote the book specifically to suit every level of mechanical ability, so it doesn’t matter if you don’t even own a screwdriver. There are many things you can do to keep your Airstream going strong, and fix problems when they occur. Right now Brad Cornelius is working on the illustrations, 40 or so of them.  When he’s done, I think the book will run about 200+ pages, spiral bound.  That’s a lot of material, because it covers all these topics:

  • How To Inspect (to find problems before they occur)
  • Your Traveling Toolkit
  • Interior Cleaning and Appearance
  • Exterior Cleaning and Appearance
  • Aluminum Body Repair
  • Leak Prevention, Detection, and Repair
  • Windows, Doors, Locks, and Vents
  • Plumbing
  • Running Gear & A-Frame (including wheels, tires, brakes, and bearings)
  • Loading
  • Storage and Seasonal
  • Electrical
  • Propane System
  • Climate Control
  • Gas Appliances
  • Resources

Bottom line: this book is unique. No other book available contains so much Airstream-specific maintenance advice.

You can buy a copy from the Airstream Life Store right now.

I hope you love it. If you liked “The Newbies Guide To Airstreaming,” (my other book), I know you will.

If you’re wondering why it’s called “(Nearly) Complete”, it’s because no guide is ever really done.  Things keep evolving and new ideas pop up, and so my plan is to keep updating and expanding the book over the years. I want to thank the people who have helped me with the first edition, and thank you in advance for any tips or additions you add as you use it.

Summer 2015, Airstream style

It’s that time of year.  While most of the country is celebrating the appearance of spring, it’s already getting kind of “warm” here in Tucson (meaning we had our first 90 degree day already) and we’ve working on our annual trip north to Alumapalooza. By mid-May, when Tucson tends to hit 100 for the first time, we’ve got to be on the road with our Airstream.

I look forward to that day with a combination of apprehension and excitement. It’s nice to get back out in the Airstream, but the prep is incredible. Every house project, Airstream project, and work project needs to be settled (if not finished), and that’s a ton of work. I always advocate to people that they try not to go out on their adventure of a lifetime with a pile of unfinished business, personal issues, or money problems—because those things tend to drag you back to home sooner than you’d like—and I try to take my own advice.

It’s not always possible, of course, to put a “hard stop” on everything in life, so the other side of it is to try to find ways to continue the necessities of life even as you roll down the road. I could write a book about that … and maybe someday I will.

The Airstream has been getting its seasonal maintenance.  Being a lady of a certain age and having many miles behind her, I do have to try to get ahead of problems before we head out. So far this spring I have:

  • replaced the failed refrigerator cooling unit (and the replacement has been running continuously for a month with no problems)
  • replaced the converter/charger with a Xantrex TrueCharge 2
  • replaced the dump valves
  • stripped off the rest of the old “Tour of America” decals
  • added some aluminum sheet to the belly pan to replace corroded metal (galvanic corrosion is slowly eating the pan, as it unavoidably will wherever steel meets aluminum, and I expect that some large sections will need replacement in a few years)
  • removed, wire brushed, and repainted the spare tire carrier. I scuffed it pretty badly coming out of a parking lot back in January.
  • touched up paint on the Hensley hitch (but it needs a total strip & powder coat)
  • disassembled the center Fantastic Vent, cleaned thoroughly, and re-assembled
  • flushed the hot water tank & replaced the drain plug
  • replaced the Pressure/Temperature valve on the water heater
  • upgraded the propane tanks to aluminum Worthingtons
  • installed new LED lights in the refrigerator and range vent

And on the tow vehicle, a bunch more stuff including the new dash cam, GPS, tires, rear shocks, front air struts … I think I’d rather not list the rest of it right now. The memory is a bit painful.

If you wonder why I go through all this trouble when I could just buy plane tickets and hotel rooms, well, you aren’t an Airstreamer. Yes, it’s a lot of stuff, but when I compare it to the life we’ve had, the things we’ve seen, and the people we’ve met, a few repairs and maintenance seem like a very small price to pay.

There’s more to do on the Airstream but it just won’t all get done before we go, so I’ll bring a few tools and parts along and give Super Terry something to do when I see him at Alumapalooza. For Super Terry’s benefit, that list includes:

  • installing a replacement entry door lock, because the one we have has jammed a few times
  • sealing a small leak somewhere near the front vent fan
  • lubricating the seals on the vent fans
  • updating the Parbond sealant around a few spots on the exterior

The big project I had planned, to add a fancy water filtration system, is just going to have to wait until fall, I’m afraid.  All the parts are here but the time to do it has gone.

Now it’s time to clean out whatever is left from last year that we no longer need, and stock the Airstream with the ingredients for fun for Summer 2015. Both Eleanor and I have been at it for a while and we’ll be finishing the job over the next two weeks.

So here’s the trip plan for the first half of the summer:

late May: Arizona to Ohio, and then Alumapalooza!

June: tow east to Vermont for a few weeks, and another week-long BMW motorcycle adventure (destination TBD)

late June: I’ll fly back west while the rest of the family remain in the northeast.  Brett & I will hike in Navajo National Monument, and then drop in on the WBCCI International Rally in Farmington NM for a couple of days.

July: Temporary Bachelor Man returns!

There’s much more planned through October but my head would explode if I laid it all out right now. I figure we’ll cover about 8,000 miles of Airstream travel and at least 12 states, depending on how we head back. I want to do some exploring in parts of Arkansas and Missouri, especially around the Ozarks, where we’ve never been before.

Yes, it looks like another great summer coming up, Airstream-style.

Scrap metal

I got an email from a friend today who was asking on behalf of her friend about a vintage Airstream she wanted to purchase. The 1960s trailer was listed for $4,500.  The prospective buyer knows nothing about Airstreams except that they’re cool. That has become the number one qualification of vintage owners lately. I don’t like saying it, but that’s a problem.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I bought my first 1960s Airstream because it was cool too. But I took a lot of time to learn about them, and shop as carefully as I could, and eventually I scored a usable model that became my learning platform. We still have it; it’s the 1968 Airstream Caravel that we no longer use but lavish attention on nonetheless.

While I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a money pit, the Caravel certainly hasn’t been an awesome investment.  Even with my attempt to learn as much as possible before buying, I still had a lot of painful lessons ahead, and they cost me plenty. As I mentioned in my prior blog, vintage trailer owners tend to sink more money into their trailers than they are ultimately worth on the open market.

The person who wanted to buy the Airstream had dreams of turning it into a rental unit, using it herself occasionally, and decorating the interior herself. That’s all good, but if you don’t have a broad set of skills, lots of time, and a well-equipped workshop, the road from a “basket case” trailer to glamping heaven is paved with glue and cactus spines.  This buyer didn’t have any of the right qualifications.

So even before I looked at the trailer in question, I could say with confidence that a vintage project probably wasn’t right for her. But to be fair, I took a look at the online photos of the trailer too.

Colin Hyde in Airstream
Colin Hyde demonstrates a slight problem with this Airstream. This one was actually restorable, although at considerable expense.

Define “disaster”: an Airstream shell that has no interior, no windows, body damage, and a rotten wood floor. That’s what most people call scrap metal. There’s hardly any value in that, even if it is a very old Airstream (and 1960s-era is not considered very old in the Airstream world).

To get started on a project like this you would first need to find a way to transport it, since with no interior and a structurally deficient floor it would be unsafe to tow.  Then you’d need a good work space for two or three years, plus a long list of skills—or a really fat wallet to pay someone else to do all the dirty work.  $50,000-100,000 could disappear easily.

And yet, this buyer was ready to plunk down 45 hundred simoleons to acquire this decaying shell of an Airstream.  That’s the power of desire, triumphing over good sense.

Airstreams are enticing, no question. So I am writing this blog to warn those who don’t know what they are getting into. If you want to get into a project, fine, but don’t buy scrap metal. When you see an Airstream with no windows or with missing roof vents, it means it has been suffering water damage for years, not to mention the ravages of rodents and insects.

Junk AirstreamThe floor will be rotten.  The frame will probably be rusted. The insulation will be compacted and riddled with rodent trails. In short, the trailer is garbage. Junk. Restorable only at a ridiculous cost.

If you want a project, buy something that is at least intact, meaning with no major body damage, still sealed against the elements, and complete with all the doors and windows. If you don’t care about the interior because you’re going to strip it out and replace it anyway, at least make sure the structure underneath is still viable.  Don’t trust the seller on this—check it out yourself or find someone to check it out for you.

If you want to go camping in the next year, or you have a tighter budget, or you are utterly clueless about anything mechanical—buy a nice used Airstream that someone has recently camped in. There are plenty of good ones on the market.  They really aren’t rare, and Airstream keeps making more of them.  Most people will be happier without the horrible learning curve of buying a junker.

To those who make a sideline business out of selling scrap Airstreams to clueless buyers for outrageous prices: you should be ashamed of yourselves. Yes, if they are willing to pay and you don’t hide anything, it’s ultimately the buyer’s responsibility. But really, do you sleep well at night? Do something positive and help people by selling worthwhile trailers. Take the junk where it belongs: the recycling center.