Learning to do an Airstream pre-trip inspection

Mexico horses on beachLast week I got a call from a local Airstream owner who wanted to know where he could get a pre-trip inspection before going to the beach in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico.  This owner had recently purchased my Airstream maintenance guide recently but he didn’t feel ready to do this inspection himself.

I can understand that. It takes time to absorb all the information and feel confident that you’re not going to overlook something important.  The temptation is always there to just call a professional and pay them to inspect instead.

That’s why in the book I recommend that new owners start learning to inspect while their Airstream is still new, so they can become accustomed to how things are supposed to be.  Any changes that occur later will be a lot more obvious that way.

This particular Airstreamer was quoted $350 by a shop to get an inspection done. This would include testing all the systems and a general inspection to find any problems.  This might be worthwhile to many people for a pre-purchase inspection, especially if they aren’t highly familiar with Airstreams, but I can’t see why any long-time owner should have to pay such a fee.

First off, there’s very little inspecting that a shop will do that you can’t do yourself.  The only really complicated tools you need are eyes, fingers, and a brain.

Second, if you already own the trailer you’re really just paying them to find problems that they will then charge you to fix.  To my way of thinking such an inspection should be free or very cheap.  Lots of automotive repair shops will offer free brake inspections, for example–and they are doing that because there’s a good chance they’ll find something that needs repairing.

Third (in this case) the Airstream was in pristine condition. It was a 2009 model that had been used only a few times.  The owner told me the first tank of propane lasted him six years!

Since the last trip it was stored under cover and on pavement in a desert environment.  That’s just about the ideal environment for storage. The only major things to worry about in that situation are keeping the battery charged, discouraging rodents (pack rats) and preventing things from drying out (rubber seals and battery fluid primarily).

The owner never hesitated to get repairs and maintenance done, and it showed.  The wheel bearings were recently re-packed, the exterior was clean, and the tires and brakes were in great condition.  The fact that he was considering paying $350 to have it inspected before a 500 mile round-trip showed how meticulous and careful he was about maintenance.  So it wasn’t likely that the Airstream needed much to be ready for its trip.

I don’t normally get involved but in this case I was interested in meeting this owner and understanding better what challenges he might be facing to get his Airstream ready after a long period of storage. (I’m collecting updates for a future second version of the maintenance book.)  So we arranged to meet at his house on Friday.

We walked around the trailer talking about the things described in pages 18-25 of my book, but clearly this trailer didn’t need a deep inspection. The only problems I could find were:

  • one missing interior rivet (see replacement procedure on page 57)
  • one loose hose clamp on an exterior gas line (p. 193)
  • low air in the tires (which is normal after long storage, discussed on p. 120)
  • a few window latches that needed a quick shot of silicone spray (p. 82)
  • a door hinge pin that was working its way out (p. 84)

The inspection and test drive took less than an hour including stopping off at a local tire shop to get some air. We didn’t need any tools to do the inspection.

Was this worth dropping the Airstream off at a local shop and paying $350?  Of course not.

We’re all led to think that only professionals can do a good job of maintaining vehicles, because vehicles are too complex for the average person.  Airstreams aren’t complex.  They’re really very simple conglomerations of lots of separate items, and just about anyone can learn how to inspect and do basic maintenance on them.

I replaced the missing rivet and left the owner with a short list of things to fix and check on his own, including checking the water in the batteries (p. 178).

By the way, he’s towing with a new BMW X5 and I have to say that it’s an awesome combination with that 23-footer.  We adjusted his Reese Strait-line hitch to improve the weight distribution and took it out for a test drive.  The drive was so enjoyable I almost didn’t want to let him have it back.  We got up to 45 MPH and I did a few fast lane changes and two simulated emergency braking maneuvers and just couldn’t believe the excellent performance from this combination.

I normally don’t experience such good manners from somebody else’s tow vehicle combination except when driving one of Andy Thomson’s tricked-out rigs, so it was a nice surprise. My own Airstream and tow vehicle are optimized for best possible towing performance too, but there’s a world of difference between the long wheelbase Mercedes GL/30-foot Airstream compared to the BMW X5 and a 23-footer.

Now, if you live in the Tucson area, don’t think I’m starting to do house calls.  This was a one-off deal!  Instead, take some time to learn more about how things work on your Airstream and you’ll find you can easily do it yourself.  Someday you’ll be proficient enough to pass on the knowledge to a fellow traveler.  Personally I was glad I did: I made a new friend, and he’s going to have a great trip to Mexico in a very sweet Airstream 23D.

Seminole Canyon State Park, Comstock TX

We stayed in Seminole Canyon State Park once before, on a long trip from Big Bend National Park on desolate Route 90, but we were in a hurry to get to San Antonio for some reason and spent only one night. I don’t remember why we were in a hurry but I do remember that we vowed to return again someday to explore the canyon.

This time we did, and I was surprised to see how impressive it is.  Not the deepest, widest, or most colorful, but Seminole Canyon is strange and compelling for other reasons.  The park staff or volunteers lead hikes into the canyon (this is the only way visitors are allowed to enter) for $5. Once at the bottom you can see the smooth carved floor and walls of limestone that evoke images of massive floods and rushing water—but there’s hardly any water at all.

Seminole Canyon view

The canyon has no source other than runoff from the surrounding plains. It’s just a big storm drain, with the commensurate boom-and-bust water flows, leading into the Rio Bravo (Rio Grande).  Most of the time it’s dry.

The official hike leads to a rock shelter with hundreds or perhaps thousands of petroglyphs left by ancient people.  We’ve seen many petroglyph sites across the southwest but each one is slightly different, so this one has its own style.  Shamanistic figures and symbols are dominant here and that’s very different from the Mogollon style we see in parts of Arizona and New Mexico.

Seminole Canyon petroglyphs

The petroglyphs are slowly fading due to increased humidity from the nearby (man-made) Amistad Reservoir and other natural influences. They won’t last forever, and they are well worth a look.

After the volunteer-led hike into the canyon we decided to do some of the canyon rim trails.  I had figured the trails would be a little dull after going into the canyon but I was very wrong. The route we chose turned out to be a fantastic (and easy) walk with spectacular views at every turn—and sometimes beneath our feet!

Seminole Canyon Eleanor overhang

There’s a fair bit of history too.  The second transcontinental railway passed through here, and you can see remains of the rail beds and stone ovens constructed for use by the workers.  The visitor center has a good interpretive area that talks about the railway, the origin of the name Seminole Canyon, the “black Seminoles,” the lifestyle of the ancient people who lived here and latter-day ranching.

And, as in many parts of the desert, if you look closely you’ll see wildflowers …

My impression: Seminole Canyon State Park is an overlooked gem. It’s a long drive to get here so it’s not a convenient stop, but with Amistad Reservoir nearby I would say the destination opportunities are well worth making the trip and spending a few days.

And now to the continuing saga of on-the-road-repairs:  first thing Monday morning I got on the computer and used Skype (thanks to campground wifi; there’s no Verizon service here) to call Hensley Manufacturing.  Steve was extremely courteous to me and laid out the two options I already knew about:  get the crack in the hitch welded locally at my expense, or ship the hitch back for a repair.

I found a welding shop in Del Rio to fix the crack, and after I get back to Tucson, Hensley will send me a replacement hitch head under the lifetime warranty.  Of course, the old hitch head has to go back and I have to pay the shipping for both so this is not completely free, but at this point the hitch head has plenty of wear and is due for a refurb anyway.  It will cost about $250 in shipping, which I think is well worth it for a factory refurbished unit. Turns out I misunderstood. They’ll accept the head for a free repair under the warranty but I’ll get the same unit back, which means the other wear items will still be present.  I’ll probably do my own refurb at home, instead.

The welding shop in Del Rio deserves a shout-out. Arc-Rite in Del Rio TX was awesome. They took me into the shop right away, asked me how I wanted it fixed (“MIG or stick?”) and had the job done in about ten minutes—with a final bill of just $18.15.  Nice guys, great service, and I really appreciated that they didn’t make me wait.

By the way, the easy way to transport the Hensley hitch is shown in the photo.  I just disassembled it while it was still attached to the car and secured the top from swiveling with a Velcro strap.  No lifting, no hassle.

If you’ve ever got to work on yours, my number one tip is to wear disposable gloves and have paper towels handy.  The hitch is simple to disassemble, but the grease gets everywhere and cleanup is a lot quicker if you don’t have to scrub black grease off your hands.

After the 75 mile roundtrip to Del Rio with the hitch, a quick stop for ice, re-assembling & re-greasing the hitch, a quick shower and packing up, it was nearly noon.  We decided to make a break for Big Bend despite the late start.

This was a tougher decision than it might appear, because Route 90 and Route 385 are almost barren of services of any kind (Sanderson and Marathon are two exceptions). Once we started we were committed to going to Big Bend—or boondocking somewhere roadside.  So, onward along the southern border of Texas we went.  Big Bend or BUST!

Pedernales Falls State Park, Johnson City TX

We hadn’t anticipated being out this late in the year.  The original plan was to get home by about Halloween, but we blew through that and have continued to find reasons not to go home ever since.  The current loose plan had us getting home around November 14 but as you’ll soon see, that may change again.

I had forgotten a few of the key considerations when traveling by road during the winter. The big one is that after Daylight Savings Time ends the driving day gets very short, so we have to plan to be stopped by about 5 pm in order to avoid having to get into our campsite in the dark.  When we’re trying to cover 300 miles or more in a day this puts a little pressure on us to get started in the morning.

Pedernales Falls pano

Other things get trickier as well, such as burning through propane faster and the impact of hurricane season in the southeast.  Since we got to the Florida panhandle the weather has been hit-and-miss (mostly “miss”) with lots of clouds and rain everywhere.  I thought we’d escape it by heading west but we got soaked again in New Orleans, and then all this past weekend in Pedernales Falls State Park west of Austin.

Even with drizzle and mist all day Friday we managed to have a decent time visiting the falls. There are no dramatic waterfalls here, they’re really more of a series of flows over sloping rock, which can become huge and dangerous during flash floods. With rain falling most of the time we were hiking over the rock I think we were all very aware that in minutes the river could rise and wash us away, so we kept an eye on it.

But nothing like that happened. Instead we were treated to a peek at the rocks and fossils that are frequently covered by water, and the tiny pools of captured water that are abundant with microscopic life, and erosion caves at the edge.

And then, lacking much else to do, we went back to the Airstream.  I put on an old movie and Eleanor and Emma made their traditional “rainy day brownies” with ancho chile powder and salt on top.

Sometimes I hear people talking about that inevitable day when they are trapped by weather in their Airstream, and how they need to get a bigger trailer in order to survive it.  Our trailer is pretty big at 30 feet 11″ outside length, but for three people it’s still not a lot of space. I don’t think the size matters as much as your personalities. If you can’t get along for one day inside the Airstream, a bigger one probably won’t help. Try taking up a hobby that doesn’t need a lot of space, or pack some books or movies to entertain yourself.  Or, do as we did and put on your rain jacket and go hiking anyway. The trails won’t be crowded.

Our string of equipment malfunctions continues.  We drove from Pedernales Falls to Seminole Canyon State Park (Comstock TX), and here I happened to do a quick inspection of the Hensley hitch, because … well, that’s what I do.  There are a few things which have given us trouble in the past and so I am extra-sensitive to the potential for failure again, and the hitch is one of those things.  Hensley hitch crack 2015-11A crack formed in it back in August 2009 and it was replaced by Hensley under the lifetime warranty.  Today I spotted a crack in about the same location, and I know it wasn’t there a few weeks ago when I inspected the hitch in Ohio.

It would be nice if things like this failed in the driveway instead at a remote desert park with no cell phone service.  But I’ve learned you can’t pick your failure points, so the next best thing is to know where to find help.

With this problem I have two basic options: get a replacement from Hensley, or find a local welder to fix it.  I would rather have them replace it since the hitch head is pretty scabby looking anyway (most of the orange paint chipped off years ago and I’ve been patching it with spray paint ever since).  Also, finding a welder would require us to relocate to Del Rio (35 miles away) and stay there for a day or two even if we were lucky enough to find someone with time to do the job on Monday–and that would disrupt our trip.

The crack is not so severe that I’m afraid to tow with it.  I will have to start inspecting the hitch every time we stop, to ensure that the crack is not growing. Using Skype and the campground wifi I was able to leave a message for the Hensley technical support folks (it’s Sunday).

Right now the plan is to continue onward to Big Bend National Park and if we are really lucky a replacement head might be waiting for us by the end of the week in Alpine TX.  If not, we’ll consider alternatives depending on what the Hensley guys say.

That’s a problem for another day. Today we’re going hiking in Seminole Canyon.  Despite the ongoing technical challenges, the trip goes on!

Fighting entropy

Technology kept collapsing around us last week, despite my hopes for a turnaround in luck. The refrigerator dropped back to its prior level of weak performance, managing to keep the interior only about 46 degrees on electric and about 50 degrees on propane. In addition to everything else that went wonky, the rear-view cam on the Airstream went dark as we left Destin FL, and so it made sense to drop in on our friends at Airstream of Mississippi (Gulfport, MS, right off I-10) for a little help.

Jesse bent stabilizerAS of MS (also known as Foley RV) has a small but capable service department.  Jesse (pictured here) swapped out the bent stabilizer in a few minutes, which I appreciated particularly because it meant I didn’t have to lie on my back and wrestle it off with my own wrenches.  The service guys were kind enough to take a good stabilizer off a used Airstream, since they didn’t currently have a new stabilizer in inventory. That’s good service!

They also took a look at the mysterious failure of the rear-view cam and figured out in a few minutes that the problem was in the flexible cable that carries the signal from the Airstream to the car. A little tweaking and that problem was solved too.  I was starting to have hope.

Airstream of Mississippi Foley RVI should pause here to say that Rick Foley and his team are really great—making Airstream of Mississippi one of my favorite dealerships to visit. Rick is a “real Airstreamer.” He actually became an Airstream dealer after being a vintage Airstream owner and falling in love with the lifestyle.  That’s good motivation by my standards.  Rick has a nice Argosy motorhome these days, which is looking sweet thanks to a recent repaint in the neighboring bodyshop.

At that point we still thought the refrigerator was working, so I didn’t ask about that, but later that day when we pulled into Bayou Segnette State Park in Westwego LA (across the river from New Orleans), it was obvious that we still had a cooling problem.

Since we’d already reduced our perishables to a bare minimum, the weakness of the refrigerator wasn’t as much of a crisis as before.  We left it running in hopes it might recover, and spent a day in New Orleans with our good friends Lexie and Charon, visiting a few old favorite places.  I had to get a really good muffaletta, for one thing, and so we had lunch at a place I’ve been visiting for muffalettas since 1983.

New Orleans Cafe Du Monde sugar lipsIn my college years I visited Cafe Du Monde many times, but never before midnight. It was something of a ritual back then, topping off an evening of wandering and listening to jazz leaking out of the cafes and restaurants, with an order of 3 beignets and coffee.

Being a tad older these days, we hit it in the mid-afternoon this time. It was exactly as it always is: simple, crowded, and fun. Wearing powdered sugar from the beignets is de rigeur.  I had left a few white smudges on my green Airstream Life baseball cap as a souvenir until the heavy rains over the weekend washed them off.

We had only one good weather day out of three this visit, so we made the most of it, walking all around the French Quarter and riding the St Charles streetcar its full length at sunset.  Everyone was out in their Halloween costumes a day early because of the strong forecast of rain on Halloween, and this made the people-watching just fantastic.  New Orleans is a city of drama and costume already, so when you mix in Halloween and massive  parties along St Charles and Carrollton, it’s a virtual show.

Bayou Segnette awning

The next day I tackled what technical problems I could, with Lexie’s help.  I’d had several packages sent to the park, so at this point I was able to replace the dead Wilson cellular booster, replace the failing showerhead and flexible hose with an Oxygenics model, and replace the TPMS with the latest version with user-replaceable batteries (this is the same one I sell in the Airstream Life Store).  I also lubed the awning arms with silicone spray since they were sticking.  I felt like I was making progress against entropy.

Dometic refrigerator pressure testThe big project was the fridge. First, I wanted to make sure that the propane gas pressure was set correctly at the regulator.  Low pressure can cause the refrigerator to fail when running on gas.

Lexie had an old-fashioned blood pressure manometer that read millimeters (mm) of mercury (HG).  In the photo at right you can see our almost steampunk-appearing test rig. We bought a few pieces of brass at the local hardware store to screw into the test port on the refrigerator (1/8″ FIP by the way) and connected the rubber hose from the blood pressure gauge to that.

Since the optimal gas pressure is 11 inches of water column, I just had to find an online converter to figure out what that was in mm/HG.  The answer is 20.5, and sure enough, the gas regulator was set too low.  We quickly adjusted that, but I knew it wasn’t the whole story since the refrigerator wasn’t working properly on gas or electric.  (Also, the regulator seems to be at its adjustment limit, so it may need replacement soon too if I can’t find the correct spring.)

I decided to do the test that Arcticold requested.  This involved disconnecting the 120 volt wires to the refrigerator’s circuit board, and cutting/splicing them to connect the electric heating element directly.  Essentially this “hotwires” the heater so it runs full bore even if the refrigerator is turned off.  This test eliminates any possibility of failure caused by a faulty circuit board, thermistor, or gas burner.

After 24 hours of running like this it was clear the cooling unit wasn’t performing.  The fridge stayed in the upper 40s.  We let it run like this for another 12 hours, taking temperatures of the exterior tubing periodically with an infrared thermometer so I could report to Arcticold.  On Sunday I re-wired it back to original–with one exception.  Now it has a set of “quick disconnect” plugs so that I can easily repeat this test without cutting anything.

I gave Arcticold a call this morning and got voicemail again, which I expected.  They didn’t call back today, so it looks like this could be a long slog.  Meanwhile, we’re back to putting dry ice in the freezer to protect the few things remaining in there.

Eleanor making shrimp & grits

Despite not having reliable refrigeration, Eleanor is still managing to cook well.  In the photo above she’s making a spectacular meal of South Carolina’s famous “Shrimp & Grits” with a few crabcakes on the side.  She has adopted a philosophy of buying fresh stuff daily as we need it, and using the refrigerator mostly as a moderately cool place to store less perishable things like canned drinks and butter.

We’re also making a few substitutions like buying UHT milk. It turns out that refrigeration is overrated, and by the end of this trip we may have figured out that we don’t need it at all.  After all, Wally Byam toured Europe in 1948 without a refrigerator. I think we can get across Texas and the desert southwest.


Gremlins do inhabit Airstreams just like every other place in the world, and I suppose they are especially active at this time of year.  After all, Halloween is this weekend and gremlin infestation is the only possible reason I can find for so many things going wrong in the past week.

Let’s re-cap:  failure of 3 clearance light bulbs, batteries in the TPMS sensors, O-rings in the kitchen faucet, one walkie-talkie, the Wilson Sleek 4G cellular booster, and the refrigerator.  Plus hiccups in the GPS, one laptop, the Verizon MiFi, shower head, Tongue Twister, and a couple of broken leveling blocks.

And then yesterday, when hitching up in a heavy rain (thanks to the remnants of Hurricane Patricia) when leaving Fred Gannon Rocky Bayou State Park in Niceville FL, I rushed the job a little too much and attempted to drive away with one stabilizer jack still down.  Ugh.  So that’s pretzeled.

I whacked the stabilizer with a hammer a few times—not that it did any good for the problem but it was a good way to work off frustration—and then got out the old speedwrench and cranked the stabilizer up enough to be able to tow.  That stabilizer looks seriously deranged and it will never work again.  I’m hoping Airstream of Mississippi will have one in stock when we drive past there on Thursday.

Despite the constant series of glitches capped by my own embarrassing mistake, as I was standing there getting soaked in the rain I felt that we’d reached a sort of turning point.  It felt like I’d just hit a triple low biorhythm day and from here on things could only get better.

It was time to reach out to friends and associates, and the ever-helpful Mr Google and Ms Amazon, and get back on track.  We set up the Airstream for a three-day stay on the Florida panhandle near the beach, and got busy.  I ordered a few new parts to be delivered to our campground in Louisiana later this week, made arrangements to borrow a few sockets and wrenches I don’t normally carry, and we went to the local Wal-Mart to buy some Gremlin Repellent.

It must have worked because a miracle occurred.  After days of the refrigerator not working (repeated attempts) and no returned calls from Arcticold (repeated attempts), I managed to get Arcticold on the phone.  They basically told me that what had happened to us couldn’t have happened, and asked me to do a test to verify the cooling unit wasn’t working.

This frustrated me since I had already run through considerable diagnosis on my own and with Super Terry and knew that the cooling unit had lost its mojo.(1)  But they wouldn’t offer a warranty replacement until I did one more test, which involved hotwiring the electric heater element to 120 volt power for 12 hours and then taking some temperature readings on the exterior coils.(2)

At this point the refrigerator had been turned off for about 30 hours since our last attempt. “What the heck,” I figured, “let’s make them happy,” so I turned it back on overnight and made a note to go buy an infrared thermometer in the morning.

And of course, the refrigerator started working again.

The damn thing was 27 degrees when I woke up, thanks to a combination of dry ice and a working cooling unit. I took out the dry ice and let it run all day and it stayed at 32 degrees.(3)  Cooling like a glacier, and not even a “oh, sorry” from it for taking a multi-day vacation.

Super Terry’s only comment was “Did Microsoft have anything to do with designing it?”  Apparently what it wanted was a long break to let its internal gasses settle, and a re-boot.(4)

Henderson State Beach Airstream campsite

Of course by this time we’ve eaten most of the good stuff in the freezer.  Last night Eleanor made filet mignon wrapped in bacon with a gorgeous red wine sauce that had roasted garlic and mushrooms and … I don’t even know what else, but it was awesome.  That went with little roasted potatoes and sweet squash and salad.  Tonight we have salmon planned (it’s already defrosted so we have to eat it).  I can’t complain about any of that.  Now we’ve got a half-empty freezer and I guess that means we can stock it up with something else tasty.

I don’t trust the refrigerator fully just yet, but I’m going to celebrate by buying some ice cream pretty soon.  Take that, gremlins!

(See comments for technical footnotes.)