Winter options for Airstreams (and their owners)

Even in Arizona it’s winter now, and our Airstream is mostly dormant. Although we boast of having a 365-day camping season, in practice we do relatively little camping in the winter because the Sonoran desert is chilly at night, and the nights are long. Sword swallowing in the desertWe have to plan our days carefully because around 5 pm the dark comes crashing down and the temperatures plummet. You want to be back at camp, all set up and cozy when dusk arrives.  There’s not much natural entertainment after dark except for the songs of the coyotes.

It can, however, be quite interesting to make your own fun on those long dark nights in the desert.

I’ll let you in on a “full timer” secret: The best camping this time of year isn’t in Arizona, it’s in California, particularly near the coast where the temperature swings are more moderate. Last January we took full advantage of that with a two week trip to Death Valley and the coast up to San Francisco. Even with frequent El Niño rains around the Bay Area it was a great time.

If you follow the blogs of various full-time RVers you have probably noticed that they tend to congregate over the winter in a few areas. Most full-timers hate freezing nights—the propane really disappears fast when overnight lows are below freezing—and so unless they have an obligation to be somewhere, Airstreamers head for a few reliably warm spots in the continental US.  Basically that’s southern Florida (below I-4), southern Texas, southern Arizona, southern California, the Pacific coast, and a few warm national park sites like Death Valley, Big Bend, and Padre Island.

This year we skipped our usual post-Christmas or early January trip to California, the first time we’ve done that in a decade or so. Instead, we will take a trip in mid-March.  March is an especially nice month to visit the low desert (anywhere from Texas to California) because it’s springtime and the desert plants will be blooming.

Picacho peak springtime

Desert flowers-1Last year the media and the parks were talking up something called the “Superbloom” and that might lead you to think that other desert springtimes are not worth the trip, but you’d be missing out. Every spring in the desert is wonderful.  The weather is nearly perfect: sunny, warm but rarely hot, and even if the blooms are below average you will still see lots of tiny flowers and green cacti if you just take some time to go for a short hike.

When it’s not out traveling our Airstream is fortunate to have a cozy carport to snooze in, protected from the slow degradation of weather and kept happy with a 30-amp power hookup. We keep it warm and mostly packed so that we can host occasional overnight guests or hitch up for an impromptu trip if some inspiration should overwhelm us.

If you have an Airstream that’s not in use over the winter, my first advice is always to keep it under cover if you can. I don’t mean a tarp, because:

  • tarps flap in the wind and can actually cause damage to the clearcoat from scuffing
  • a tarp will trap moisture rising up from ground and inhibit the Airstream from being able to dry out naturally, which can actually cause more moisture-related problems than it prevents!

Any sort of structure that keeps the rain, snow, and sunshine off your Airstream will help preserve it over the winter. If you use a storage facility, opt for a covered space—it’s worth the premium!  But try to avoid enclosed barns and tents that have earth floors, unless there’s a vapor barrier in the ground. Any corrosive material or damage to the clearcoat will be encouraged to become blooms of white spidery filiform corrosion during winter storage in a humid environment.

Ideally your Airstream should be stored below 60% relative humidity, although obviously that’s not always possible. Given a choice between a humid indoor environment, and a cold winter outdoors with some snow, I’d make sure the roof was leak-free and store it in the snow.  The dry winter air is far better than a damp and somewhat warmer environment.

(There’s a lot more to know about over-winter storage. Check out “The (Nearly) Complete Guide To Airstream Maintenance” pages 150-163.)

My other piece of advice is to consider taking a long trip to a warmer climate if you can. Lots of Airstreamers take their rig south during the winter, then store it in a covered spot for a return trip later in the season. Seems like a great idea to me: essentially your Airstream becomes a moveable vacation condo!

Whatever you do, stay warm and plan ahead. Even if you can’t get away over the winter a long lovely season for camping is not far away. While your Airstream dreams in its winter bed, you can dream of travel and camping yet to come.

Why I became a DIY mechanic

We’ve had our Mercedes GL320 for nearly eight years now, and it has accumulated about 130,000 miles to date. For the most part it has been a good choice for us but as it ages I am faced with a harsh decision.  That decision is whether to continue paying Mercedes repair shops exorbitant amounts of money to keep the GL320 on the road, or to start the ownership process over again with something new.

Anza Borrego GL 2014-01

I’m not really crazy about the idea of buying a new tow vehicle. The GL is in excellent shape overall (thanks to lots of new parts and meticulous maintenance), and let’s face it, tow vehicles are expensive.

But neither am I crazy about our tours of America becoming tours of Mercedes service centers.  This summer we were forced to visit dealership service centers in Pennsylvania, Washington, Oregon, and California, and that’s a reminder to me that the trusty steed is no longer a youngster.

For now I’m choosing a third option: Do-It-Yourself (DIY). It’s impractical for me to do large repairs on the road but while we are parked at home base over the winter I have the opportunity to do routine maintenance and certain repairs in the driveway. The Mercedes “Service B” interval costs about $500-700 when done at a dealership; last winter I did it myself for about $150.  In October I replaced the rear brakes for about $220 in parts and supplies, which was about 1/3 what the dealer would charge.

Not only is DIY a big savings but it is an interesting opportunity for personal growth. For most of my life I would have described myself as “not mechanically inclined.” That was my father’s special ability, not mine. But entering the world of Airstreaming gradually forced me to pay attention to how things worked, and ask questions, and acquire tools & skills.

It has been frustrating at times. There have been many times when I would never have persevered without the support and advice of friends like Nick, Colin, Brett, and Super Terry. When a vital part slipped from my fingers and disappeared, when I accidentally cross-threaded a bolt in the engine block, when I mis-wired something and blew up part of a circuit board, when the wheels literally came off the Airstream … all those times when it seemed there was absolutely no hope and I was about to drown in self-doubt or confusion, my friends have been there to help me get perspective.

One of the places where I buy parts, Mercedessource.com, provides a single Lemonhead candy in many of their parts kits. This is so you can “seek the wisdom of the Lemonhead” when things get difficult. In other words, step away from the problem for a while. In those moments of frustration when things seem bleakest it’s extraordinarily helpful to simply stop working and let your emotional chemicals subside. I usually go seek advice from friends or reliable documentation for a while. Eventually the path forward becomes clear—and the problem that seemed so utterly impossible before gets resolved.

Over the past ten years this learning process has been so empowering for me that it has literally changed my life. I’m still cautious about tackling new mechanical or electrical things (because the more you learn, the more you realize how much you don’t know) but the knowledge and confidence I have gained has led me to things like:

I look back on those accomplishments with amazement, because ten years ago I would never have seen myself doing any of those things. If you’re thinking the same about yourself, well, don’t sell yourself short.  You can learn anything.

And it feels great to have more self-sufficiency.  Most of us are constant victims of our modern “disposable” consumer products system.  The system says that more durable items (appliances, vehicles) must be serviced only by a qualified technician, and like our semi-broken healthcare system, you aren’t allowed to question the cost.

Well, that’s baloney. Sure, I can’t DIY every car repair. I don’t have all the tools or all of the abilities. The dealership service centers are still collecting their toll from me every year. But we can all push back on the system a little, empower ourselves, reduce inconvenience, and avoid being chumps if we bother to understand how things work and take some time to do what we can by ourselves.

I almost lost my resolve over the latest car issue.  The “Check Engine” light had popped on again, this time indicating a failure in the Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF) treatment system.  The dealer quoted $2,400 to fix this problem and (on top of several other expensive repairs earlier in the year) that was enough to make me seriously consider pitching the car in a river and signing up for a new car loan.

A technical aside here: DEF is a fluid that gets injected into the exhaust stream to combine with nitrogen oxides chemically to produce much cleaner exhaust.  The output turns into water vapor and free nitrogen. Mercedes calls DEF “Adblue” when they are feeling romantic (e.g., selling cars) and they call it “reductant” when they are feeling technical.  Whatever, it’s all the same thing: a mixture of dionized water and 32.5% urea.

The problem with this stuff is that it freezes when it gets below 12 degrees F, and it crystallizes if exposed to the open air. So to comply with Federal emissions requirements which say that the system must work under all conditions, Bosch designed a fancy system that keeps the DEF warm and sealed. Then they sold this system to a bunch of car manufacturers.

While I’m all for clean air, the DEF system has been a hassle. We’ve had nearly a dozen incidences of “Check Engine” lights attributable to this system over the past eight years, requiring numerous overnight stays at the dealership while the engineers back in Germany huddled together to figure out yet another software update or component upgrade. The frequency of these problems has not decreased with time.  In fact, this summer we had to stop in Pennsylvania to replace a failing NOx (nitrogen oxides) sensor for $600, so this the second emissions-related Check Engine light this year.

When the Mercedes service center said it would be $2,400 for a new DEF tank heater, I began to weaken. It seemed to be too complex a job for me to tackle. Perhaps it would be a good idea to start over with a new car warranty (and massive new car payment).  My doubt began to grow. Then I did a little research and was reminded:

  • trade-in or resale value of our existing car would be ridiculously low.  I wouldn’t sell it for the going rate of about $13,000—it’s still a nice car!
  • the new diesel I’d want is temporarily off the market thanks to fallout from the VW/Audi scandal.  All the manufacturers are being very cautious right now.
  • if I could get a few more years out of the GL, there might be interesting electric vehicle options.  The electric car industry is rocketing forward and it’s not unrealistic to expect major developments in the next 5 years. Then I’d be free of these nightmarish emission-control systems and “Check Engine” lights.

With that bit of Lemonhead perspective, I dug in to the expensive repair I’d been told was needed.  It turns out that the service center solution for a failing DEF tank heater is to replace the entire tank, pump, heater, and temperature sensor as a single unit. The heater is not offered as a single replacement part.

I can see why they do that. Removing the whole thing is a pretty easy job, taking about 60-90 minutes.  Drain the tank, remove eight bolts, disconnect a few wires and a hose, then pull the tank out and swap in a new one.  A dealership technician can do that quickly and not worry about the customer coming back for another problem in the same system, since everything has been replaced. And happy-happy-joy-joy, the dealer makes a pile of money charging $1,800 for the tank and about $600 for labor and supplies.

Adblue tank connections

On the other hand, replacing the heater alone is cheaper but requires some additional work for disassembly, a few more tools, soldering, etc.  That’s the kind of thing I can do myself if it saves a pile of money. I found a company that sells an upgraded version of the tank heater for $300, and with some help from Nick, installed it in a few hours. Eleanor helped me re-assemble the car afterward. Bottom line: The “Check Engine” light is off and all is well.

It’s funny how the elimination of that little fault indicator can suddenly make the car seem like new again. Having the satisfaction of fixing it myself (and saving a pile of cash) makes it even better. I took the GL out for a test drive and everything is humming along just as it should.  Now I’m perfectly happy with the GL—why was I ever considering selling it for a pittance and taking on a massive debt load?

Anza Borrego GL and Caravel 2014-01

In the next week or so I’m going to tackle a major Airstream electrical upgrade with my friend Nate. It’s the kind of thing that an electrician could do for $500 or so, but by doing it myself I know it will be done exactly the way I want—and once again I’ll probably learn a few things (from Nate) in the process.  You can read about it here soon.

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.