Oh no, it’s the UPS truck again

I have spent several hours this week stripping the old “Tour of America” graphics off our Airstream. This is something I really should have done long ago, perhaps even in 2008 when we officially ended our full-time travels and settled into a house without wheels, but for sentimental and laziness reasons I kept putting the job off.

We loved the graphics.  They made our Airstream unique and a reminder of the 1,000 happy days we spent traveling America.  People would ask us where we got them, or if they indicated that our trailer was a rental (apparently confusing Airstream and U-Haul).  Many others would say nothing but take pictures when they spotted it.  Emma confessed that while attending rallies as a small child she would use the decals as a way to find her home among dozens of other Airstreams.

The graphics were custom-designed by Brad Cornelius for us when we launched in 2005, and at the time I expected they would be on the Airstream for less than a year.  The people who applied them assumed the same, and so I have nobody to blame but myself for the fact that ten years later the decals had fused to the Airstream’s clearcoat in a very stubborn way. The final impetus to remove them came last year, when the two decals that faced south began to crack and peel off like a bad sunburn.

I knew that getting them off would be a problem, because I had removed the largest decal back in 2010 and it took several days.  Back then I was going the chemical approach, using all kinds of nasty carcinogenic goop, none of which worked particularly well.  I tried a heat gun and plastic scrapers and all sorts of things, but it was still a huge hassle—and in the process I managed to scrape off the Airstream’s clear coat in two places.

This time I tried a 3M Adhesive Eraser Wheel, and it was a huge difference.  It’s basically a polyurethane grinding wheel that you put on a drill.  The wheel cost me $32.99 locally, which turned out to be money well spent.  The wheel strips off the vinyl and the underlying adhesive without damaging the clear coat at all. You can see how this works in my short YouTube video.  Then I followed up with a few applications of Goo Gone to clear up the remainder.

Unfortunately, you can also see how the graphic in the video demo is leaving behind a “ghost” image of itself.  That particular bit of vinyl was facing southwest while the Airstream was in storage, and it got the most sun damage. The vinyl actually embedded into the clear coat and caused permanent damage.  If I had removed it a couple of years ago it would have been fine—I just waited too long.

Oh well.  Now that I’ve got the entire graphic off and cleaned up the surface, it actually looks kind of cool.  From some angles it’s like a silver image cast into the aluminum.  I may eventually have that panel stripped and re-coated by P&S Trailers the next time we are passing through Ohio, or maybe we’ll just design a new vinyl graphic to cover up that spot.  One other graphic also left a mark. The others (which were in shade during storage) came off cleanly.

It’s hardly “stealth” with  AIRSTREAMLIFE.COM still emblazoned on either side and the rear, but the Airstream is much more subtle now. I think we’ll operate like this for a while, until we decide what personalization we might like next.

Fiddling with the graphics is a prelude to much bigger things.  For weeks I have been amassing equipment for a minor renovation and upgrade inside the Airstream.  Since I’ve got to head to Florida soon for Alumaflamingo, I might start the project in the next few days but won’t finish until probably late March.  The list includes:

  • replacement of the refrigerator cooling unit, with a rebuilt one
  • replacement of the Intellipower charger with a Xantrex that can handle our AGM batteries
  • replacement of the kitchen countertop
  • installation of a water filtration system including two cartridge filters and UV sterilization
  • installation of a NuTone food center
  • various other small tweaks

It’s a lot of stuff, but it looks like we will continue to use our Airstream heavily for many more years, so I’m glad to make the investment. If you’re interested in upgrade stuff, stay tuned. Every time the UPS truck pulls up at my door, another project will begin …

Caution: low hanging valves

Yesterday we wrapped up Alumafiesta in Tucson, and so now we’re in the “recovery” phase, just trying to get back in sync with life and unwind after a hectic week. For me, it’s time to get a few Airstream projects done.

In the first week of January I decided to do something I’ve never done before: take a friend out in the Airstream for a week-long trip, instead of my family. It might seem odd that I’ve never done that, but those of you who own travel trailers or motorhomes can testify that they become very personal. I always associate our Airstream with our family. I rarely even take the Airstream out alone.

But my buddy Nick was a pretty safe bet. He’s low-maintenance, easy-going, and a decent cook. We work on our old Mercedes cars together on weekends, and have spent many a Saturday morning digging around the junkyard, so we’ve bonded over greasy parts and underneath diesel engines. At one point Nick mentioned that he and his wife would like to own a small travel trailer someday, so I figured he was ready to get introduced to the world of Airstream.

IMG_4487We took the Airstream out to the southern California desert, where we met up with a bunch of other desert rats/technomads, went hiking, and ate apple pie from Julian. Then we hopped over to Quartzsite to see the spectacle of cheapskate boondockers and endless flea markets, and we wrapped up the trip with a hike up Picacho Peak in Picacho AZ. It was all brilliant except that the Airstream kept giving us little problems, signs of advancing age and frequent hard use.

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I already wrote about the battery charging issue, and that will get addressed later this month when the new charger comes in. During the California trip, I found a few other glitches, most of which I fixed on the spot.  One interesting problem was the sudden failure of the P/T valve on the water heater.  This valve is supposed to relieve excess pressure in the water heater (it’s a safety device) but mine decided after ten years it was done holding back, and so it began to gush water.  One trip to the local hardware store later, Nick and I had it swapped out for a new one.

All of the repairs were small stuff like that, hardly worth breaking out the tool kit for, until the aluminum bracket that holds up the dump valves broke loose.

Even this wasn’t a major problem.  The bracket is riveted into the belly pan, which is thin aluminum, and the rivets had finally torn out after 100,000+ miles of bumping along North American roadways. The dump valves hung a little lower than usual, but everything still worked.  My only concern was that eventually, without the bracket, the connections on the plastic pipes might eventually start to leak.

Normally I’d fix this with bigger rivets—which I carry around at all times, as well as a rivet tool—but in this case there wasn’t enough intact metal in the belly pan left to make a bond I could trust.  It needed a reinforcing sheet of aluminum.  I browsed around the junk piles at Quartzsite and found an expired California license plate that was the perfect size to serve as a reinforcing plate.

I was feeling rather resourceful until it became obvious that the entire dump valve assembly would have to be removed in order to get in there with the drill and rivet tool to rig up my field repair.  This was more of a job than I wanted to do in a Quartzsite campground (we had opted for full hookups rather than boondocking again), and it seemed like an opportunity to order a new set of dump valves to swap in at the same time.  So after getting home, I placed an order for the new valve set and went off to Alumafiesta for a week.

Alas, the day before Alumafiesta I heard a strange hissing noise from the refrigerator, one I’ve never heard before.  The refrigerator used in RVs is normally silent. There wasn’t any obvious ammonia smell (a definite indicator of a major failure), nor any sign of coolant leakage, and the fridge was still working so there wasn’t anything I could so at that point.  A few days later, the fridge stopped cooling and a tell-tale puddle of greenish-yellow coolant oozed out.  RIP refrigerator #2.  It lasted just six and a half years, one of the 900,000+ victims of Dometic’s unfortunate refrigerator manufacturing fiasco from June 1, 2003 to September 30, 2006.

The immediate solution was to find another refrigerator to store my food for a few days until the event was over.  The long-term solution was to order a new cooling unit for the refrigerator.  The cooling unit is the guts of the fridge, and it’s entirely replaceable.  We could get a new refrigerator, but we really like the Dometic NDR-1062 that we have, and it has been discontinued.  It’s the only model we’ve found that yields 10 cubic feet in the space of a typical 8-cubic foot refrigerator box.

The dealer quote was $1,560 to replace the cooling unit.  I ordered a new cooling unit for $524, to be delivered by truck freight to my door with a 6-year warranty, and I will replace it myself sometime next week. I’ve never done this job before, but it doesn’t look terribly difficult, and I’ve got friends who can help. As a few people have said to me, “If you can do your own work on that old diesel Mercedes, you can do this.”

Meanwhile today, I got under the Airstream and swapped out that dump valve set, and riveted that bracket up. It was a good warm-up for the work yet to come this month.

At times it seems like I’m constantly working on one Airstream or another. This can be frustrating at times because there are other things in life. On the other hand, each repair is an opportunity to get to know the Airstream better, learn new skills, and improve things beyond the original factory spec. There’s something very satisfying in doing it yourself.  And I can assure you that those dump valves will never drop low again, thanks to ten huge rivets and a California license plate.

How my Airstream lost its mojo in the carport

Next week I’m going to camp in the desert in California, and so I’m getting the Safari ready now. I’ve learned that anytime the Airstream has been sitting for a while, it’s best to start checking all the systems at least two weeks in advance.  That way the little problems that sometimes crop up during storage can be resolved without a last-minute panic.

I figured I’d find something that needing doing, but was completely surprised by what turned up.  The Tri-Metric battery monitor was reporting the batteries were at 73%. Since the Airstream has been continuously plugged into power since late August, this was clearly suspicious. The batteries should have been at 100%.

The Tri-Metric 2020 (by Bogart Engineering) is one of several amp-hour meters you can install in place of the existing battery monitor that came with your travel trailer. I recommend this upgrade to everyone, for reasons I’ve outlined previously. It’s about $200 plus installation, and well worth it for anyone who ever camps off-grid, has solar panels, or just wants to know what’s really going on with their batteries.

The Tri-Metric is highly accurate. It “counts” every bit of power (in amps) that goes in or out of the batteries, so when it reports 73% charge, it’s pretty darned close, like within 1-2%. We’ve had that Tri-Metric running in the Airstream for nine years and it has always been reliable.

So the first thing I checked was that the Airstream was in fact receiving power.  That was simply a matter of looking at another meter in my case, but if you didn’t have one, turning on an AC-powered appliance would verify power as well. Just plug in a lamp or something.

The second thing I checked was that the power converter/charger was doing its job.  You might recall that earlier this year I switched from the factory-installed converter/charger to an Intellipower 9260 with Charge Wizard. This was in order to get better battery charging when we were plugged in. The factory put in a 2-stage charger, and the Intellipower has three stages, plus somewhat more “brain” so it doesn’t overcharge the battery, and the option of manual overrides using the Charge Wizard.

The Tri-Metric answered this question too. It was showing that the batteries had a tiny rate of discharge, about -0.05 amps. Turning on additional DC power consumers (lights, fans, water pump) revealed that the rate of discharge never changed.  That’s because the Intellipower was doing at least part of its job, stepping up the power input as needed to compensate for DC power draws. If the Intellipower wasn’t working at all, the Tri-Metric would have shown a dramatic increase of discharge.

Now, to understand what’s coming next, you need know something about the way batteries charge. A fully charged “12 volt” battery really runs about 12.7 volts.  (This varies by the type of battery chemistry used, but here I’m referring to the typical “wet cell” lead-acid batteries that come with your Airstream.)

Think of volts as electrical pressure. In order to get 12.7 volts into the battery, you have to “push” power into the battery a little harder than 12.7 volts. The harder you push, the faster the power goes in.  But there’s a limit to how hard you can safely push, so for this typical sort of battery the manufacturers usually recommend about 13.6 volt for a normal charge. When the battery is really empty you can push a little harder (meaning more volts), and when it is nearly full you have to back off and push more gently (less volts).

The Intellipower, like many other RV converter/chargers, has pre-set levels at which it charges the batteries. If the battery is full or nearly full, it charges at “storage mode” rate of 13.2 volts.  This keeps the battery topped off, compensating for a little “self-discharge” that naturally occurs with lead-acid batteries.

If the battery is somewhat discharged, the Intellipower steps up to 13.6 volts.  This is the “normal mode” of charging.

If the battery is really discharged and needs a bulk charge quickly, the Intellipower goes for broke and pushes hard at 14.4 volts. It will only do this for a little while before returning to the normal mode of 13.6 volts.

Those are the “three stages” that I was referring to earlier, and it works just great for conventional batteries.

With the trailer plugged in, the Tri-Metric was telling me that the battery voltage was steady at 13.2 volts.  That’s not the actual voltage of the battery, because it was receiving some input from the Intellipower. To get the true voltage, I disconnected the AC power and waited for the battery to have a chance to “settle”.

Ideally I should have let it settle for 24 hours with no charge or discharge (e.g., disconnected), and then measured at 77 degrees, but I was impatient and didn’t want to disconnect the battery at that time, plus it was cold outside. So I waited six hours with a very small load on the battery (from the refrigerator’s circuit board and a few other small “parasitic” drains), and checked the voltage again.  It was 12.7 volts, which in a conventional battery would indicate that it was about full.

If this had been the end of the story I would have concluded that the Tri-Metric had somehow lost calibration and wasn’t counting the amps correctly. But that just didn’t sit well with me.  The Tri-Metric seemed to be acting normally.  After six hours of the trailer being unplugged, the Tri-Metric was reporting a 70% charge, which seemed about right. Something else had to be wrong … but what?

The answer surprised me.  Long ago we replaced the original Airstream batteries with an Absorbed Glass Mat (AGM) battery. These are sold under various brand names, such as Optima. Ours happens to be a Lifeline 4D model. I looked up the charging requirements for this battery and discovered that it has entirely different voltage requirements, as follows:

Absorption Charge voltages (“normal mode”): 14.2- 14.6
Float Charge voltages (“storage mode”) 13.1 – 13.4

Although the Intellipower charger was supplying power to the battery, it just wasn’t enough. When the battery wanted 14.2 to 14.6 volts, the charger gave it 13.6 volts. Sitting in storage, the charger gave it only 13.2 volts, which was fine for a while, but not enough to maintain the AGM’s rated “full” level of 12.9 volts. The battery gradually lost power.

The upshot for you is that there’s a dirty little secret about most power converters: they aren’t optimized for charging AGMs, at least not the Lifeline ones.  In our case, the Intellipower documentation doesn’t address this, and factory voltage output settings can’t be changed. I checked a few other popular brands and found they are exactly the same. Only a few brands, like Xantrex, have the built-in capability to push the correct voltages needed for AGM batteries. If you have switched to AGMs and haven’t upgraded your converter/charger to the right brand, your battery is going to have reduced capacity as well.

The really peculiar thing about this is that it took eight months for my problem to crop up.  Why didn’t I notice a charging problem before?

Because we have solar panels, and a separate solar charge controller (a Blue Sky Solar Boost 2000e). The Blue Sky charger can be programmed to output a range of voltage, so you can optimize it for your batteries. The factory default on that device is 14.0 volts (compared to 13.6 volts on the Intellipower), and that makes a huge difference. So when we were parked outside, our batteries were getting their last 27% of capacity courtesy of the sun and the Blue Sky—and I didn’t realize it until now.

At home, our Airstream lives under a carport, so the solar panels don’t produce any power. And, in colder temperatures, it takes a little more power to charge the batteries—about 0.5 volts more. (This is just a weird battery chemistry thing.) So after four months of sitting in the carport with slowly declining temperatures and inadequate voltage from the Intellipower, the battery slowly lost power and the solar panels weren’t there to save the day.

It’s possible the battery still is underperforming. I’m going to test it this next week when I take the trailer out of the carport and go camping for a week.  If I’m right, a full charge should be possible in the sunshine, and then I can “equalize” the battery using the solar charge controller (which goes to 15.2 volts in equalization mode), and exercise it through a few charge/discharge cycles.

I may also adjust the BlueSky charger for slightly more output voltage. I’ll have to do that after the battery has reached full charge. It may already be at an optimal setting, but since I don’t know, it will be a good exercise to check it once we have full sun.

If the battery is fine and it comes to a full charge next week using solar power, I’ll have to start looking for a better converter/charger. It’s a bummer to have to replace that unit again, but with the right unit in place the battery should charge faster when plugged into AC power—and most importantly maintain its state of charge all winter long.

Things polishing taught me

For years I’ve seen the amazing mirror shines that people have put on their vintage Airstreams, and I’ve thought, “I’ll never do that on my ’68 Caravel.” My impression of polishing was that it was an exercise for (a) people who are trying to pump up the re-sale value of a trailer. i.e., flippers; (b) people who think a day spent detailing a car for a show is a day well spent, i.e., (to my point of view) masochists.

Well, there I was on Friday and Saturday of this past weekend, in the driveway spending most of the daylight hours with a rotary buffer in my hands … and so I have to admit that my assessment was far too harsh. There are good reasons to polish a vintage Airstream that go beyond financial profit or masochism.

As I said in the previous blog entry, the impetus for this project was Patrick’s offer to come down with a batch of Nuvite polishes and tools, and show me how to do it. It was impossible to say no to that.  So despite my earlier prejudices, I’m now one of those guys who has polished his Airstream—and you know, it’s kind of cool.

In the course of the two days, I learned many things, such as:

  1.  Polishing isn’t as hard as I thought.  I had imagined severe muscle strain from holding a heavy rotary buffer, and excruciating effort to reach every little crack and seam. Actually, the buffer did all the work and even the edging work wasn’t that bad.
  2. It’s not as messy as I thought.  I suited up with a long-sleeved shirt, vinyl gloves, and a baseball cap, so my skin was barely exposed. I thought I’d end up covered in black aluminum oxide, but it wasn’t much at all and it washed off easily. Even the driveway cleanup was easy: just a push broom to sweep up all the little black fuzzies that came off the buffing pads. However, I’m glad I chose to wear my cheap sneakers.
  3. Polishing actually “repaired” the surface of the Caravel’s metal body, at least at a microscopic level.  After nearly fifty years, the skin had a lot of pitting and scratches. The polish moves the metal around so that pits and scratches get filled.  I was amazed to see lots of little scratches disappear.
  4. The neighbors love it.  I was concerned that two days of buffer noise, flecks of black polish getting flung around, and the sight of us working on a vehicle in the driveway in defiance of our neighborhood’s antiquated deed restrictions, might cause some of the neighbors to get a little upset.Far from it—people who were passing by paused to wave or give us a thumbs-up. Yesterday a neighbor dropped by to say how amazed she was with the shine. Turns out that polishing a vintage Airstream is kind of like having a baby. Everyone praises you, even though it’s noisy and messy. Now my Airstream has been transformed from a kind-of-cool “old trailer” to a showpiece.

The only unfortunate part of this is that we ran out of time.  Patrick came down from Phoenix on Friday so we didn’t get started until noon, and both Friday and Saturday we had to stop around 5:30 because we ran out of daylight.  It’s hard to get big outdoor projects done near the Winter Solstice. (I suppose I shouldn’t complain—many of you are buried in snow right now.) On Sunday we both had other things to do.

We got as far as polishing every section of the trailer two or three times in Nuvite F7 (with F9, a more aggressive grade for a few heavily pitted areas). We also managed to do about 90% of the trailer with the next grade, Nuvite C. Realizing we would run out of time, we finished just one panel with the final grade (Nuvite S) using the Cyclo polisher and some towels, just to see how it would look. That’s what Patrick is doing in the photo above.

It’s fantastic. The shine is definitely mirror grade. The metal still has lots of blemishes (deep scratches, minor dings, and pits) but from more than five feet away all you see is a reflection of the world around the Airstream. Click on the photo for a larger version and notice how well you can see the palm tree in the reflection. You can even me taking a photo.

Compare that section to the panels above, which have been done up through Nuvite C but haven’t had the final step yet. The blackish smudging on the upper panels is just some leftover polish that we haven’t cleaned up with mineral spirits yet.  It wipes right off.

Since we are both tied up with holiday and year-end stuff, and then I’ve got Alumafiesta prep to do, Patrick has offered to come down for a day sometime in January to do the final work on the Caravel. That should take him about 4-5 hours. If I can help, I will.  In any case, the Caravel will be on display at Tucson/Lazydays KOA during Alumafiesta in late January 2015, so if you are coming to that event you can see for yourself what we did.

Notes from the mid-west

After writing the previous blog extolling the virtues of slower travel through the Plains states, I felt obliged to get off I-70 as soon as feasible and explore other routes through Kansas.  We dropped south to parallel routes and spent our evening in Great Bend, KS, a small town that we chose only because it was about the time of day that we wanted to stop traveling.

When you are moving around the way we are, it’s hard to be fussy about where you stay.  We are always prepared to boondock a night or two in a parking lot or driveway, and it’s actually a good way to cut down the cost of travel. Long-time blog readers know we rarely make reservations, and this is part of the reason why: we often don’t know exactly where we are going to be tomorrow. In this case the decision to stop in Great Bend was made about an hour before actually getting there.

I use an app called “Allstays Camp & RV” to look ahead for possible campsites each day. (Apps like this are basically the modern equivalent of the old Woodall’s and Trailer Life paper directories—but far more useful.) In this case we could see that Great Bend had a few small campgrounds that were all exceptionally cheap, running about $10-15 for a full hookup.  At that price you have to expect that the campground will be basically a parking lot with no amenities at all, and that’s fine with us.  For an overnight stop, we don’t need a shower house (we have our own) and certainly not a trout pond.

Thus, we have gone from Grand Bend, ON to Great Bend, KS, in a little over a week.  This reminded me of June, when I went from Perce Rock on the north Atlantic coast off Gaspé, to Morro Rock on the Pacific coast off California. This has been a summer of almost too much travel. I’ve really enjoyed it.

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Yesterday I tweeted a photo of our unimpressive campsite on a mud & gravel parking lot. I forgot that these days there’s always someone monitoring … and so I heard back from fellow tweeter @GreatBendKS with a comment that next time we should get in touch and they’ll direct us to a nice place at a similar price.  This sort of thing has happened before, both on positive and negative comments I’ve made about campgrounds. In one case an armed ranger came to our campsite to say “Thanks for the nice review,” and in another case a campground owner threatened to sue me.  Luckily, people in Kansas are friendly.

I thought our visit at Ft Larned National Historic Site would be quick but it turned into a multi-hour saga. Emma got another Junior Ranger badge (I think she’s earned over 70 of them at this point) and we had lunch. It was tortuously hot, running 103-105 degrees, which made a mockery of my earlier decision to skip I-44 down to Oklahoma in favor of “cooler weather” heading toward Colorado. But Ft Larned was interesting and well worth the stop.

With the last few days running progressively hotter, we’ve spent every night in a state park or commercial campground just for the electric hookup to run the air conditioer. I don’t mind that because the state parks have all been great. Last night’s stop was perhaps the best of a great bunch: John Martin Reservoir State Park in the town of Hasty, CO. It has both sunny sites by the dam and shady sites beneath mature trees, and at least during this week it is mostly empty, which I love. Now that we are slowly climbing the plateau, we’re up to about 3,300 ft elevation and the nights are running cooler even if the days are still pretty hot.

A note about maintenance:  I’m reminded once again that this sort of rapid travel across the country does come with a price.  We have logged nearly 8,000 miles so far this summer (since leaving Arizona in May), which is about average for us.  In the past two weeks we’ve done routine and minor maintenance such as greasing the Hensley hitch, adding DEF to the car (a diesel thing), and disassembling the bathroom sink plumbing to clear a clog. But when we get home we’ll need to tackle the “bug list” that has been accumulating on the white board.

The GL320 is due for some love.  The car is now at 97,000 miles and due for an oil change, transmission fluid change (we do it about every 30k miles), and a new set of tires fairly soon. I don’t mind because the GL has been pretty good to us and looks good to go for many more miles. And I still get the question almost every week we travel: “Does that little car pull that trailer OK?” Watching people gape at our 30-foot trailer and “little” SUV can be pretty entertaining, especially at the fuel pump.

The Airstream also needs a few tweaks.  The rainstorms we’ve been driving through have revealed two leaks. The MaxxFan in the front bedroom seems to have a small, wind-driven rain leak.  That’s probably just a matter of re-caulking a spot, so I can do that easily once I get a chance to get on the roof.

The bigger problem is the front storage compartment, which has always leaked but really flooded in the last storm. We’ve had it “repaired” twice and nobody has ever been able to really get it to be totally waterproof. It is also difficult to open and close when the Airstream is hitched up, because the body of an Airstream is flexible, and the flexing causes the door to jam.  I have concluded after years of hassling with it that the only solution is to replace the compartment door with the updated design, which has rounded corners instead of square. This job will be major surgery that gets a little beyond my personal comfort zone, so I may recruit the help of one of my more experienced Airstream friends this winter.

In the meantime, since we may encounter rainstorms again today, we’ll seal the compartment with packing tape, as we used to do years ago when we were full-timing.  It’s a kludgy solution but it will do until we get home.  We’re only a little over 800 miles away from wrapping up this trip.