How to keep your cool

“You appear to have the worst luck with refrigerators,” said my friend Tom from Huntsville, yesterday.

Our trip southwest has been good despite being plagued with a few technological failures. First it was little things, like clearance light bulbs.  Our Airstream is a 2005 so it doesn’t have LED clearance lights, and after a decade the bulbs are all starting to blow.  I have replaced two in the last week with new bulbs from my spares kit, and it’s clear that I should just replace all of them at the next opportunity to borrow a ladder.

Then Eleanor’s iPhone suddenly stopped receiving email.  Then her laptop stopped being able to connect to our Verizon MiFi. While navigating down I-65, the car GPS suddenly couldn’t find itself.  The batteries in the tire pressure sensors ran down. One of our walkie-talkies stopped working. The O-rings in the kitchen faucet started to leak. I started to feel the cold breath of a wizard’s curse on my neck.

All of those problems were eventually corrected, but the whammy came at Mammoth Cave National Park when Eleanor announced that the refrigerator seemed unusually warm. Sure enough, the next morning it was unmistakable: the fridge was no longer cooling.

This is our third refrigerator in ten years.  The sad history of our refrigerators stems primarily from the infamous Dometic recall that doomed nearly a million refrigerators to early death because of welding problems in the cooling tubes. Fridge #1 died July 2008, fridge #2 died February 2015, and the replacement cooling unit that I installed in April 2015 died this week.

Aha, you say—doesn’t it have a warranty?  Yes indeed it does, a shiny “Lifetime Warranty” provided by Arcticold, the manufacturer of the cooling unit. And Arcticold goes further, promising technicians on duty “seven days a week, 9 to 9 Eastern”. A classic case of over-promising and under-delivering.  I called twice on Friday, four times on Saturday, and left messages each day. No answers except a voicemail message that says they’ll call back in 1-2 hours.

When I installed this cooling unit back in April I noted in this blog that I’d identify the supplier after I knew that they were OK, because the RV refrigeration cooling unit industry seems to be replete with scam artists and cheesy organizations.  So now I’m identifying them.  Arcticold, you failed me when I needed help.

Fortunately I have more reliable friends, and (sadly) a fair bit of prior experience about what to do when the refrigerator stops cooling.

The first step is always the same in any circumstance:  don’t panic.  There may be quite a bit to panic about, but try not to panic anyway. It won’t help. Look at our situation: 2,000 miles from home and enjoying the fall weather in a lovely national park. If we just freaked out and started driving home in a rush we’d ruin the rest of our trip.

So keeping perspective helps. Yes, we have no refrigeration and a freezer full of expensive defrosting food. But we still have an Airstream complete with every other possible comfort of home. Our beds haven’t caught fire, our health is still good, the weather is fine … why ruin a trip for a failure of just one part?

Step 2 is to do some diagnosis. Maybe the problem isn’t severe, and can be fixed on the road. It happens that the Winter 2015 issue of Airstream Life will have an article by Terry Halstead (AKA Super Terry) on refrigerator maintenance and basic diagnosis. That will be in your mailbox in November, but since I’m the publisher I have a copy on my computer and I pulled it up to run through the diagnostic steps.

Alas, in our case the fridge’s two heat sources (electric heating element and gas burner) were both working perfectly, and there was no sign of a leak anywhere, which left only one conclusion I know of: the cooling unit had developed an internal blockage. If so, this is not repairable and it means the cooling unit is done.

This shouldn’t have happened after only six months. A cooling unit can last for decades. The original fridge from our 1968 Airstream Caravel is still running up in Colin Hyde’s shop in Plattsburgh NY (they use it as a drink cooler).

Running a refrigerator off-level can cause it to form a blockage but we’ve never done that. It has spent the last four months running perfectly level in Vermont.   I can only conclude that this failure is the result of a manufacturing defect in the replacement cooling unit.

Step 3: mitigate the damage. Eleanor keeps the freezer packed completely, which helps keep it cold, but it’s packed with filet mignon, sockeye salmon, premium ice cream, and various hard-to-find ingredients for the classically trained chef. We don’t want to give up on all that stuff unless we must.

So our strategy was three-pronged: (a) don’t open the freezer until we have to; (b) figure out what we can eat and/or cook first; (c) get some dry ice. We were in Huntsville AL by the time we had a chance to really get serious about this, parked at the US Space and Rocket Center campground.

[If the fridge failure had not happened you’d probably be reading a couple of blog entries about Mammoth Cave and the Space & Rocket Center, but I’ve been too distracted with this problem. Let me just say that we had a wonderful time at both places and highly recommend them.]

It’s also useful to have a good wireless digital thermometer inside the refrigerator to monitor the temperature without opening the door. I found one at Wal-Mart for $10.

Dry ice came from Publix in this case ($23 for two slabs of it, one for the freezer and one for the refrigerator). It only lasts about 24 hours but it works great. It kept the refrigerator compartment at 42 degrees, and keeps the smaller freezer compartment frozen solid. Before we found the dry ice we just grabbed a 10-lb bag of regular ice at the Mammoth Cave camp store, which bought us some time but only got the refrigerator compartment down to 52 degrees. You can also find dry ice at some Wal-Marts, Krogers, and Airgas (Penguin brand) locations.

Eleanor spent Saturday morning cooking things while Emma and I visited the US Space & Rocket Center. We came back to a smorgasbord of delectables, which wasn’t bad at all. Our diet for the next few days may be a little weird as Eleanor finds ways to combine what we have into meals.

Step 4 is to make a plan, and in this case we have decided to press on with our trip regardless of refrigeration. We’ll keep buying dry ice daily when we can find it, and use the refrigerator as an icebox. Later today or Monday Eleanor will stock the trailer with replacement foods that don’t require refrigeration.

I have contacted friends along our westward route to work on getting a new cooling unit or an entirely new refrigerator. That’s still in process. With luck, we’ll have the problem fixed in a week or so.  In the meantime, we’re going to keep having fun. Next stop, the beach!


It’s always frustrating when you’re on a trip and something goes wonky in the Airstream. It used to drive me absolutely batty in the early days because I never knew how to fix anything. I remember that early in our full-timing experience (November 2005) we had a defective kitchen faucet and had to resort to calling in a mobile RV service technician in Oregon to replace it.

That was a bigger hassle than it might seem because we were in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park in northern California and (at least at that time) there was no cell phone service in the park.  I made a few calls from the payphone in the park (remember payphones?) which was in itself a sort of adventure.

We finally ended up moving the Airstream to the town of Eureka so that the tech could meet us there and fix the problem. Our trip got disrupted, we had to pay $200 for parts and labor (later reimbursed under warranty), I had a hell of a time with a payphone, and we lost a day.

Airstream Moen faucet

Now it’s ten years later, and we are traveling through Kentucky. Eleanor noticed yesterday that the same kitchen faucet is dripping at the base and leaking down into the cabinet below. But something is different now: we have a lot more experience and tools on hand to deal with things like this.

I got on the Internet to get Moen’s instructions, which are accurate but lacking in details for the novice. The basic solution to the leak is to replace O-rings, which isn’t terribly hard once you know how the faucet comes apart. The real trick was finding the parts. Being on the road makes it hard to get things via mail order, so rather than ordering Moen’s repair kit I had to figure out which size O-rings are needed and find them locally.

That’s why I’m posting this blog. If you’ve got the same Moen PureTouch filter in your Airstream kitchen (which is a single-handle chrome unit with built-in water filter), let me just save you some time and say that you will want one O-ring in the size 1-1/16 x 13/16 x 1/8 and one O-ring sized 1-1/2 x 1-1/4 x 1/8, plus a small container of pure silicone grease (not petroleum based grease of any type). I found all of these parts across the street from the General Butler State Resort Park in Carrollton KY at 8:00 this morning.

The hardware stores often have “Moen repair kits” which include the O-rings you need. Otherwise you can pick the O-rings out individually from the parts bin. My total cost including a small tub of silicone grease was about $7.

Taking apart the faucet is easy when you know how, which is to say that it took Eleanor and I about ten minutes to puzzle it out the first time. Most parts just unscrew. See Moen’s parts diagram for help.  There are also lots of amateur instructional videos online, but sheesh, some of them are longer than the entire job.  I didn’t watch any of them since I didn’t want to burn a gigabyte of my precious cellular Internet allowance listening to some guy say “uhhhh … ok … so here’s the screw and … uhhhh … I’m taking it out now …” for 30 minutes.

A large set of pliers is handy for the mounting ring if it’s stubborn. We also needed a Philips screwdriver and a 7/64″ Allen wrench, and a small flat-bladed screwdriver to pry off the old rings. Don’t forget to grease the new O-rings completely before installing them.

After replacing the O-rings we re-assembled the faucet and found the handle was on backwards. So we took it apart again and found a very very tiny embossed indication on the white plastic ring in the handle mechanism that said “TOP BACK”.  This time it took only a minute or two to re-assemble the entire thing, thanks to experience.

With a few exceptions, I didn’t cover repairs like this in my Airstream maintenance guide because, well, it’s a maintenance guide rather than a repair manual. But I will talk about repairs we make in this blog because there just isn’t enough reliable information out there for Airstream owners. (The next edition of my guide will be expanded with more common repairs like this.)

I want to emphasize that the real difference between now and ten years ago is mostly my attitude toward repairs—and the ever helpful Mr Google. I didn’t know how to fix this faucet yesterday but at least I had a sense of where to start looking. Now I see how easy it really was, and I wonder why I ever thought I had to call an RV service tech for simple jobs like this.

The job was done before 9:30, which in my world means “before the teenager has awoken.” Now we are reviving her with hopes of getting to Mammoth Cave National Park this afternoon. It’s a great feeling to have fixed a problem ourselves, in about an hour (including going to the hardware store), and for $7.  We didn’t lose a day and we learned something new before breakfast. That’s a good start.

Time to Fall out

It is Fall in northern Vermont, just past peak foliage season, and that’s a clue that we are overdue to get rolling southward. The air has gotten distinctly chilly and the blustery winds that swirl the fallen leaves around are making it seem even colder. Believe it or not, winter is not far away. It tends to happen suddenly. I remember many a Halloween night as a kid, with snow flurries landing on my costume.

The state parks in Vermont close early because of this. Many closed yesterday and many more will close this weekend, as the trees go bare and the leaf-peepers head back home.  The commercial campgrounds tend to follow suit, so we may have trouble finding places to camp until we get to Pennsylvania or Virginia.

That means this week is dedicated mostly to prepping to go. All of our belongings that have gotten scattered through the house and all of the “stuff” we have accumulated has to found, culled down, and re-packed for travel. That alone takes Eleanor and Emma several days. Then there’s a round of final goodbyes to friends, last-minute errands, and of course getting the Airstream ready to hit the road.

There are two jobs that always come up at this time. The first is cleaning the roof of the Airstream. It spends the summer under cedar and locust trees that copiously drop branches and leaves on the roof. This begins to turn to mulch in the frequent rains, and the tannins stain the solar panels and roof. So I always have to get up on the roof and carefully sweep it clean, then scrub it down, without sliding off and injuring myself. I did this job yesterday during a brief warm up to 72 degrees (the nice weather lasted a few hours, then went back to the usual gray and breezy 58 degrees).

During my roof inspection I found that the metal TV antenna support that I used to attach our cellular antenna has broken. Metal fatigue occurred in one of the 90-degree bends, leaving the support and the antenna a bit wobbly. It’s still serviceable for the moment but I will have to design a fix for it in the next few weeks. I also noticed that the sealant around the antenna base is pretty bad, so that’s going to need replacement too.

In my book, The (Nearly) Complete Guide To Airstream Maintenance I have a section all about roof inspections (and other types of inspections) which explains what to look for when you are on the roof. I recommend that everyone do a roof inspection at least once a year. Lots of problems start on the roof, unnoticed until it’s too late.

The second job we always have to do is eradicating the Mouse Of The Season (MOTS).  We always get one in the late Summer or early Fall, except in the years when we get three.  Rodent visitors are a fact of rural life, and they particularly love Airstreams. If you were a mouse, you would understand the appeal: lots of fluffy pink fiberglass insulation to burrow in, plenty of food in the cabinets, and no predators.

This year’s MOTS made his presence known a few days ago when Eleanor discovered sunflower seeds under the bed. We cleaned up the little stash he’d left, but couldn’t find a nest. For the past three nights I have awoken in the early morning to hear the unmistakable scritch-scritch sound of a mouse chewing on something that belongs to us, so we’ve torn the front bedroom apart looking for further signs.

Usually it’s easy to find Mouse Ground Zero: plenty of tiny droppings and shredded nest material, but this time we have found nothing. I was tempted to ignore it because the mouse will leave voluntarily when we start to tow on Friday, but then this morning he crossed the line. While sleeping at 6:10 am I felt something in my hair and brushed it away. MOTS was knocked clear by the impact of my hand, and we both had a bit of a shock. The thing he was investigating turned out to be alive (me) and of course I awoke to realize I had a mouse in the bed.

He made a quick and invisible getaway of course, but then further invited my retaliation by going back to his hidden spot and making munching noises again. That sort of poor judgement has sealed the fate of many a house guest, and this case will be no different. MOTS must go.

Traps will be set tonight, baited with every mouse’s favorite Last Supper, peanut butter. Ever-thoughtful when it comes to food, Eleanor commented, “We can use the cheap stuff.” Apparently we have good peanut butter and then some sort of lesser peanut butter that is reserved for bad houseguests. (You have been warned.)

Of course there are other jobs to do before a long trip, but they are simple.  Water, propane, cleaning, lubing the hitch, clearing off the spider webs, testing the systems that have not been used in a while, and such basic stuff. By Friday we should be ready to move out, and the Airstream will begin its 2,000+ mile journey back to Arizona, with stops along the way to be determined.

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. Elon Musk, a genius at work in our own time, puts it this way: “You should take the approach that you’re wrong. Your goal is to be less wrong.”

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.