Repairs in Jackson Center and beyond

In the last blog I talked about the wheel bearing replacement we did while in Jackson Center, and it occurred to me that you might wonder why I don’t just take the trailer into the Airstream Service Center for this sort of routine stuff.

The reason is simple: no time.  We arrive for Alumapalooza set-up usually on the Friday or Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. The Service Center is booked up solid for at least a week or two before the event, and a week or two after Alumapalooza is over.  Everyone always thinks that Airstream will do me special favors like building me custom trailers and opening the Service Center on a weekend, while the reality is that I have to book appointments just like everyone else.

Besides, going into the shop for work anytime before, during, or after Alumapalooza is a non-starter for us.  We’re already too busy at that time, and losing the trailer for a day while working an event would really screw us up. So although we have utilized the Service Center many times in the past, it never works out at this particular time, and that’s why Super Terry (an experienced Airstream mechanic) pitches in.

We have had an odd little problem for the past couple of years, which had gradually gotten worse.  When using the water pump, the LED lights flickered—to the point of strobing in a very disconcerting way.  We’ve also been getting massive interference on the TV when the pump runs.

I have bounced this problem off numerous people in the past, and their suggestions have always been around the idea that the pump is drawing down the voltage, and that therefore the solution is some sort of capacitor or filter to smooth out the voltage drops and spikes.  Another popular theory is that the battery is weak, but we eliminated that as a possibility when we replaced the battery in January of this year.

I’ve resisted the voltage theory even though it is appealing. No question that LED lights are very sensitive to low voltage, but at worst they should be dimming a little, not strobing on and off rapidly.  Also, we didn’t need a capacitor when we first got the LED bulbs in July 2012, so clearly something has changed.  And I needed to find out what it was before we all went nuts from living in a disco.

While in Fort Collins CO at the Denver Unit’s “May-tenance Rally” I had a chance to ask Von Campbell, an electrical engineer, and he immediately suggested that the brushes in the water pump’s motor were wearing out.  This would cause electrical arcing, he explained, and that would definitely cause noise in the 12 volt DC power lines.  This struck me as the winning answer, so I asked Super Terry to bring a new water pump to Ohio and install it for me.

Bingo!  Problem solved.  Now the lights dim slightly when the pump is running, but they do not flicker or strobe.  The interference on the TV is also now barely noticeable.

I guess when all the parts are 12 years old and have been used for … what? maybe 2,000 nights? … we’ve got to expect to replace a few things.  As with the wheel bearings, I can’t really complain.

Another issue we had was with the MaxxFan in the front bedroom.  It often whines or makes an annoying resonance at certain speeds now.  It used to be very quiet.  Since we sometimes run this fan on hot nights, it’s important that it be quiet. I noticed that the fan seemed to be slightly out of balance, and attributed the problem to that, but replacing the fan blades didn’t help (it still wobbles).  Now I’m thinking the problem is the motor itself.

Super Terry brought me a broken MaxxFan, for parts.  I stripped it down one afternoon, keeping the motor, circuit board, and a few other small parts.  Later I plan to swap out the motor and see if that resolves the issue.  It’s a lot easier to swap a motor than to replace the entire fan assembly (and hey, the motor was free).

You may recall that while traveling through Colorado we had some trouble with the refrigerator, and my theory was contamination in the propane lines.  I asked Super Terry to bring his air compressor along and we used that to blow out the lines running from the refrigerator to the propane regulator up front. No surprise–we collected about a teaspoon of dark brown oil on some paper towel in just a minute or two.

This verified my theory that we had gotten some contaminated propane.  This is a known problem, although I’m not sure how commonplace it is.  According to the Propane Education & Research Council:

Oil Residues and Heavy Hydrocarbons … This type of potential contamination can vary from very light oil to a very viscous tar-like substance. Sometimes it is a waxy material like paraffin, or it may be similar in consistency to axle grease. Sometimes it is transparent (no apparent color) while at other times it is light brown, dark brown, or even black. It usually has a strong odorant smell, as the ethyl mercaptan used as an odorant in propane appears to concentrate in the oily residues.

Source: The oils in propane can come from many sources; from processing, pipelines, pumps or compressors, piping systems, and flexible hoses.

The refrigerator had been running on gas without problems for a few days, so it was interesting to note how much oil was still left in the lines.  I suspected we hadn’t seen the last of this problem, and sure enough it cropped up again about two weeks later in Plattsburgh when we finished one tank and switched to the suspicious one.  The fridge gave me grief for a few hours but has been fine since.  I may blow out the lines one more time at the end of this summer, when that tank is nearly empty.

There was one more repair item along the way. While driving through Pennsylvania the GL’s “CHECK ENGINE” light came on.  I didn’t even have to pull out my new engine diagnostic tool (code checker) to guess that it was once again a stupid emissions problem.  The car is great but the complicated Bluetec diesel emissions system has been the cause of most of our service stops, and usually it’s not a real emissions problem but a sensor or software update needed.

We made a stop at Mercedes Benz of Lancaster (PA), where it just happens we know the general manager Chris through Airstream circles and he made sure the dealership took excellent care of us.  The problem was a NOX (nitrogen oxide) sensor, which is an expensive part but fortunately replaced fairly quickly. Chris arranged for us to be able to drop the Airstream in their parking lot and offered use of his house nearby for overnight parking. Sweet.

Airstream courtesy parking PA

Clearly it was not a bad place to spend the night.  Too bad it was too chilly to try the pool!

Our next major stop was Plattsburgh NY, at Colin Hyde Trailer Restorations for a long-anticipated major repair and upgrades to the Airstream.  That’s quite a story, so I’ll save it for the next blog entry in a day or two—along with extensive photos.

Brake and wheel bearing maintenance

Since I wrote a book about Airstream maintenance I feel a certain pressure to keep my own Airstream reasonably presentable and in good condition.  Had I realized I would feel this way before I might never have written the book, since once in a while it would be nice to be lazy about things.  But now if something catastrophic happens that I could have avoided with proper maintenance, nobody will ever let me hear the end of it.

So with this mind I planned ahead for our trip.  It has become routine in the past few years for Super Terry and I to do a few light maintenance items on the Airstream in the days leading up to Alumapalooza.  This year we decided to repack the wheel bearings, a job we do about every two to three years.  The industry recommendation is to do this service annually, but since we tow our Airstream a lot (using the bearings is better then letting them sit) and we are mostly in a dry climate (water contamination is a common problem for the grease) I choose to let it go a little longer.

Airstream disc brake and wheel bearing

This time Super Terry decided the bearings looked a little worn and he called for total replacement.  This was probably overkill, as really only a couple of the bearings looked slightly questionable, but my philosophy has been not to economize on maintenance issues.  I could probably get a couple more years out of the bearings without a problem, but it wouldn’t seem like much of a savings if a bearing failed on the road.  The result could easily be that we’d need a new tire, axle, bearing set, and possibly some body work if the wheel came off.

As it was, we have gotten 12 years and probably over 140,000 miles of service out of these bearings. They were original equipment.  I can’t complain about not getting my money’s worth out of them.

A full set of bearings (8 pieces in total) plus races was about $120 at the local parts stores in Wapakoneta OH.  Pulling the wheels and replacing the bearings took half the day.  It probably would have taken Super Terry only about two hours at his shop, but we had a lot of people dropping by to ask questions.

The brakes, by the way, looked excellent.  We are getting absolutely amazing service from the Kodiak disc brakes with semi-metallic pads.  We installed these pads in January 2010 and since then have only replaced one set in May 2013 that wore out prematurely due to a lubrication failure. No service was needed on this inspection, which is great news.  Likewise, I’ve been super pleased with the Dexter brake actuator we installed in January 2012—absolutely flawless.

There were a few other minor maintenance items we covered that weekend, but I’ll talk about them in a separate blog this week.

Rallying in Fort Collins, CO

I hate to leave people in suspense.  We left off with the refrigerator being balky on propane back at Sylvan Lake, so let me start by saying we have a good theory as to what happened with that.

By the morning the fridge was running well again and our trip to Fort Collins was thankfully uneventful. When we got parked at the campground and settled in for the three-day rally that’s going on here, I started calling the Brain Trust and local propane suppliers to try to get an answer as to why we had trouble.

The leading theory is that oil and heavy hydrocarbon contamination (from a variety of sources during processing, transportation, and storage) has formed a gooey clog in the line. This clog usually has a strong smell because the ethyl mercaptan used as an odorant in propane concentrates in the oily residues.  So people assume it is the odorant, but it’s really oil.  Whatever—I just want to get rid of it.

Since things are currently normal, we’re going to keep an eye on it for the next week and then do a preventative service in Ohio with Super Terry.  We’ll disconnect the propane line and blow it out with compressed air, clean the refrigerator jet if it needs it, and inspect the pigtails that attach to the propane tanks. I’ll be interested to see what comes out.

Meanwhile, we’re at a rally, and it’s a good time.  We haven’t attended someone else’s rally in years, and it’s nice to kick back and be a customer for a change.  The Rocky Mountain Airstream unit is composed of some really great people, including quite a few folks who have been friends for years (but who we haven’t seen in a while) so it’s also a sort of reunion.

We’re just doing the typical rally stuff: eating, socializing, exploring Fort Collins, eating, Open House, and eating. I joined Luke Bernander on Saturday morning to present a little seminar about all kinds of Airstream maintenance stuff, but that’s the limit of my effort here.  (I’ve got other “real” work to do back at the trailer between meals and social gatherings.)

Ft Collins rally Argosy 20 moho

What I really like about these events is the opportunity to see some exceptionally rare Airstreams, or just interestingly modified ones.  The pair above is a polished Argosy 20 motorhome pulling a polished Argosy 24 trailer.  Argosy trailers had galvanized steel roof end caps, which doesn’t polish up nicely.  That’s why the owner (Patrick Phippen) painted them black.

Ft Collins rally Wally Bee

This is a one-of-a-kind trailer.  The Wally Bee was a prototype fiberglass trailer from the early 1950s, of which two were made.  Only this one survives, and it was just a ragged shell when Luke Bernander saved it. The outside is done, beautifully, and he’s at work on the interior. It’s kind of neat to see in the context of Airstream’s recent announcement about launching the Nest fiberglass trailer, which resembles this slightly.  Over 60 years later, they’ve come full circle.

Ft Collins rally Lotus Europa

And of course you don’t just see cool trailers at these things.  In the foreground of the photo above is a 1972 Lotus Europa. It’s absolutely beautiful and I couldn’t stop looking at it.  Never seen one before!  Behind it is a customized 50’s Airstream turned into a mobile bar.  There are two mobile bars at this event, which kind of gives you a peek into the party-hearty nature of this WBCCI unit.

I’ll be sorry to leave tomorrow. This has been a great opportunity to catch up and relax a bit, and Fort Collins is a cool town with a lot going on.  We could stay another day or two but it’s a choice between that and some other things in Nebraska or Chicago that we are considering, so I think we’ll be moving onward.  I’m not sure where we will be the next couple of nights, but one thing is certain: we must cross the vastness of Nebraska. Might as well get a start on it.

A little trouble at Sylvan Lake

Driving through Colorado is always nice, especially on some of my favorite routes like Route 50 that wind through the mountains and offers incredible vistas.  Today’s drive was mostly I-70 but the western part of I-70 in Colorado is one of the nicest Interstate stretches in the country, so I don’t dread it as I do other stretches of the highway.

Eleanor was driving the first leg from the Colorado River in Utah when we heard some squeaking from the hitch.  Now that she’s in the driver’s seat, she’s attuned to the little things that formerly she wouldn’t have noticed.  This sound was a familiar one to me, indicating that it was time to add some grease to the hitch ball.

On a Hensley hitch it’s a little tougher to access the hitch ball, so I’ve worked out a technique, which I demonstrated for Eleanor. I’ll put that part indented here so those of you who don’t care can skip ahead.

Basically you leave the trailer hitched to the car so that the car supports the heavy part of the Hensley for you. You do this by loosening the weight distribution strut jacks, then the hitch head struts, then disconnecting safety chains and 7-way cable, and releasing the hitch coupler.  With the power tongue jack it’s simple to lift the upper part of the head up and off the ball. The lower part of the hitch stays with the car.Hensley hitch ball grease point

I put in a pair of disposable gloves for the next part. You just squirt some heavy grease on the ball and work it all over with your fingers.  A thick coating on the ball is best, so that some of the grease coats the underside of the coupler too.  Note in the photo there’s a distinct (rusty) band along the upper front of the ball where the grease tends to get squeezed out by pressure.  This is where you need to apply the most grease. If you let it get dry, the chrome on the ball will be quickly worn off and the ball will be prone to wear (spalling) and rust.

Once greased, lower the power jack back down until the ball is reseated, and reconnect everything.

The trick is to count the number of turns you loosen the hitch head struts, so you can tighten them by exactly the same amount. This keeps the head in alignment with the trailer, so you don’t have the trailer pushing the tow vehicle sideways when braking.

With that job done (in a pullout, in about 5 minutes), we had a very pleasant drive through Colorado. But along the way we discovered a real problem.  The refrigerator had mysteriously switched off during the night (with a “CHECK” light indicated on the control panel) and we had re-started it before we left.  At one of our stops we found it had gone off again. When I restarted again I could hear the gas flame making a lot of noise, like a rocket launch, sputtering, and going out frequently.

Uh-oh. Time for some diagnosis before our Klondike bars melted. Now, normally I would pull out my copy of “The (Nearly) Complete Guide To Airstream Maintenance” for some help, but since I wrote that book I already know that this particular problem isn’t covered. I made a mental note to add this situation into the next edition.

The flame looked pretty good on the refrigerator when it was burning, but it kept going out. So the process was to figure out whether the problem was in the refrigerator, the regulator, the lines, or the gas tank. Switching tanks didn’t seem to help. The regulator was newly installed in January and looked perfectly clean.  I couldn’t check the gas pressure because I left my manometer at home, but I could light the stove and see that the flame looked good—and to add to the mystery, the furnace ran without a problem. I crawled under the trailer and inspected the gas lines for damage but they were perfect. Even the refrigerator was new in January, so I was really mystified.

This left me with three theories:

  1. The gas valve on the refrigerator was failing.
  2. The gas jet on the refrigerator needed adjustment and/or cleaning.
  3. There was some sort of contamination in the propane that was intermittently clogging the jet on the refrigerator.

At this point on the drive, I couldn’t do more, so I coaxed the fridge into running simply by resetting it (power cycling it) many times until it finally seemed willing to stay lit.
Now, if I had been thinking about the refrigerator later in the drive we probably would have opted for a campsite with electricity so that the fridge could run on electricity instead of gas.  But we forgot all about it and decided to drive up to remote Sylvan Lake State Park, near Eagle CO.

Sylvan Lake State Park

I’ll post a review of Sylvan Lake on Campendium later so you can get the details about this place, but right now all you need to know is that it’s beautiful and isolated. Zero cell phone service, which meant that when we arrived and found the refrigerator off again, I couldn’t call my usual brain trust for ideas. Also, the climb up to Sylvan Lake is 2,000 feet of elevation gain above Eagle, the last 4 miles or so are rough, potholed red dirt road, and towing above 10 MPH was not possible most of the way. So we were fairly committed once we arrived.

A thunderstorm had just left the area, but not before pelting Eleanor with sleet and small hail as she directed me into the campsite. The temperature up at 8,500 feet was a mere 46 degrees.  It was not the most inspirational start, but once we got settled in we discovered what a lovely place Sylvan Lake really is.  We took a walk around the lake (about 2 miles) and threw some snowballs at each other, and eventually we were glad we’d made the effort to be here.

Back at camp, the refrigerator still had problems, and we discovered the water heater wasn’t too happy either. This narrowed my theory to one: gas contamination.  The appliances with tiny calibrated gas jets (water heater and refrigerator) were having trouble dealing with the gas, while the less fussy appliances with big jets (stove and furnace) were fine.

I’ve read about ways that propane contamination can occur, but since I’m writing this in a no-Internet zone I can’t study that subject right now. As I recall, the solution is to have the propane tanks purged. I suspect the problem to be from only one of the two tanks, since I had one filled this week in Tucson and we were not using that one when the problem appeared.

For now, we are burning propane only from the Tucson tank and hoping that the contamination in the lines eventually works its way out.  I’ve had to reset the refrigerator several times since last night (most notably at 1:10 AM) and it’s still intermittently shutting down, but with luck we can limp into Ft Collins later today without a complete ice cream meltdown and at that point we can switch to electric cooling while I find a propane service center in town.

You can’t change a tire? Oh no.

Tell me if this sounds familiar:

“We’re going out on a long Airstream trip.  What sort of Roadside Assistance (AAA, Good Sam, etc) should I have, in case I get a flat tire?”

…. sigh …  I hear variations on this all the time. And I get a little sad every time I hear it, because too often things don’t work out well with this strategy.

The best roadside assistance program you can ever have is yourself. Even if you aren’t “mechanically minded,” or even if you have a physical disability that prevents you from being able to do a tire change, you need to know how to change a tire, and you need to have the necessary equipment on hand.

Why? Lots of reasons:

  • Roadside assistance often takes hours to show up. You, or someone you know, can change a tire on your Airstream in about 10 minutes. Why wait all that time?
  • Deliverance teethFlats happen in all kinds of places, including places you really don’t want to be parked for long time. Like by the side of the highway, or in a rough neighborhood.
    You might start to feel like you’re in a scene from Deliverance.  It’s a hard transition from independent traveling Airstreamer to completely helpless potential target.
  • Not all mechanics have familiarity with Airstreams, or the proper tools for the job. Someone who doesn’t know that they shouldn’t put a jack under most parts of the belly pan, or the axle, can do serious damage.  A heavy-handed mechanic with an air wrench can do a lot more harm than good. (I learned this one the hard way myself.)
  • Roadside assistance programs don’t always cover every place. And cell phones don’t work everywhere. What would you do if you couldn’t reach the toll-free number, or they told you (as happened to a friend of mine) “you’re in a non-service area.”
  • A few tools are a lot cheaper than paying for roadside assistance year after year.

Airstream tireFortunately, it’s really not hard at all to change a tire.  Even if you physically can’t do it, having the tools on hand and knowledge of the correct procedure means someone else (perhaps a Good Samaritan) can help you.

I wrote a book about Airstream Maintenance that includes a big discussion explaining exactly how to swap a tire. But if you don’t want to buy the book, you can learn the procedure from a six-page booklet I published.  A free copy comes with every tire changing kit we sell in the Airstream Life Store. (That kit includes all the tools you need to swap a tire, and every Airstream owner should have those tools with them on every trip.)

Now, just so you realize I’m not just blogging this solely to promote my store:  I don’t care if you copy down the list of tools provided in the kit on the Airstream Life Store and go buy all the parts yourself at local stores. Just make sure you have them.  If you travel a lot, sooner or later you will need those tools.

One of things I always point out to people is that you don’t have to be very strong to do this job. For example, to get the tire out of the spare holder without lifting (after you’ve lowered the holder to the ground) just sit on the ground and push the tire out with your feet.

Sometimes the job seems hard because you’re doing it the hard way, so a little practice will help a lot. Try it in your driveway, or this June at Alumapalooza where we will have a tire-changing class & contest.

You might be thinking that flats are pretty rare, and you’ll take your chances. That’s OK, but there are other reasons to have the tools & knowledge handy. For example, sooner or later you’ll need a fresh set of tires. Have you ever had a tire shop act like your trailer was some sort of dangerous object?  I’ve heard things like, “I’m not allowed to take a wheel off a trailer,” and “We don’t have a jack big enough for a trailer like that.” Having the ability to swap a tire yourself can help a lot in such situations.

Stay independent, my friends.  Being prepared for common problems like flat tires will help keep your Airstream experience fun.