Pedernales Falls State Park, Johnson City TX

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

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

Pedernales Falls pano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fighting entropy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bayou Segnette awning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eleanor making shrimp & grits

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

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

Haunted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And of course, the refrigerator started working again.

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

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

Henderson State Beach Airstream campsite

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

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

(See comments for technical footnotes.)

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!

leaKY

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.