The inverter

One of the nice things about having a well-seasoned Airstream (that’s a euphemism for “older”) is that I get to upgrade things (that’s a euphemism for “get new toys”) using either repairs or “testing” as the excuse.  For years I’ve wanted a really nice inverter so that we’d have AC power for things like Eleanor’s coffee maker when we are boondocking, and this week we finally got one.

An inverter, for those who aren’t sure, is simply a device that turns the battery power (12 volt DC) into the type of power you’d get from a plug in your home (120 volt AC).  Garden-variety inverters that plug into cigarette lighter sockets are pretty cheap and we already had one of those, but they aren’t great.  Instead of producing nice clean smooth electrical current, they produce a sort of choppy electricity that makes some appliances hum and buzz. The TV and the chargers for our Macbooks particularly don’t like it.

Moreover, the plug-in inverter we have been using isn’t powerful enough. It is rated to produce 300 watts of power, which is plenty for the TV, but hopeless for something like a coffee maker, stick blender, hand mixer, toaster, vacuum, or microwave—all of which we have in our Airstream.

So my dream was the ultimate: a “whole house” inverter capable of producing 2,000 watts of utility-grade power at every outlet in the Airstream. Not only would we be able to recharge myriad AC devices (Nintendo game, electric toothbrush, camera batteries, cordless drill, etc) but would be able to—oh miracle of miracles—warm up leftovers in the microwave.  You might think that’s a joke, but I love eating leftovers of the things Eleanor makes. It has always been one of the great tragedies of our camping style that I can’t do that when we are off-grid.

When I was at the annual RV industry convention a few weeks ago the guys at the Xantrex booth told me about their new product, the Xantrex Freedom HFS Inverter/Charger.  They shipped me one for evaluation and I couldn’t wait to get it installed in the Airstream.

Problem was, I felt the installation was a bit beyond my abilities.  I had no trouble installing their Xantrex TrueCharge2 last April but the inverter required making some really huge cables and doing other things that I didn’t have tools for, so this time I opted to take it to Quartzsite to go see Solar Bill.

We last visited Solar Bill in January 2010, to have a big Lifeline 4D battery installed.  These days he’s across the street from where he used to be, but Bill is still the same friendly and chatty guy he ever was, still happily installing solar panels, charging systems, battery banks, and similar stuff after 37 years in the business.

IMG_5788The installation was pretty smooth, and Bill’s tech was pretty impressed with the Xantrex HFS (he hadn’t seen one before because it’s a new product). We put it in the front storage compartment next to the battery, because you always want the shortest possible DC wiring run from the battery to an inverter.

Our first test was a failure.  I turned on the inverter, fired up the microwave, and everything was fine for about 10 seconds. Then the battery faded and the inverter shut off. Turns out our battery was just not up to the task, after six years of use. Time for a replacement.

They didn’t have any Lifeline 4D (or equivalent) batteries in stock and we were itching to get to Death Valley, so I decided to upgrade to the Lifeline 8D. It’s not twice the battery as the name implies, it’s about 20% more capacity.  Also 20% more weight, bulk, and cost.

Our front compartment is now carrying 165 pounds of battery, but don’t worry, it’s still not overloaded.  The battery sits atop a very sturdy part of the frame and since we aren’t carrying anything in the original battery box (which is mounted further forward on the A-frame) the net impact on tongue weight compared to the original spec is minimal. If this sounds like gobble-gook, just trust me, it’s fine.

The upshot is that now we can run laptops, kitchen appliances, and yes even the microwave oven when we don’t have an electrical hookup.  It’s amazingly cool. In fact, the microwave oven runs better than it usually does on campground power. That’s because the Xantrex HFS produces a perfect 120 volts all the time, whereas we usually find campground power sags to 114-116 volts under load.

Of course there’s a price to be paid for this convenience.  Making a pot of coffee requires about 5% of our usable battery capacity. Running the microwave really burns the electrons at the rate of about 2% of our battery every minute. So we have to be judicious about how much of this luxury we enjoy.

The inverter just got put to the test.  We headed to Death Valley for four nights to camp, completely free of hookups, with our friends Kyle, Mary, and Kathryn. Besides being a great trip, it was the perfect environment for an inverter.  We ran nearly every AC device we have, and recharged the batteries daily from the sun. At the end of the four days, we still had 69% of our usable battery capacity left.

We’re now heading to the Los Angeles area, where we’ll boondock for another three days by the beach.  So far I’m impressed with the Xantrex, but I’ll put my full report in an upcoming article at Outside Interests.

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.

Scrap metal

I got an email from a friend today who was asking on behalf of her friend about a vintage Airstream she wanted to purchase. The 1960s trailer was listed for $4,500.  The prospective buyer knows nothing about Airstreams except that they’re cool. That has become the number one qualification of vintage owners lately. I don’t like saying it, but that’s a problem.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I bought my first 1960s Airstream because it was cool too. But I took a lot of time to learn about them, and shop as carefully as I could, and eventually I scored a usable model that became my learning platform. We still have it; it’s the 1968 Airstream Caravel that we no longer use but lavish attention on nonetheless.

While I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a money pit, the Caravel certainly hasn’t been an awesome investment.  Even with my attempt to learn as much as possible before buying, I still had a lot of painful lessons ahead, and they cost me plenty. As I mentioned in my prior blog, vintage trailer owners tend to sink more money into their trailers than they are ultimately worth on the open market.

The person who wanted to buy the Airstream had dreams of turning it into a rental unit, using it herself occasionally, and decorating the interior herself. That’s all good, but if you don’t have a broad set of skills, lots of time, and a well-equipped workshop, the road from a “basket case” trailer to glamping heaven is paved with glue and cactus spines.  This buyer didn’t have any of the right qualifications.

So even before I looked at the trailer in question, I could say with confidence that a vintage project probably wasn’t right for her. But to be fair, I took a look at the online photos of the trailer too.

Colin Hyde in Airstream
Colin Hyde demonstrates a slight problem with this Airstream. This one was actually restorable, although at considerable expense.

Define “disaster”: an Airstream shell that has no interior, no windows, body damage, and a rotten wood floor. That’s what most people call scrap metal. There’s hardly any value in that, even if it is a very old Airstream (and 1960s-era is not considered very old in the Airstream world).

To get started on a project like this you would first need to find a way to transport it, since with no interior and a structurally deficient floor it would be unsafe to tow.  Then you’d need a good work space for two or three years, plus a long list of skills—or a really fat wallet to pay someone else to do all the dirty work.  $50,000-100,000 could disappear easily.

And yet, this buyer was ready to plunk down 45 hundred simoleons to acquire this decaying shell of an Airstream.  That’s the power of desire, triumphing over good sense.

Airstreams are enticing, no question. So I am writing this blog to warn those who don’t know what they are getting into. If you want to get into a project, fine, but don’t buy scrap metal. When you see an Airstream with no windows or with missing roof vents, it means it has been suffering water damage for years, not to mention the ravages of rodents and insects.

Junk AirstreamThe floor will be rotten.  The frame will probably be rusted. The insulation will be compacted and riddled with rodent trails. In short, the trailer is garbage. Junk. Restorable only at a ridiculous cost.

If you want a project, buy something that is at least intact, meaning with no major body damage, still sealed against the elements, and complete with all the doors and windows. If you don’t care about the interior because you’re going to strip it out and replace it anyway, at least make sure the structure underneath is still viable.  Don’t trust the seller on this—check it out yourself or find someone to check it out for you.

If you want to go camping in the next year, or you have a tighter budget, or you are utterly clueless about anything mechanical—buy a nice used Airstream that someone has recently camped in. There are plenty of good ones on the market.  They really aren’t rare, and Airstream keeps making more of them.  Most people will be happier without the horrible learning curve of buying a junker.

To those who make a sideline business out of selling scrap Airstreams to clueless buyers for outrageous prices: you should be ashamed of yourselves. Yes, if they are willing to pay and you don’t hide anything, it’s ultimately the buyer’s responsibility. But really, do you sleep well at night? Do something positive and help people by selling worthwhile trailers. Take the junk where it belongs: the recycling center.

Are you ready for a vintage project?

I got a call today from a good friend who is considering whether to plunge into an Airstream project. He’s got an older Airstream Classic 310 motorhome, which is one of the early models with an aluminum body. Those old Classics are basically an Airstream trailers mounted on a bread truck chassis, and the only major difference is the length.

Last night I met another friend at a doughnut shop to talk about a possible 1965 Airstream Safari project. Very different from the motorhome, but the basic issues were the same. Both of my friends wanted to get my opinion on the projects, and some insight as to whether the Airstreams were worth the effort.

After these conversations I began to think about all the times I’ve been asked by people about their vintage projects. Since starting the magazine in 2004, and working on a couple of my own vintage projects, I’ve probably seen several hundred vintage trailer restorations, refurbishments, and customizations. I have no idea how many we’ve published in Airstream Life but certainly dozens.

Vintage Airstream projects are always happening. Some never stop, and many never are finished. There’s always someone who wants to decide whether it makes sense to tackle a project, and I guess that’s why it’s common that I get asked about it regularly.

Vintage Airstream
Vintage Airstream at Region 1 WBCCI rally, Connecticut

I’ve come to realize that it’s not the trailer or motorhome you start with that really matters. Certainly you can make your life a lot easier if you start with something that’s not a total wreck, but the real determinant of a successful restoration is the person who takes on the challenge.

Not only do you need to have (or acquire) some skills and knowledge, but you also need to have a commitment to the project. A full restoration takes a lot of time. Sure, you can do a shabby job in 100 hours, but I’m not talking about those sorts of “eBay restorations” where someone makes over a vintage trailer cosmetically for quick re-sale (hint: look for a quickie polish job that looks swirly in bright sun, black-and-white checked floor, and Coca-Cola memorabilia) or ignores serious structural problems, or dumps a bunch of household cabinetry and appliances into it (thus turning a lightweight travel trailer into an unbalanced and crippled condo on wheels).

A more sensitive and attentive vintage restoration or customization (the difference being whether you try to match the original intent or modernize it) will go deep into the Airstream and take hundreds of hours, at least. How deep?  As deep as it takes. Typically this means gutting the interior (saving re-usable interior appliances and woodwork), dealing with frame rust and floor rot, and replacing lots of parts that won’t be noticed by the average person but which really matter.

I’m talking about parts like under-floor insulation, wiring, and plumbing. You work on these things because you don’t plan to flip the end product for a quick buck. You work on these things because you want to end up with something that respects the intent of the original Airstream: light weight, structurally strong, travel-worthy on any road and in all weather, and efficient with resources (water, propane, electricity). That’s how the Airstreams were designed, and it pains me to see vintage “restorations” which eviscerate that intent.

Caravel aluminum replacement

Of course, there’s no law that says you have to keep an Airstream true to its original design. Many cool and creative new uses have been found for old Airstreams, and I respect that because it’s a great example of adaptive re-use. Unlike just about every “white box” travel trailer or motorhome made in the last sixty years, Airstreams have an amazing capacity to be re-used as pop-up stores, promotional trailers, coffee shops and cafés, toy haulers, meeting rooms, and art. Make an Airstream into anything you want, but if you are going to make it back into a travel trailer, at least be sure it’s a good one.

Sometimes people go a little crazy on their restorations. I have seen friends lavish so much attention on every detail that they’ve spent 2,000 hours or more, working night after night in their garage to produce a museum-perfect restoration. Others I know have spent well over $200,000 on a personalized vintage Airstream.  I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with that. Like concours-quality automotive restorations, those Airstreams are inspirational. Here’s to the crazy ones; we need them to show us the ultimate standard, even if we aren’t going to achieve that level ourselves.

Gail Buck vintage Airstream
Gail Buck and her vintage Airstream

To the friends I spoke with this week, I gave the same basic advice: don’t look so much at the trailer you’re starting with. Look at yourself. Guaranteed: the project will take more money and more time than you expected, and you will definitely “invest” more money than the outcome is worth on the open market. Those things don’t matter.

Vintage Airstream at VTJ 08What really matters is whether a vintage restoration is how you want to spend your time and money. If you just want a trailer to go camping, there are easier and quicker routes. A full-blown vintage restoration is not a practical thing, it’s a commitment to the point almost of being a lifestyle. If you sell the project after you’ve started, you will lose money. Do it not because it makes any sense, but rather because you really want to do it.

And, I should mention, because you really want to be seen in it.  Let’s face it, a big part of the reward for spending countless nights and weekends painstakingly re-building and installing parts is the praise and admiration the vintage rig  generates once it is on the road.  People love to see cool vintage trailers and motorhomes. You’ll get invited to be in vintage shows, and random people in campgrounds and parking lots will ask for tours. A really good restoration makes you a celebrity—or to be entirely accurate, it makes you the manager for a celebrity.

Likewise, if you really need the finished product because your life-long dream is to operate a mobile coffee shop or kettle corn popper or pop-up store, you might have good motivation to do a good job and actually finish it.

But don’t look solely to the reward. You have to enjoy the process. If you see the project as a chance to learn new skills, demonstrate your chops as a woodworker/ plumber/ electrician/ interior designer/ upholsterer/ polisher/ metalworker (and all those skills do usually come in to play at some point), or just have an excuse to buy lots of new tools and set up a cool workshop, you’ve probably got a good motivation to tackle and finish a vintage Airstream project.

Having done a couple of projects, I feel I’ve learned a lot that I could apply to another vintage trailer. The third one, I’m certain, would be much easier. Once in a while the temptation arises, but I’ve been able to quash it on the grounds that I don’t have the working space or the time to devote. (The fact that I have absolutely no need for a third Airstream in my life hardly enters into it. As I said, you do these things for no practical reason.) Someday perhaps I will have that free time and working space, and then I’ll have to fight hard against the Siren call of aluminum.

In the meantime, I wish my friends well as they consider their projects. If they take the plunge, I hope they commit to the fullest because that’s how they’ll get the best result. And I’ll be happy to pitch in when I can or provide long-distance advice. If you can’t do a project yourself, it’s almost as gratifying to see someone else do a good job on one.  We’ll have more projects in future issues of Airstream Life magazine, too.

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 …