The hangar queen

I mentioned in the previous blog that our 1968 Airstream Caravel is a bit of a hangar queen.  I’ve come to accept that, viewing it as (a) an heirloom for Emma to use someday; (b) an investment vehicle (so far a spectacularly bad one, since we have more invested in it than market value); (c) an interesting ongoing project to advance my general “handyman” education.

The last rationalization is probably the best one.  The Caravel has advanced my education in woodworking and plumbing in particular.  Someday I may even put those skills to use in the house, although I never seem to be as motivated to work on house projects.  Houses are sort of boring—they don’t move.

In the next few weeks the Caravel will get some more attention, this time in the area of the A-frame.  I bought a replacement hitch jack for it because … well … to be honest, because of a long series of stupid events.  Let’s see if I can get this all straight:

  1. Last February the propane regulator began to leak, so I bought a replacement.
  2. The replacement regulator had the red/green “flags” which indicate if the tank is empty or full on the “front” of the regulator, but on the Caravel the regulator is supposed to mount facing the rear.  This meant that the flags were not visible.  The spare tire blocked any view of them.
  3. Rather than returning the regulator for one with the flags on top because that would be “too much trouble,”  (and therein lies my big mistake) I decided to mount it facing forward.  This was more complicated than it would seem.  The job required numerous hardware store trips, a longer main hose, replacement “pigtail” hoses to the tanks, a pair of brass elbow fittings, four stainless screws, and numerous washers so that the mounting hardware would fit correctly.
  4. With that job finally done, I discovered that the handle of the manual crank hitch jack collided with the new regulator, making it very difficult to raise and lower the trailer’s tongue, so I decided to replace it with a power hitch jack.
  5. When I attempted to remove the original hitch jack, I discovered that it had been welded into place.

And that’s where I am today.  I didn’t have time to deal with it back in April and May, when I was doing a lot of work on the Safari, so I set the problem aside.  Now that I’m back—and lacking a tow vehicle—the only way to proceed is to get a mobile welder out here to cut out the old hitch jack and then re-weld the necessary plate for the new one.  I’ve made a few calls and should have someone out here in the next week or two.

If I were smarter I would have simply returned the propane regulator for the right one, and avoided this entire mess.  This debacle is going to end up costing about $400 counting all the miscellaneous parts, welding, and jack.  But at least I can console myself with the knowledge that now I’ve got a fancy power hitch jack on the trailer that we never use.

In the interest of continual investment for little actual return, I have also taken the dinette table out of the trailer to have it re-made.  The table we have currently was overbuilt by a well-meaning friend and weighs far too much to be easily handled when converting it into bed mode.  The same shop that built the black walnut countertop for the Safari a few months ago will duplicate the Caravel dinette top in poplar, which should be considerably lighter.  I’ll shape it, finish it, and attach the hardware in the next few weeks.

The plumbing project that I began last spring is about 80% complete.  With the hot weather this time of year, I’m not inclined to go out to the carport to finish that job, even though the Caravel has air conditioning.  It feels like a job to be done in the fall, when we return from Airstream travel and the Tucson weather is perfect for projects.  Around here, that means November and early December.

Someday soon this trailer is going to be absolutely perfect.  I’ll have to take it somewhere.

Drilling a hole in the Airstream

I drilled a hole in my Airstream.

Of all the jobs to be done on the Airstream this spring, this one scared me the most.  Anticipating it was worse than building new cabinetry, worse than de-greasing the hitch & sanding off the rust, worse than laying inside the front compartment and re-wiring (I’ll tell you about that one later).

The backup camera I installed on the Airstream three years ago has been very useful, but I made a serious mistake when I put it on the rear bumper.  That location was easy to reach but far too low.

As a result, car lights and setting sun would create glare, making the camera useless at dusk or at night.  I found that I needed the camera much more while towing on the highway, for situational awareness (i.e., what’s happening behind me) than I needed it for actually backing up.  So losing the camera’s functionality because of glare was a real annoyance.

Also the low position gave me a great view of the stripes on the highway and the bumper grill of the car behind me, but not of cars further away.  Because it’s a “backup camera” the field of vision is very wide, like a fisheye lens, and so the useful distance range isn’t long.  To get any sort of overview of the traffic situation it needs to be mounted up above the roof of the average car.

I knew all this after the first season of towing, but I also knew that the only way to get the camera up where it belonged would require drilling a hole in the rear dome of the Airstream.  Not a small hole either, but a whopping 5/8″ hole to fit the cable connector through.  I have never drilled a hole in the body of the Airstream before.  It’s sort of a forbidden thing, in my book, because every hole is a new chance for a leak, a spot that must be maintained with caulk, and something you can never un-do.  Remember, I just had to deal with a 3/4″ hole that was drilled in the roof eight years ago for the original cell phone antenna.

At least that hole was up on the top where nobody can see it.  This particular hole was going to be right smack in the middle on a very expensive & very visible piece of shaped aluminum, where a virtual waterfall is created every time there’s rain.  If I screwed it up, I’d be looking at an ugly patch forever.

This may explain why I put up with the inadequacies of the camera mount for three years.

IMG_2161

With all the other projects completed, and perhaps a bit of bravery inspired by their relative success, I had no excuse to avoid this one any longer.  The re-routing of the cable was easy: it was already in the bumper compartment, and from there it took only two holes inside the rear compartment to run it up into Emma’s bedroom.  A four-foot length of plastic wire chase from the hardware store hid the wire as it ran up Emma’s bedroom wall, and then … I had to face the final cut, right through two layers of aluminum, some fiberglass insulation, and out to the cold, cruel world.

In a previous blog I wrote that you should think several times before putting a hole in the Airstream’s skin.  I thought about it for weeks, running through all the possibilities in my head to ensure there was no other way, and that I had a plan for every possible screw-up.  I ran a piece of blue tape down the centerline of the trailer from the clearance light to the license plate, measured and measured again, then dusted off the dome, applied several layers of protective tape on the aluminum, and drilled a small “test hole” 3/16″ in diameter.  (If this hole had been wrong, it would have been relatively simple to plug it up with caulk.)

It was right on the money, so I continued through larger drill bits, eventually ending up with the monster 5/8″ drill.  Emma didn’t make me feel any better about this when the drill poked into her bedroom and she shouted (through the closed window), “Wow, that’s a big hole!”

The camera is now in place, secured by a very high-bond double-sided automotive tape, and sealed with Vulkem 116.  I wish I had gray or black Vulkem for this, because the white caulk smears look stupid on the black camera mount, but eventually I’ll get my hands on some and re-do it.  In the meantime, it works and the view from the camera is much better.

So I drilled the Airstream, and survived.  But I don’t want to do it again anytime soon.

Customizing the Airstream again

After a good run of posting every two days for a while, I had to shut up and focus entirely on work.  I have been monumentally busy the past several weeks, but you don’t want to hear about that.  The most interesting part of it (Airstream-wise) has been finishing up the cabinetry project that I began before our last trip to California and Nevada.

Airstream Safari cabinet areaIf you haven’t read back that far, here’s a re-cap:  We wanted to get rid of the tired old laundry & microwave rack that we whipped up while full-timing, and make the area more functional.  I removed everything on the curbside of the trailer from the entry door to the refrigerator wall.  Originally this was a fold-out credenza with two huge chairs, as shown in the floorplan.

Those chairs took up too much space and we got rid of the first one before we had even towed a mile.  (As far as I know it is still serving as bachelor apartment furniture in Ohio.)  The second one exited while we were full-timing.  We stopped in Florida for a few days and a friend fabricated a counter extension to run along the curbside wall (atop a narrow shelf that isn’t depicted in the floor plan).  We bought a cheap wire rack at a housewares store and muddled the whole thing up into a storage space for a microwave and a small laundry bin.  This was a little crude but it worked for six years.

Eventually we started keeping our recycling in a little cardboard box behind this wire rack, and shoes began to collect beneath the rack.  Then we added a catalytic heater on the wall by the refrigerator.  Eleanor began storing water jugs on the floor behind the rack, too, and we noticed that the recycling bin was often too small.

The point of all this is that gradually we had modified the space to suit our style, and we had noted what didn’t work about it.  After eight years it was safe to conclude we had a clear pattern of use and our “wish list” was based on experience rather than infatuation.  So when Mike & I ripped up the old floor, rebuilding the curbside storage was part of the plan.

I finally finished it last Friday, and I’m very pleased with how it came out, considering that it was a mish-mash of old and new materials.  I tried to re-use as much as possible of the Airstream plywood because it’s very lightweight, and to keep the look somewhat reminiscent of the factory styling.  The fold-out credenza is still there, but it has been moved to a new location further forward and off the wheelwell.  (Kyle and I did that a few weeks ago, and you can see how it was done in the earlier blog entries.)

Added to it is a new microwave shelf suitable for a 1.2 cubic foot microwave, a shelf below the microwave for one of Eleanor’s large pans (probably a cast iron skillet), a black recycling bin that is twice as large as our old cardboard box, room for two 12-packs of canned drinks or four gallons of drinking water, space for the sink covers/cutting boards and a few paper bags, a much larger shoe cubby, the same laundry bin, and a semi-hidden storage shelf for small items like headlamps.

The big win of the whole thing is the huge new countertop, made of black walnut with four coats of polyurethane.  It measures 18″ x 71″ by itself (8.8 square feet), and gains another couple of square feet when the credenza is fully deployed.  With three people in an Airstream and lots of things going on simultaneously, you can never have enough tabletop space.

The only thing we lost in this conversion was a magazine rack, which I will replace later when we find a wall-mounted rack that we like.  No rush on that.

To build this thing took far longer than I had hoped.  That’s partly because I didn’t make it easy on myself.  I didn’t like the standard steel L-brackets that were available at the hardware store, so I bought lengths of 3/4″ aluminum L-channel and cut brackets from it on the table saw, then drilled four holes in each of them.  They aren’t as stiff as the steel brackets but they are a lot lighter and still strong enough.  Plus, they’re aluminum—need I say more?

The Airstream didn’t make things easy either.  You can’t count on square, level, flat, plumb or tight in a travel trailer.  Things move, and they need to flex during travel.  So every cut was “custom,” to accommodate gaps, unevenness, and just plain awkwardness resulting from the original construction.  Eleanor and I had to stop several time and ponder ways to cover up unexpected issues.  I also had to design the cabinet to be light, strong, and yet able to flex a little where needed.  Overall, I think the job probably took about 30-40 hours and at least a dozen hardware store runs.

So it feels great that it’s done, and I think it looks pretty good.  Sure, the black walnut doesn’t match the original furniture color, but I don’t care.  It looks much more sophisticated than the original stuff.  Because the shelves are black melamine, and the microwave and recycling bin are black, they all tend to visually disappear so cabinet doors are unnecessary.  Eleanor even found black no-skid material to line her pan shelf.

For those who are interested, here’s a bit more trivia:  We used the 3/4″ aluminum L-channel to make trim edges and lips for the shelves. It’s screwed to the melamine with 3/8″ stainless screws.  The microwave is attached to the shelf with self-adhesive Velcro and a security strap (made of aluminum) screwed to the side.  A low vertical divider holds the recycling bin in place.  We found the little organizer (pictured with the headlamp in it) at The Container Store.  The countertop, despite being solid wood, weighs only 19 pounds.  The entire structure weighs about 35 pounds, not including microwave, which is probably less than the original furniture and the two chairs we pitched out.

The key here is that this design suits our way of life when we are traveling.  We need convenient, reliable, practical, and durable stuff.  We aren’t glampers or weekenders, we’re long-distance travelers and we live in our Airstream for months at a time.  Your needs will probably be different.  Customizing your Airstream is just like customizing your fixed-base home: everyone has their own needs.

I have never met a full-timer or long-distance Airstream traveler who hasn’t modified their Airstream quite a bit.  Even people with brand-new trailers do it.  So if you haven’t yet, my advice would be to think about what you do, what you carry along with you, what you most feel is lacking in your interior, and starting planning a few small customizations of your own.  It’s easy to start with something as small as an organizer or a hat hook.  But beware—despite the many hours this latest project took, I can tell you that modding the Airstream is addictive.  There will be more in our future.

Mobile Internet, part II

OK.  I’m sitting here looking at my fingers as I type.  I see three small cuts (nicks from sharp aluminum edges), three broken nails, and one knuckle scuff.  I have been fighting the mobile Internet installation, and finally won.

When I started on the project Saturday I figured it was a two or three hour job:  pull out all the old gear, run a new antenna cable, mount the new antenna, and then install the new gear.  No big deal.  But every step of the way, I was tested.  This was an exercise in beating frustration, which is part of why it took two and a half days to complete.

Nothing would go right the first time.  Now, I can admit that some of the trouble was the result of my inexperience with some things, but I’m not a total noob, so there’s a piece I can attribute to some other force:  bad karma, juju, luck, biorhythyms, alien influence, whatever.  Nothing was as easy as it was supposed to be, and when I realized how things were going to be, I decided I would stick it out even if it took all week.

The big problem was the antenna.  The old antenna was something called an NMO Mount, which means that the installer made a 3/4″ hole in the Airstream’s roof that I would have to plug.  The new antenna requires a side mount (it was designed for buildings rather than RVs) and so I had a very limited range of places I could put it, unless I wanted to fabricate a custom aluminum bracket. I very nearly did, but then found that the bracket upon which the TV antenna rests made a perfect mount.

[NOTE added 5/14/2013:  I’m an idiot.  I should have just returned this antenna and done some more looking.  Since I went through this nightmare install, I discovered a replacement that would have just screwed right onto the existing NMO mount, avoiding the need to run a new antenna cable and seal up the old hole.  I would recommend this antenna to anyone who wants the same 4G performance but with a much lower profile:  Laird Phantom.]

Airstream antennaThis location was ideal:  away from metal objects on the roof that might block the signal (such as the solar panel and air conditioner), low enough that the antenna will clear the carport entryway, and right where I can easily inspect it.  I had to run the coaxial antenna cable through the base mounts that hold up the front solar panel.  That was actually one of the easy problems, solved with the purchase of a 1/2″ drill bit and two rubber grommets.

Antenna closeup

The simplest path to the electronics cabinet was through the existing 3/4″hole in the roof.  I thought I was being clever to use the old antenna wire to pull through the new one, but the old line kept snagging.  So I used the old antenna wire to pull through a few feet of slick & smooth plastic vacuum line (left over from the Mercedes 300D renovation), and then used that to pull the new antenna line through–and discovered that the new one wouldn’t quite fit through an internal brace inside the Airstream’s ceiling.

I tried everything to get that wire through, wiggling it, greasing it, pushing it and pulling it, but it just wouldn’t go. I even drilled little holes behind the overhead cabinet to try to locate the problem.  By the time I had exhausted every possible approach, the entire overhead cabinet and doors were completely removed along with one of the ceiling mounted JVC speakers, the curtains, one power outlet, a 12 volt outlet, the coaxial cable outlet, part of the white vinyl wall covering, and (just for good measure) the obsolete DVD changer.  With the tools burying the dinette table and bits of fiberglass insulation, sawdust, and aluminum shavings everywhere, the Airstream looked like it was still on the assembly line.

Airstream wire chaseIn the end, there was nothing to do about it.  The new antenna cable was just too large to fit through that hidden constriction. After sleeping on it, and consideration of the idea of relocating the entire electronics cabinet, there was really only one practical solution left.  We drilled a fresh hole in the ceiling and ran the wire down the ceiling about four inches to a point where it could disappear again.  A plastic wire chase helps minimize the visual impact.

There were many more challenges, but I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice to say that nothing could be taken for granted.  Every splice was suspect, every hole was in the wrong place, every trick I tried was confounded, and in the end the job took about eight hours, not counting three stops at the hardware store.

Airstream Internet install completeBut finally, it works.  The picture shows the install. It’s a little cluttered looking in the photo.  In reality we have more useful space in the closet than we had before, because I neatened up a lot of the DC wiring and tied up the excess.  That little plastic bag at the bottom contains a 12vDC + wire that is leftover from two installations ago and is still hot.  I’m keeping it in case I need more power in this cabinet later.

There’s a little more work to be done on the roof.  I still have to seal up the rest of the 3/4″ hole from the old antenna, where the new antenna line emerges. I never did find the right caulk locally, so I’ve got a tube on order from an eBay seller.

I’m in the Airstream now, using the new wireless Internet system to write this blog.  The reception is fantastic even in the brick carport (router reports -53 dBm).  I can’t wait to try it out in a remote place during our next trip east.

Since I started this project, I noticed that Kyle and Kevin both went with similar equipment.  Since Kevin is an engineer/publisher who must get online daily when he’s traveling, and Kyle is a full-timer who does Internet consulting, I figure we are in good company.  The transition to 4G technology is raising a lot of questions for people, so I may do a seminar at Alumafandango (Oregon, Aug 6-10) on that subject.  (By the way, if you’re planning to come to Alumafandango, now’s the time to register.  Spaces are filling up quickly!)

Updating the Airstream’s wireless Internet

As soon as we got  back from our trip I started ordering things for the coming Airstream maintenance and upgrades.  So beginning on Friday, interesting boxes have been arriving at our doorstop.  Many more are due this coming week.

The first package contained a new cabin air filter for the GL320.  That dust storm really got into everything, and so I decided I’d change the cabin air filters and check the engine air filters.  They were all better than I expected but the cabin air filter was definitely due because it wasn’t changed at the last service.

Today’s package contained my new wireless Internet kit.  As I mentioned, our Cradlepoint CTR500 has been obsoleted by the manufacturer and isn’t reliable with the new 4G networks, and the roof antenna on the Airstream goes back to the 2G days (and isn’t compatible with the frequencies Verizon uses today for 4G LTE, which are in the 700 MHz band).  Plus, I got tired of not being able to get online in fringe areas, especially when everyone else seemed to be getting along fine.  Turns out they are all using “boosters,” and so I finally broke down and got one, along with everything else.

Airstream wireless InternetI spent about 20 minutes on the phone with Vanessa from the 3G Store to work through the technology needs and make sure everything I was going to order would be compatible.  I already had the core of the system, a Verizon wireless data card capable of using the new 4G LTE network (specifically, a Pantech UML-290). The bottom line for everything else was about $360, including:

  • Cradlepoint MBR-95 wireless router.  This is the device that takes the signal from the Pantech UML-290 and makes a private wireless hotspot that all our devices can use.
  • Wilson Sleek 4G-V signal booster cradle (thanks to Jay & Cherie for the tip).  This amplifies the signal from any device you put into the cradle, 3G or 4G. It’s really designed for car use but will work fine for our purposes.  The Pantech will get strapped into the cradle with a rubber band.
  • SureCall omnidirectional fiberglass antenna with ten feet of low-loss cable, and an adapter to connect to the Sleek.  This antenna is a bit of a monster, 9.5 inches tall and about 3.5 inches wide at the base.  It’s much larger than the antenna it is replacing (which was the size of a shot glass) but hopefully offers better performance too. The specs call for a 2-3 dB gain.

All of this stuff will get wired up in the cabinet that we have reserved for electronics and DVDs, near the TV set.  I’ve already got a 12v connector that fits the Cradlepoint, leftover from a previous installation, and a 12 volt socket which will take the cigarette lighter adapter for the Sleek, so we’re all set for power.

The antenna will be mounted to the side of an aluminum leg of one of the solar panels.  Clearance is a challenge:  I bought this 9.5″ antenna because the Wilson RV antenna that most people use is 18 inches tall and won’t clear the entryway of our carport.  This one will just barely make it.  It will be interesting to watch as it comes out of the carport the first time.  If I’ve miscalculated, we might lose a Spanish tile or two in the process.

Before going to all the trouble of running the new antenna wire and putting mounting screws in place, I hooked up the full kit in the house, and dropped the antenna out the window.  After the usual firmware upgrade and some configuration, the first test, using only the Pantech without the Sleek booster, yielded a good signal of -69 dBm, which is not surprising since we are in a city.  Then I put the Pantech card into the Sleek cradle, which boosted the signal and sent it out to the external antenna, and as I watched the signal improve to -43 dBm.  That’s a really good increase, and better than what Wilson promised for the Sleek booster with its standard antenna.

The actual installation will be in the next few days.  I’m looking locally for the appropriate polyurethane caulk (Sikaflex 221, Vulkem/TremPro 635, or similar) to seal up the antenna wire where it passes through the aluminum, and so far am striking out.  I can order an $8 tube of it with $10 shipping from many places, but that’s annoying so I’m trying to find an acceptable substitute in Tucson.  I suppose I can always go over to the local RV store and get something that will work, but in the past the “white box” caulks they tend to sell have been disappointing.  They just don’t last, and I’d rather not have to get up on the roof next year to do this job again.

The real test of this new gear will be this summer when the Airstream is in Vermont.  Reception at our parking spot has always been marginal, to the point that I have to borrow a friend’s office to get work done efficiently.  It would be nice to be able to work from the Airstream as I’m accustomed to doing. And when we are traveling, it looks like the addition of the big antenna and booster will help me get online in more places, and I’m all for that.