Caution: low hanging valves

Yesterday we wrapped up Alumafiesta in Tucson, and so now we’re in the “recovery” phase, just trying to get back in sync with life and unwind after a hectic week. For me, it’s time to get a few Airstream projects done.

In the first week of January I decided to do something I’ve never done before: take a friend out in the Airstream for a week-long trip, instead of my family. It might seem odd that I’ve never done that, but those of you who own travel trailers or motorhomes can testify that they become very personal. I always associate our Airstream with our family. I rarely even take the Airstream out alone.

But my buddy Nick was a pretty safe bet. He’s low-maintenance, easy-going, and a decent cook. We work on our old Mercedes cars together on weekends, and have spent many a Saturday morning digging around the junkyard, so we’ve bonded over greasy parts and underneath diesel engines. At one point Nick mentioned that he and his wife would like to own a small travel trailer someday, so I figured he was ready to get introduced to the world of Airstream.

IMG_4487We took the Airstream out to the southern California desert, where we met up with a bunch of other desert rats/technomads, went hiking, and ate apple pie from Julian. Then we hopped over to Quartzsite to see the spectacle of cheapskate boondockers and endless flea markets, and we wrapped up the trip with a hike up Picacho Peak in Picacho AZ. It was all brilliant except that the Airstream kept giving us little problems, signs of advancing age and frequent hard use.

IMG_4516

I already wrote about the battery charging issue, and that will get addressed later this month when the new charger comes in. During the California trip, I found a few other glitches, most of which I fixed on the spot.  One interesting problem was the sudden failure of the P/T valve on the water heater.  This valve is supposed to relieve excess pressure in the water heater (it’s a safety device) but mine decided after ten years it was done holding back, and so it began to gush water.  One trip to the local hardware store later, Nick and I had it swapped out for a new one.

All of the repairs were small stuff like that, hardly worth breaking out the tool kit for, until the aluminum bracket that holds up the dump valves broke loose.

Even this wasn’t a major problem.  The bracket is riveted into the belly pan, which is thin aluminum, and the rivets had finally torn out after 100,000+ miles of bumping along North American roadways. The dump valves hung a little lower than usual, but everything still worked.  My only concern was that eventually, without the bracket, the connections on the plastic pipes might eventually start to leak.

Normally I’d fix this with bigger rivets—which I carry around at all times, as well as a rivet tool—but in this case there wasn’t enough intact metal in the belly pan left to make a bond I could trust.  It needed a reinforcing sheet of aluminum.  I browsed around the junk piles at Quartzsite and found an expired California license plate that was the perfect size to serve as a reinforcing plate.

I was feeling rather resourceful until it became obvious that the entire dump valve assembly would have to be removed in order to get in there with the drill and rivet tool to rig up my field repair.  This was more of a job than I wanted to do in a Quartzsite campground (we had opted for full hookups rather than boondocking again), and it seemed like an opportunity to order a new set of dump valves to swap in at the same time.  So after getting home, I placed an order for the new valve set and went off to Alumafiesta for a week.

Alas, the day before Alumafiesta I heard a strange hissing noise from the refrigerator, one I’ve never heard before.  The refrigerator used in RVs is normally silent. There wasn’t any obvious ammonia smell (a definite indicator of a major failure), nor any sign of coolant leakage, and the fridge was still working so there wasn’t anything I could so at that point.  A few days later, the fridge stopped cooling and a tell-tale puddle of greenish-yellow coolant oozed out.  RIP refrigerator #2.  It lasted just six and a half years, one of the 900,000+ victims of Dometic’s unfortunate refrigerator manufacturing fiasco from June 1, 2003 to September 30, 2006.

The immediate solution was to find another refrigerator to store my food for a few days until the event was over.  The long-term solution was to order a new cooling unit for the refrigerator.  The cooling unit is the guts of the fridge, and it’s entirely replaceable.  We could get a new refrigerator, but we really like the Dometic NDR-1062 that we have, and it has been discontinued.  It’s the only model we’ve found that yields 10 cubic feet in the space of a typical 8-cubic foot refrigerator box.

The dealer quote was $1,560 to replace the cooling unit.  I ordered a new cooling unit for $524, to be delivered by truck freight to my door with a 6-year warranty, and I will replace it myself sometime next week. I’ve never done this job before, but it doesn’t look terribly difficult, and I’ve got friends who can help. As a few people have said to me, “If you can do your own work on that old diesel Mercedes, you can do this.”

Meanwhile today, I got under the Airstream and swapped out that dump valve set, and riveted that bracket up. It was a good warm-up for the work yet to come this month.

At times it seems like I’m constantly working on one Airstream or another. This can be frustrating at times because there are other things in life. On the other hand, each repair is an opportunity to get to know the Airstream better, learn new skills, and improve things beyond the original factory spec. There’s something very satisfying in doing it yourself.  And I can assure you that those dump valves will never drop low again, thanks to ten huge rivets and a California license plate.

How my Airstream lost its mojo in the carport

Next week I’m going to camp in the desert in California, and so I’m getting the Safari ready now. I’ve learned that anytime the Airstream has been sitting for a while, it’s best to start checking all the systems at least two weeks in advance.  That way the little problems that sometimes crop up during storage can be resolved without a last-minute panic.

I figured I’d find something that needing doing, but was completely surprised by what turned up.  The Tri-Metric battery monitor was reporting the batteries were at 73%. Since the Airstream has been continuously plugged into power since late August, this was clearly suspicious. The batteries should have been at 100%.

The Tri-Metric 2020 (by Bogart Engineering) is one of several amp-hour meters you can install in place of the existing battery monitor that came with your travel trailer. I recommend this upgrade to everyone, for reasons I’ve outlined previously. It’s about $200 plus installation, and well worth it for anyone who ever camps off-grid, has solar panels, or just wants to know what’s really going on with their batteries.

The Tri-Metric is highly accurate. It “counts” every bit of power (in amps) that goes in or out of the batteries, so when it reports 73% charge, it’s pretty darned close, like within 1-2%. We’ve had that Tri-Metric running in the Airstream for nine years and it has always been reliable.

So the first thing I checked was that the Airstream was in fact receiving power.  That was simply a matter of looking at another meter in my case, but if you didn’t have one, turning on an AC-powered appliance would verify power as well. Just plug in a lamp or something.

The second thing I checked was that the power converter/charger was doing its job.  You might recall that earlier this year I switched from the factory-installed converter/charger to an Intellipower 9260 with Charge Wizard. This was in order to get better battery charging when we were plugged in. The factory put in a 2-stage charger, and the Intellipower has three stages, plus somewhat more “brain” so it doesn’t overcharge the battery, and the option of manual overrides using the Charge Wizard.

The Tri-Metric answered this question too. It was showing that the batteries had a tiny rate of discharge, about -0.05 amps. Turning on additional DC power consumers (lights, fans, water pump) revealed that the rate of discharge never changed.  That’s because the Intellipower was doing at least part of its job, stepping up the power input as needed to compensate for DC power draws. If the Intellipower wasn’t working at all, the Tri-Metric would have shown a dramatic increase of discharge.

Now, to understand what’s coming next, you need know something about the way batteries charge. A fully charged “12 volt” battery really runs about 12.7 volts.  (This varies by the type of battery chemistry used, but here I’m referring to the typical “wet cell” lead-acid batteries that come with your Airstream.)

Think of volts as electrical pressure. In order to get 12.7 volts into the battery, you have to “push” power into the battery a little harder than 12.7 volts. The harder you push, the faster the power goes in.  But there’s a limit to how hard you can safely push, so for this typical sort of battery the manufacturers usually recommend about 13.6 volt for a normal charge. When the battery is really empty you can push a little harder (meaning more volts), and when it is nearly full you have to back off and push more gently (less volts).

The Intellipower, like many other RV converter/chargers, has pre-set levels at which it charges the batteries. If the battery is full or nearly full, it charges at “storage mode” rate of 13.2 volts.  This keeps the battery topped off, compensating for a little “self-discharge” that naturally occurs with lead-acid batteries.

If the battery is somewhat discharged, the Intellipower steps up to 13.6 volts.  This is the “normal mode” of charging.

If the battery is really discharged and needs a bulk charge quickly, the Intellipower goes for broke and pushes hard at 14.4 volts. It will only do this for a little while before returning to the normal mode of 13.6 volts.

Those are the “three stages” that I was referring to earlier, and it works just great for conventional batteries.

With the trailer plugged in, the Tri-Metric was telling me that the battery voltage was steady at 13.2 volts.  That’s not the actual voltage of the battery, because it was receiving some input from the Intellipower. To get the true voltage, I disconnected the AC power and waited for the battery to have a chance to “settle”.

Ideally I should have let it settle for 24 hours with no charge or discharge (e.g., disconnected), and then measured at 77 degrees, but I was impatient and didn’t want to disconnect the battery at that time, plus it was cold outside. So I waited six hours with a very small load on the battery (from the refrigerator’s circuit board and a few other small “parasitic” drains), and checked the voltage again.  It was 12.7 volts, which in a conventional battery would indicate that it was about full.

If this had been the end of the story I would have concluded that the Tri-Metric had somehow lost calibration and wasn’t counting the amps correctly. But that just didn’t sit well with me.  The Tri-Metric seemed to be acting normally.  After six hours of the trailer being unplugged, the Tri-Metric was reporting a 70% charge, which seemed about right. Something else had to be wrong … but what?

The answer surprised me.  Long ago we replaced the original Airstream batteries with an Absorbed Glass Mat (AGM) battery. These are sold under various brand names, such as Optima. Ours happens to be a Lifeline 4D model. I looked up the charging requirements for this battery and discovered that it has entirely different voltage requirements, as follows:

Absorption Charge voltages (“normal mode”): 14.2- 14.6
Float Charge voltages (“storage mode”) 13.1 – 13.4

Although the Intellipower charger was supplying power to the battery, it just wasn’t enough. When the battery wanted 14.2 to 14.6 volts, the charger gave it 13.6 volts. Sitting in storage, the charger gave it only 13.2 volts, which was fine for a while, but not enough to maintain the AGM’s rated “full” level of 12.9 volts. The battery gradually lost power.

The upshot for you is that there’s a dirty little secret about most power converters: they aren’t optimized for charging AGMs, at least not the Lifeline ones.  In our case, the Intellipower documentation doesn’t address this, and factory voltage output settings can’t be changed. I checked a few other popular brands and found they are exactly the same. Only a few brands, like Xantrex, have the built-in capability to push the correct voltages needed for AGM batteries. If you have switched to AGMs and haven’t upgraded your converter/charger to the right brand, your battery is going to have reduced capacity as well.

The really peculiar thing about this is that it took eight months for my problem to crop up.  Why didn’t I notice a charging problem before?

Because we have solar panels, and a separate solar charge controller (a Blue Sky Solar Boost 2000e). The Blue Sky charger can be programmed to output a range of voltage, so you can optimize it for your batteries. The factory default on that device is 14.0 volts (compared to 13.6 volts on the Intellipower), and that makes a huge difference. So when we were parked outside, our batteries were getting their last 27% of capacity courtesy of the sun and the Blue Sky—and I didn’t realize it until now.

At home, our Airstream lives under a carport, so the solar panels don’t produce any power. And, in colder temperatures, it takes a little more power to charge the batteries—about 0.5 volts more. (This is just a weird battery chemistry thing.) So after four months of sitting in the carport with slowly declining temperatures and inadequate voltage from the Intellipower, the battery slowly lost power and the solar panels weren’t there to save the day.

It’s possible the battery still is underperforming. I’m going to test it this next week when I take the trailer out of the carport and go camping for a week.  If I’m right, a full charge should be possible in the sunshine, and then I can “equalize” the battery using the solar charge controller (which goes to 15.2 volts in equalization mode), and exercise it through a few charge/discharge cycles.

I may also adjust the BlueSky charger for slightly more output voltage. I’ll have to do that after the battery has reached full charge. It may already be at an optimal setting, but since I don’t know, it will be a good exercise to check it once we have full sun.

If the battery is fine and it comes to a full charge next week using solar power, I’ll have to start looking for a better converter/charger. It’s a bummer to have to replace that unit again, but with the right unit in place the battery should charge faster when plugged into AC power—and most importantly maintain its state of charge all winter long.

Things polishing taught me

For years I’ve seen the amazing mirror shines that people have put on their vintage Airstreams, and I’ve thought, “I’ll never do that on my ’68 Caravel.” My impression of polishing was that it was an exercise for (a) people who are trying to pump up the re-sale value of a trailer. i.e., flippers; (b) people who think a day spent detailing a car for a show is a day well spent, i.e., (to my point of view) masochists.

Well, there I was on Friday and Saturday of this past weekend, in the driveway spending most of the daylight hours with a rotary buffer in my hands … and so I have to admit that my assessment was far too harsh. There are good reasons to polish a vintage Airstream that go beyond financial profit or masochism.

As I said in the previous blog entry, the impetus for this project was Patrick’s offer to come down with a batch of Nuvite polishes and tools, and show me how to do it. It was impossible to say no to that.  So despite my earlier prejudices, I’m now one of those guys who has polished his Airstream—and you know, it’s kind of cool.

In the course of the two days, I learned many things, such as:

  1.  Polishing isn’t as hard as I thought.  I had imagined severe muscle strain from holding a heavy rotary buffer, and excruciating effort to reach every little crack and seam. Actually, the buffer did all the work and even the edging work wasn’t that bad.
  2. It’s not as messy as I thought.  I suited up with a long-sleeved shirt, vinyl gloves, and a baseball cap, so my skin was barely exposed. I thought I’d end up covered in black aluminum oxide, but it wasn’t much at all and it washed off easily. Even the driveway cleanup was easy: just a push broom to sweep up all the little black fuzzies that came off the buffing pads. However, I’m glad I chose to wear my cheap sneakers.
  3. Polishing actually “repaired” the surface of the Caravel’s metal body, at least at a microscopic level.  After nearly fifty years, the skin had a lot of pitting and scratches. The polish moves the metal around so that pits and scratches get filled.  I was amazed to see lots of little scratches disappear.
  4. The neighbors love it.  I was concerned that two days of buffer noise, flecks of black polish getting flung around, and the sight of us working on a vehicle in the driveway in defiance of our neighborhood’s antiquated deed restrictions, might cause some of the neighbors to get a little upset.Far from it—people who were passing by paused to wave or give us a thumbs-up. Yesterday a neighbor dropped by to say how amazed she was with the shine. Turns out that polishing a vintage Airstream is kind of like having a baby. Everyone praises you, even though it’s noisy and messy. Now my Airstream has been transformed from a kind-of-cool “old trailer” to a showpiece.

The only unfortunate part of this is that we ran out of time.  Patrick came down from Phoenix on Friday so we didn’t get started until noon, and both Friday and Saturday we had to stop around 5:30 because we ran out of daylight.  It’s hard to get big outdoor projects done near the Winter Solstice. (I suppose I shouldn’t complain—many of you are buried in snow right now.) On Sunday we both had other things to do.

We got as far as polishing every section of the trailer two or three times in Nuvite F7 (with F9, a more aggressive grade for a few heavily pitted areas). We also managed to do about 90% of the trailer with the next grade, Nuvite C. Realizing we would run out of time, we finished just one panel with the final grade (Nuvite S) using the Cyclo polisher and some towels, just to see how it would look. That’s what Patrick is doing in the photo above.

It’s fantastic. The shine is definitely mirror grade. The metal still has lots of blemishes (deep scratches, minor dings, and pits) but from more than five feet away all you see is a reflection of the world around the Airstream. Click on the photo for a larger version and notice how well you can see the palm tree in the reflection. You can even me taking a photo.

Compare that section to the panels above, which have been done up through Nuvite C but haven’t had the final step yet. The blackish smudging on the upper panels is just some leftover polish that we haven’t cleaned up with mineral spirits yet.  It wipes right off.

Since we are both tied up with holiday and year-end stuff, and then I’ve got Alumafiesta prep to do, Patrick has offered to come down for a day sometime in January to do the final work on the Caravel. That should take him about 4-5 hours. If I can help, I will.  In any case, the Caravel will be on display at Tucson/Lazydays KOA during Alumafiesta in late January 2015, so if you are coming to that event you can see for yourself what we did.

The polishing project

Although the North has been dealing with winter storms and the usual inconveniences of winter, down here in the southern Arizona desert it’s the best time of year for outdoor work. For the past couple of years I’ve taken the opportunity to do major Airstream maintenance between mid October and January, taking advantage of the cool and generally dry weather we get at this time of year.

This time around it looked like I might get away with just chilling out, but then Patrick called and prodded me about getting the Caravel polished. He’s The Guy from Nuvite Chemical Corp., and if you have a vintage Airstream you probably know the name Nuvite.  It’s the premiere polishing compound used to make Airstreams shine like mirrors.

Now, Airstreams never came out of the factory with “mirror shine.”  They generally had a sort of matte shine, the color of factory-fresh aluminum (which of course is exactly what they were.) You could see yourself in it, but not very clearly.  With time, the aluminum would gradually oxidize to a dull battleship gray color, not particularly attractive, which is why Airstream began applying a clearcoat in the 1960s.  The clearcoat delayed the oxidization so the trailer looked new longer.

But eventually the aluminum oxidized anyway, and so vintage trailers owners have a choice: live with the dull patina, or get to work with some polish.  Polishing is a labor-intensive job, so for my 1968 Airstream Caravel I chose the path of least resistance for many years.  I had the clearcoat chemically stripped off back around 2005 when Colin Hyde was doing some sheet metal replacement on it, and then around 2010 my buddy Ken took it upon himself to do a polishing pass on the trailer, to even out the differences between new metal and old.  But the Caravel has never really been super-shiny, and lately it has oxidized back to a patina that belies the trailer’s 46 years.

The photos below show what I’m talking about.  The first photo is a 1953 Airstream Flying Cloud that we used to own. It is fully oxidized. Once a layer of oxidization forms on the trailer, it protects the rest of the aluminum and doesn’t deteriorate further. So there’s no harm in leaving it like this, but it’s not very pretty.  (The streaks below the reflectors are from rusting steel trim around the reflectors. This trailer had been sitting for over twenty years when we bought it.)

The second photo shows another 1953 Airstream Flying Cloud, but nicely polished.  (It belongs to Dicky Riegel, former president of Airstream and more recently the founder of Airstream2Go.) Hard to believe that the metal can go from one state to the other, but it’s absolutely true.  This is what you can do with a few cans of Nuvite and some work.

1953 Airstream Flying Cloud patina1953 Airstream Flying Cloud polished

Enter Patrick.  He is The Guy who goes around the country demonstrating how Nuvite works. I can’t figure out how he does it, since polishing is a demanding task that involves holding a heavy power tool against the trailer body for hours. The black aluminum oxide stains your clothes and skin too.  Yet Patrick is always smiling when I see him, and his fingernails always seem to be clean. He seems to think he has the greatest job in the country.

That must explain it, because he called me and reminded me that months ago we talked about polishing the Caravel.  He certainly could have let it go, since I wasn’t chasing him, but instead he’s going to drive down from Phoenix on December 19 and spend a day or two in my driveway showing me how Nuvite can turn the Caravel into a mirror-like “jewel.”

I’m going to help him, or at least attempt to.  I’m pretty sure he can finish the trailer before I figure out how to get my gloves on, but he’s a good sport and willing to give me lessons on technique. I’m also inviting some local friends to drop in and observe or help. With luck this might end up as a Tom Sawyer-esque episode where all my friends help do the work.

If you are in Tucson or willing to drive down on Dec 19, ping me and I’ll give you directions to the fun (email: my first name at airstreamlife.com).  If you want to observe from afar and keep your clothes clean, I’ll post photos here of the process.

I also hope to learn more about the chemical process of polishing.  It’s interesting in a geeky way. From what I know so far, we aren’t removing anything from the aluminum, but rather “turning over” the surface material chemically.  I’ll ask Patrick for details. And if you want to see the trailer in person, drop by Alumafiesta in late January.  I’ll have it on display in the campground or inside the Event Center.

 

Airstreaming in Asia

We are back in the USA after three weeks of travel in China, Korea, and Japan (and a stopover in Hawaii).

I had contemplated posting a series of day-by-day blog entries, but even then it would be hard to capture the breadth of the experience.  Traveling to places that are utterly foreign is at first intimidating, then exhilarating, occasionally overwhelming, and finally satisfying.  Much like other things in life that are outside one’s comfort zone, it will take time to process and absorb.  So instead of describing everything we saw and did, I’m going to put together a few essays about specific aspects of the trip.

Airstream-wise, the most obvious thing I learned is that Airstreamers don’t know how good we have it in North America.  Cheap fuel, open spaces, endless camping, minimal legal barriers, dealerships and service centers everywhere, and a large community of fellow travelers.  In Asia, Airstream is a luxury brand like Land Rover, affordable and practical only to a very small percentage of citizens.  Imagine if you had to pay $181,000 for a 23-foot Airstream, another $100k for the tow vehicle, $6 per gallon for fuel, and after that you found there were virtually no campsites in your country, nobody else to meet, and you had no room at your home to park it.

The Asian Airstream dealers have brought in Airstream as a luxury import, to places where there is little understanding of “RV culture.” As a result, they have to work hard to market Airstream and the concept of RV travel/recreation.  They can’t just sit at their showroom and expect customers to come in with much knowledge of Airstreams or what you do with one of them. It’s a tough challenge and I admire the effort that the dealers are putting into this. They bring Airstreams to events all over their region, spending the day showing the product and explaining what it does. The Beijing dealership has even opened a “try before you buy” camping facility in Inner Mongolia with six Airstreams parked near a golf course and ready for use. It’s the only campground in Inner Mongolia.

I was surprised to learn that the dealers hadn’t seen Airstream Life magazine yet, nor did they have much of a grasp of the strong Airstream communities that exist in North America and Europe. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been. Airstream Life is not published in their language, and the nature of the Asian Airstream community, if one ever develops, will undoubtedly be something unique rather than a copy of American culture. Airstreams have been sold in Japan for over a decade so there is a small owner community there, but it’s not much like ours.

One thing that is the same: the enthusiasm.  Everyone loves Airstreams. I’m sure that the dealers are gradually building an audience of people who now aspire to Airstream ownership, and that will serve them well over time.  The problem is that it will take a lot of time.  Wally Byam solved that problem by running high-profile caravans, which generated far more positive publicity for the brand than he could have done by any other method.  I think that if Asia is to become more than a niche market, caravans will become a key part of the marketing strategy eventually.

I knew that this trip would include just about every form of travel other than Airstreaming, but looking back on it I’m still amazed at the crazy procession of planes, trains, automobiles, and ships that we had to take to get around.  In sum, six flights, numerous taxis and shuttle buses, one ship, the Shanghai Maglev, bullet trains in China and Japan, subways in four cities (Shanghai, Beijing, Kobe, Tokyo), and light rail. (It would have been only five flights but leaving Honolulu we got a three hour tour of the Pacific and then returned to Honolulu due to a hydraulic problem with the Boeing 767.) And for the most part, we saw only the metropolises, rarely the beautiful countryside.

While riding the bullet trains and especially the Shanghai Maglev was exciting (the Maglev gets up to 288 MPH) I would have enjoyed the trip more if we were able to tow an Airstream around. Asia’s just not quite ready for that yet.  Massive traffic in the cities makes towing a trailer impractical, and in the country there’s not much infrastructure to support RV travel.  You can’t hope to find service centers conveniently, and the dearth of campgrounds means you have to be creative about finding places to stay.  (I am told by “Airstream Leo” in Beijing that he has sold one Airstream to a customer who is full-timing. I have no idea how that is working out.)

Each country has its own challenges. South Korea is essentially an island, cut off from the rest of Asia by that backward mess called North Korea, so while Korea has the most parks and campsites, road travelers are limited to a country only the size of southern California, with 50 million people to share it with. China is huge but good luck finding any sort of established RV campground. There’s also little precedent for licensing and regulating travel trailers in that country. Japan is the most organized and has the longest experience with Airstream, but it is also crowded and expensive. You’d want to think twice before towing in any major Asian city.

My assessment overall is that Airstream travel in most of Asia is practical only for the adventurous, self-supporting, and wealthy. But that will change. I’ll be keeping an eye on things to see how that’s evolving, with the hopes of being able to return and really see the countries the same way we’ve been able to see America. Despite the challenges, I don’t think that day is too far in the future.