Winter camping in the southwest

We are back home now and I’m amazing that in the three weeks we were on the road I had so few opportunities to update the blog.  While it would be easy to blame it on a lack of good Internet opportunities (which was the case for four days in Death Valley and six days camped up by the San Francisco Bay area if you can believe that), the real reason has been that I often made the choice to spend time with people rather than with the computer. I guess that’s a good sign that my priorities were straight during the trip.

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We went to Death Valley to be with Airstream friends as much as for the national park itself. Then we migrated to Thornhill Broome beach (Point Mugu State Park, on the California coast) for three days and met other Airstream friends there, and picked up my mother at LAX.  The four of us then towed up to Anthony Chabot Regional Park near Castro Valley CA (east of Oakland) and spent six days with yet another group of Airstream friends (from Europe), attending their wedding and touring San Francisco.

Then it was back down the coast, drop off Mom at the airport, and back east toward home. Three weeks fly by when you are traveling and doing lots of things. By the time we got back to Quartzsite for a final night, about to go home to Tucson, it seemed like we just got started.

Camping in winter, even in the southwest, presents special challenges. First, you’ve got to pick the right places to go. Snowbirds aren’t interested in encountering blizzards and we definitely don’t want to think about winterizing.  So the possibility of snow and freezing temperatures keeps us to the lowlands. Northern Arizona, northern New Mexico, and the Sierra Nevada range are strictly off limits because they are high elevation areas. Most RV’ers seems to cluster around a few reliably warm places strung along I-8 or I-10: Los Angeles, San Diego, Yuma, Quartzsite, Phoenix, Tucson.

The Pacific Coast is also OK but it’s hard to camp along the California coast sometimes. There aren’t enough places for everyone who wants to camp on the weekend, and prices are high especially since the state hiked prices at all the state parks. We spent $70 for one night at a decent RV park, which wasn’t an unusual price.

The short days of winter and cloudiness from this year’s El Niño storms in California made it hard to rely solely on solar for our electricity when we were boondocking.  Even in a less-stormy winter, desert temperatures drop fast at sunset and there’s usually a lot of furnace use.  We relied heavily on our catalytic heater because it doesn’t use electricity.

In the winter certain problems crop up that you wouldn’t notice in the summer camping season.  For example, the propane regulator has been “singing” various songs for a couple of years now, whenever a propane appliance is drawing gas—but only when it’s cold outside.  Since the regulator is right outside the bedroom, we were hearing it a lot on cold nights. Eleanor has been asking me to solve the problem for a while but until recently I wasn’t sure whether the tank, regulator, or propane hoses (“pigtails”) was the cause. Turns out it can be either the regulator or the hoses–or in our case both.

The noise (which varies from a low humming to an oscillating note) has gotten louder and finally one night it was too much.  I found an RV repair place in Ventura CA that stocked our regulator and swapped it out while we were camped at the beach later that day. It’s not a difficult job, taking about 20 minutes if you have the right wrenches on hand. That reduced the noise considerably but I still had to replace the pigtails later to get back to complete silence.  I’m adding “replace propane regulator” to our routine maintenance list, once every 10 years.

Airstream at Anthony Chabot Regional ParkAnother challenge of winter is condensation.  On this trip the El Niño rains and cool temperatures kept the Bay Area near Oakland right around the dewpoint during the day, and combined with four people in the Airstream it added up to lots of humidity inside. Two or three days we woke up to water dripping from the window glass, and that’s not good.

Why?  Because that amount of water condensing on the glass means that it’s also condensing in other places you can’t see.  Between the two aluminum sheets that comprise the exterior of the Airstream is a layer of fiberglass insulation.  Sometimes there are bare patches where the fiberglass has been pushed aside for something else, like an exterior water connection or a speaker in the ceiling.  When the humidity in the trailer is too high, the moisture will start to condense on the interior side of the aluminum skin, and soak the insulation.

You might not notice this until it gets severe enough to drip out from a seam, but it’s always a problem.  Repeated bouts of heavy condensation mean corroded wiring, rotted floors, mold, stains, and smells–all in places that are difficult to access and repair.

The solution is ventilation.  We didn’t open the windows enough to compensate for four people breathing, washing, cooking, and using a catalytic heater.  (The cat heater produces quite a lot of water vapor during operation.)  It is counter-intuitive to open the windows and roof vents when you’re trying to stay warm, but you have to do it.

Yesterday, five days after the last rain, I removed a ceiling speaker in the Airstream and found water droplets still collected on the aluminum above.  Once the moisture gets in there, it takes quite a while to dry out, even in the arid desert of Tucson. Imagine how long it stays—and how much damage it does—if you live in a damper climate.

Last year we were towing from Arizona to Florida in February and ran into cold temperatures and rain in Texas.  We didn’t winterize the trailer because we were towing along I-10, deep in the south.  That episode taught me another lesson about winter travel because along the highway the city water fill froze, cracked, and sprang a leak inside the trailer. Sometimes you just get unlucky.

It’s a tricky time of year to do much with a travel trailer, but still the opportunities and cost savings are worth it.  Our trip to Los Death Valley, Los Angeles, and San Francisco wouldn’t have been possible without our Airstream.  I’ll just remember that winter makes things a little more complicated … and go anyway.

Solar, generator, or hookup?

[Sorry to those of you who are awaiting pretty pictures from our Death Valley trip this week.  I’m going to get to that later.  In this blog it’s only practical stuff.]

Winter is a good time to talk about all things electrical because it’s extra relevant now.  We like to camp off-grid a lot, and this time of year it’s tricky to make it work.

The problem is a double-whammy:  our solar panels collect a lot less energy due to low sun angle and shorter days, and our usage goes up because we need the lights and furnace for those long nights.

The easy solution is to go find some place with hookups, but our main criterion is to go where we want to go, not just where it’s convenient.  For example, we wanted to spend four nights in Death Valley, and three nights at Point Mugu State Park (Thornhill Broome beach), and neither of our chosen locations offers electricity.

A reader recently asked why we don’t just carry a generator rather than messing about with solar panels, inverters, battery banks, and all that expensive stuff. The answer boils down to personal style.  We had a nice quiet Honda eu1000i generator many years ago and it was a nice safety net when we really needed some power.  But we don’t have a pickup truck (so we are space constrained) and I hated having a gasoline-fueled appliance in the back of the SUV.

I also didn’t like having to run a generator when we were camped in a bucolic & quiet place.  The sound and fumes were just too obtrusive in those settings.  My friend Bert compares it to the yipping of a little dog–not really loud but just enough to gradually fray the nerves.

The final straw came during a visit to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, where (at least at the time) generator hours were during the peak of the day. We wanted to go hiking but didn’t feel good about leaving the generator running while we were gone. So we sat around the Airstream waiting for the batteries to recharge while the Great Outdoors went unexplored.

On that day we looked at the sun shining abundantly while the generator was throbbing away, and decided it was time to get solar.

Solar isn’t a perfect solution, it’s just the solution that fits our camping style best. It’s silent, free to operate, eco-friendly, and I don’t have to set it up or carry gas. It works anytime the sun is up, automatically. But I have to admit there are times when a generator boost would be helpful. Winter is one of those times, and this past week was particularly challenging.

That’s because we arrived in Death Valley with a problem.  A “phantom load” was nipping away at our batteries. If you haven’t heard this term before, a phantom load is a drain on the batteries that has no obvious cause. It’s different from a “parasitic” load, which is caused by certain electrical devices that never go completely off, like the stereo, the refrigerator circuit board, and the propane leak detector.

From our handy Tri-Metric amp-hour meter I have learned that our parasitic load runs about 0.9 amps.  When we arrived in Death Valley, that load mysteriously increased to 2.2 amps. That’s a real problem.

Look at it this way: a typical Airstream trailer comes with a pair of Group 27 batteries (that’s a physical size, not power capacity). They might each be rated at 85 amp-hours capacity. But because you are only supposed to discharge them to half their capacity (for longest life), your net capacity from two batteries is just 85 amp-hours.

A 2.2 amp constant drain means all of your useful power will be gone in about 38 hours–a mere day and a half—doing nothing at all. Anything you do to use power will only reduce the time till the batteries fail, so you might get just one day and night before finding you’re out of juice. I see people struggling with this all the time, and you can see their posts in online forums asking why their battery was dead after just one night of running the furnace.

(The furnace, by the way, pulls about 7-10 amps depending on model, which adds up to a lot of power when you consider how long it runs on a cold night. It’s one of the biggest DC power consumers in the trailer.)

In our case, I made things worse by leaving our new inverter switched on during the tow. That added another 0.4 amps to the constant load. And then, because it was cold when we arrived in Death Valley, we ran the furnace for about 30 minutes.

So despite being fully charged when we left Quartzsite, a few hours after we arrived at Death Valley our power was already down to 86%.  That made for a bad start to our planned 4-night boondocking trip.

That night I started tracing down the phantom load, and by pulling fuses and watching the Tri-Metric I was able to isolate it to a single circuit that powered the water pump, tank monitors, and external compartment lights. The problem turned out to be the front compartment light, which had become loose and was “leaking” voltage to the body of the Airstream.  If that doesn’t make sense, imagine a weak electrical short that isn’t quite enough to trip the fuse. I’ve never encountered this problem before or heard of anyone experiencing it, so I suspect it’s fairly rare.

I pulled the fuse overnight to stop the bleeding, and Kyle and I fixed that the next morning by relocating the light. But the damage to our power reserve was done, and the short sunny days of winter meant we couldn’t make up for it. This time of year the best our solar panels can do is generate about 25 amp-hours on a sunny day.

Our new Lifeline 8D battery has a capacity of 255 amp-hours, which gives us 127.5 amp-hours usable (remember, discharge no more than 50%). With a movie in the evening and a little furnace heating we were chewing up 45 amp-hours a day, so even with solar making up some of the power we were losing ground at the rate of about 20 amp-hours a day, which meant that after five nights we’d be done.

That’s actually acceptable for us. Our goal isn’t to have endless power, only to extend our boondocking time. To get five days from our battery and solar panels in the winter is just fine. (In the summer we do have endless power because of the long days, and have gone for weeks without plugging in.)

We cut the loss down by turning off the furnace and using our catalytic heater instead, and limiting use of the inverter and computers.  Since we’d been ravaged by the phantom load early on, Kyle plugged us into his generator for a quick 20 amp-hour boost.  The net result was that after our four nights in Death Valley the Tri-Metric said we still had 69% of our battery.

But since we were planning to follow up with three nights on the Pacific coast, where sunshine is not quite as guaranteed as in the desert, we spent one night at a full hookup campground to get fully charged. After a few days in the desert, it’s also nice to have a full hookup to clean up everything and everybody.

Now we are in our third day at the beach and it’s cloudy. I had to log a lot of laptop time these past two days, and we ran the microwave last night, so we’re down to 43% of our usable power. That’s OK too. We won’t run out before we leave tomorrow, and we’ve succeeded in our goal of camping next to the Pacific Ocean, so I regard this as a success.

This is just our story. It’s not the “best” solution for everyone. All that matters is that you can use your Airstream the way you want to. If that means going to full hookup sites exclusively, running a generator, or using solar panels, it’s all fine. Think about what you want to do and then you can decide the way you want to get there.

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.

A good trip is worth some effort (and money)

It’s roadtrip time again.  After several quiet weeks of relaxing and taking care of lots of little things (including a set of kittens from the Humane Society), we are getting ready to launch the Airstream for a few weeks in California.

The trip will be great fun, but getting ready to go has been stressful.  The big thing for me was the putting in another refrigerator cooling unit—again—with another “lifetime warranty” replacement unit. (The lifetime of the first one was six months.)  Putting in a cooling unit is a hassle.  It takes two guys to get the fridge out of the trailer, and about four hours for me to do the swap and re-install.  The end product always includes a few bleeding fingers and some back pain. So I don’t enjoy it.

Just in case you read a prior blog about this and were wondering if the company that sold me the cooling unit has risen to the customer service challenge since last I posted, the answer is NO.  They have been uniformly anemic: Calls not returned, endless excuses, and delays were the name of the game. From the time I gave them the results of the tests they required (to prove failure of the first cooling unit) to the time they finally shipped the replacement was about three weeks. It was another two weeks before I got it, in early December.

I installed it last weekend and guess what?  It doesn’t work.  Wouldn’t produce any significant cooling even after running full-bore for 24 hours. In fact, the one I sent back was actually working better.  I sent them a message to let them know but of course nobody replied.

Enough of the fridge battle.  I bought a new Dometic this morning from a local store and popped it in this afternoon.  (I’m getting very good at replacing refrigerators.) It is presently doing its thing quietly in the carport, and I expect ice in the freezer come morning. As I often say lately, there aren’t many problems that can’t be solved by throwing large amounts of cash at them. In this case, fifteen hundred simoleons. That may seem like a lot but it’s a good deal compared to replacement cooling units that don’t last or don’t even work out of the box.

(Thank you for reading my rant.  I feel a little better.  I’ll now switch to some happier information.)

Our upcoming trip is the result of several happy accidents and confluences.  We will start off in Quartzsite to get a long-awaited inverter installation.  I’m going to be evaluating a new Xantrex pure sine wave inverter that will power our microwave oven even while boondocking, which should be a real convenience.

Then we’ll head to Death Valley to meet friends and camp for a few days.  Our next major stop will be Malibu CA for a bit of seaside camping and a chance to overlap a night with some other Airstream friends, then up to the SF Bay area to attend an Airstreamers’ wedding and visit Silicon Valley friends we haven’t seen in many years.

Then we plan to take Route 1 down the California coast (yes, you can do that with a 30-foot Airstream, no problem), and after a couple of nights we’ll head back to home base in Tucson.  All told, about three weeks on the road.

You’ll notice the word “friends” appearing frequently in the above trip plan.  This trip is entirely driven by our desire to share experiences with good people, many of whom we’ve met along the road in prior travels.  We always see some friends on every trip, but it’s a particularly good trip where nearly every stop has a friendly face waiting at it.

Right now Eleanor and I are working through long lists of things that must be done before we can leave, and it’s a lot of work. Earlier today when we realized the fridge was dead and a few other obstacles popped up we considered delaying the trip.  But I know that once we get rolling, all the effort to get ready on time (and the sliced fingers, and the money) will be worth it.

Learning to do an Airstream pre-trip inspection

Mexico horses on beachLast week I got a call from a local Airstream owner who wanted to know where he could get a pre-trip inspection before going to the beach in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico.  This owner had recently purchased my Airstream maintenance guide recently but he didn’t feel ready to do this inspection himself.

I can understand that. It takes time to absorb all the information and feel confident that you’re not going to overlook something important.  The temptation is always there to just call a professional and pay them to inspect instead.

That’s why in the book I recommend that new owners start learning to inspect while their Airstream is still new, so they can become accustomed to how things are supposed to be.  Any changes that occur later will be a lot more obvious that way.

This particular Airstreamer was quoted $350 by a shop to get an inspection done. This would include testing all the systems and a general inspection to find any problems.  This might be worthwhile to many people for a pre-purchase inspection, especially if they aren’t highly familiar with Airstreams, but I can’t see why any long-time owner should have to pay such a fee.

First off, there’s very little inspecting that a shop will do that you can’t do yourself.  The only really complicated tools you need are eyes, fingers, and a brain.

Second, if you already own the trailer you’re really just paying them to find problems that they will then charge you to fix.  To my way of thinking such an inspection should be free or very cheap.  Lots of automotive repair shops will offer free brake inspections, for example–and they are doing that because there’s a good chance they’ll find something that needs repairing.

Third (in this case) the Airstream was in pristine condition. It was a 2009 model that had been used only a few times.  The owner told me the first tank of propane lasted him six years!

Since the last trip it was stored under cover and on pavement in a desert environment.  That’s just about the ideal environment for storage. The only major things to worry about in that situation are keeping the battery charged, discouraging rodents (pack rats) and preventing things from drying out (rubber seals and battery fluid primarily).

The owner never hesitated to get repairs and maintenance done, and it showed.  The wheel bearings were recently re-packed, the exterior was clean, and the tires and brakes were in great condition.  The fact that he was considering paying $350 to have it inspected before a 500 mile round-trip showed how meticulous and careful he was about maintenance.  So it wasn’t likely that the Airstream needed much to be ready for its trip.

I don’t normally get involved but in this case I was interested in meeting this owner and understanding better what challenges he might be facing to get his Airstream ready after a long period of storage. (I’m collecting updates for a future second version of the maintenance book.)  So we arranged to meet at his house on Friday.

We walked around the trailer talking about the things described in pages 18-25 of my book, but clearly this trailer didn’t need a deep inspection. The only problems I could find were:

  • one missing interior rivet (see replacement procedure on page 57)
  • one loose hose clamp on an exterior gas line (p. 193)
  • low air in the tires (which is normal after long storage, discussed on p. 120)
  • a few window latches that needed a quick shot of silicone spray (p. 82)
  • a door hinge pin that was working its way out (p. 84)

The inspection and test drive took less than an hour including stopping off at a local tire shop to get some air. We didn’t need any tools to do the inspection.

Was this worth dropping the Airstream off at a local shop and paying $350?  Of course not.

We’re all led to think that only professionals can do a good job of maintaining vehicles, because vehicles are too complex for the average person.  Airstreams aren’t complex.  They’re really very simple conglomerations of lots of separate items, and just about anyone can learn how to inspect and do basic maintenance on them.

I replaced the missing rivet and left the owner with a short list of things to fix and check on his own, including checking the water in the batteries (p. 178).

By the way, he’s towing with a new BMW X5 and I have to say that it’s an awesome combination with that 23-footer.  We adjusted his Reese Strait-line hitch to improve the weight distribution and took it out for a test drive.  The drive was so enjoyable I almost didn’t want to let him have it back.  We got up to 45 MPH and I did a few fast lane changes and two simulated emergency braking maneuvers and just couldn’t believe the excellent performance from this combination.

I normally don’t experience such good manners from somebody else’s tow vehicle combination except when driving one of Andy Thomson’s tricked-out rigs, so it was a nice surprise. My own Airstream and tow vehicle are optimized for best possible towing performance too, but there’s a world of difference between the long wheelbase Mercedes GL/30-foot Airstream compared to the BMW X5 and a 23-footer.

Now, if you live in the Tucson area, don’t think I’m starting to do house calls.  This was a one-off deal!  Instead, take some time to learn more about how things work on your Airstream and you’ll find you can easily do it yourself.  Someday you’ll be proficient enough to pass on the knowledge to a fellow traveler.  Personally I was glad I did: I made a new friend, and he’s going to have a great trip to Mexico in a very sweet Airstream 23D.