10 little things you should have in your Airstream

We all carry lots of stuff in our Airstreams, and over time it seems to accumulate. People who want to take care of little repairs and maintenance themselves especially are prone to the problem of stuff accumulating, because there’s always another tool or spare part you might need someday, and could carry around “just in case”.

That’s why I’m always hesitant to recommend that Airstreamers carry specific things.  What you “need” in your Airstream depends mostly on your personal inclinations.  I know some people who go camping with concrete blocks and wood saws, for example, and I would personally never use up our weight and space allowance with those things. It’s a personal choice.

The two things I tend to emphasize that everyone should add to their Airstream are tools for changing a tire, and a First Aid kit, since neither is supplied by Airstream. After that, it’s up to you.

My favorite non-tool things to carry are those items that are (a) small and lightweight; (b) hard to find on the road; (c) can solve common and annoying problems quickly. I’ve got a whole tackle box full of various spare bits and bobs, most of which I never have used, so yesterday I went through the box in search of the items that are needed the most.

9 little thingsI came up with just ten things, most of which are pictured at left.

  1.  Silicone spray.  Not WD-40—that’s not lube!  Real silicone spray leaves a lasting film that provides excellent light, non-greasy lubrication on all kinds of things.  It’s perfect for squeaky hinges, sticky window and vent seals, locks, window latches, the coupler latch, and other “light duty” items.
    It’s not a replacement for grease, however, so don’t use it for lubricating your hitch or hitch ball. Use it to sweeten your life by stopping squeaks and things that stick.
  2. A spare water heater drain plug.  You can buy this for pennies at a hardware store. If you ever have to do an on-the-road winterization, or drain the water heater for a repair, you’ll be glad you have a spare plug handy. They are made of nylon and break easily.
  3. Soapy water solution in a spray bottle.  Perfect for chasing down propane leaks. If you smell gas near the regulator or propane “pigtails”, a few spritzes of this stuff and some careful observation will help you find the leak quickly.
  4. Teflon “plumber’s” tape.  Any type will do for fixing leaky threaded plumbing fittings (including those worn-out campground spigots that won’t stop dripping!) but if you get a type that is also rated for petroleum contact, it can be used to seal threaded gas fittings too.  So it solves two kinds of problems: gas leaks, and water leaks.  Indispensable.
  5. Automotive-type blade fuses.  Get a multi-pack of all the different amperage ratings (red, blue, yellow) that are found on your Airstream’s fuse panel. Why? Because fuses generally blow late at night when you are camped 20 miles from a hardware store.
  6. Clearance light bulbs.  If you have a trailer with incandescent clearance lights (not LED) you should carry a few spare bulbs. They are usually type 67, and they can be hard to find in stores.  Replacing a clearance light bulb is dead easy: one screw to remove the cover, and then just swap out the bulb with a simple twist, but you can only do it if you already have the bulb handy!  You might also consider some 1157 or 1141 bulbs if your Airstream uses those in the overhead lights or taillights.
  7. Vinyl disposable gloves or mechanic’s gloves.  Not absolutely necessary but if you’ve ever had to do a dirty repair by the side of the road you’ll appreciate these.  Also very useful when you have to deal with nasty sewer hoses, toxic chemicals, or car repairs.
  8. This one is for owners of Hensley hitches only. This spring-loaded grease fitting is only available from Hensley. If one wears out, you’ll know because the weight transfer bars will fall down to the ground when you unhitch.  Order a spare now because the only way to get one is to mail order it.
  9. A dumb ol’ cotter pin. Because I can’t hitch up without it. Imagine how frustrated you’d be when trying to hitch up to leave camp and the cotter pin is missing.
  10. (Not pictured)  Spare Airstream keys in a safe, accessible place. I hate hearing stories about people being locked out, and it happens all the time.

There’s actually one more little thing that I recommend: a spare propane pigtail or two. They don’t last forever. I seem to replace one every year or so, always during a trip, so I always carry two spares.

Of course, I haven’t listed tools here.  You should always have a few basic tools in your Airstream, like a Phillips-head screwdriver, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog entry.  Right now I’m just talking about parts and stuff.

I’m sure you can come up with lots of “little things” to carry.  The point is that having a few bits like these (and knowing how to use them) can easily mean the difference between a happy day and a day lost trying to fix a problem.  All of these things solve problems in seconds or minutes, whereas not having them can leave you with a major inconvenience.

Even if you add in all the other little things I carry, they can easily fit in a gallon-sized resealable bag and all together I doubt there’s more than $30 worth of stuff there. (Except the Hensley grease fitting, it’s moderately expensive.)  A few well-chosen items can be cheap insurance against common problems.

Winter hitch maintenance

I’ve put off my major Airstream and car projects since we got back to home base in October.  Now it’s time to get going.

Our trusty tow vehicle (and regular consumer of spare parts), the Mercedes GL320, has a problem involving the diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) tank heater that I’ve decided to fix myself.  The dealership will gladly do this job for $2,000 but I’m hoping Nick and I can tackle it for less than $400.  I’ll blog that later, once it’s done.

The DEF tank on our car is trapped by the central reinforcement of the receiver hitch, so to get it out for the repair I have to remove the entire hitch.  Since it was out, I figured this was a good opportunity to do a hitch inspection. I casually check it every year but haven’t really done a thorough inspection since April 2012.

By the way, you don’t have to remove your hitch to check it.  You can just get under the car with a flashlight like I described in an earlier post.  It’s just a little harder to see everything that way.

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Our hitch looked pretty good.  After washing off the hitch I saw the usual surface rust, particularly around welds where we’d added reinforcing gussets, which was expected.

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Nothing jumped out as suspicious, so this job was limited to washing the dust off, wire-brushing the rust (with a rotary brush in a cordless drill), roughing up the painted surfaces with the brush, and repainting.  It took less than 30 minutes to do it all.

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In the photo above you can see the welds after they’ve been wire-brushed.  Nice shiny metal, and best of all no cracks.  I found a small amount of stretching in the receiver box (fairly normal considering this hitch has towed for about 100,000 miles) and one factory weld with a slight gap that’s probably been there since it was made.  Nothing to worry about. This hitch is ready to go back on the car.

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And finally, with a quick touch-up coat of glossy black spray paint, it looks like new again … for the third or fourth time.

I know a lot of you are in the snow right now, so the idea of crawling under your tow vehicle to do a hitch inspection is probably not appealing.  I suggest you put it on your list for spring maintenance, right before you start going camping again.  A hitch inspection takes only a few minutes and can save you from a ton of hassle.

Xantrex inverter update

Last January we installed a “whole house” inverter by Xantrex, and it really changed the way we live when we are boondocking. The inverter, a very full-featured 2,000 watt “pure sine” model, is so powerful that it can run our microwave oven, or a toaster or other typical appliance. Most of the time we use it to watch movies on the big screen during dark lonely nights out in the southwester desert somewhere.

(I’ve been reminded by an eagle-eyed reader that this Xantrex Freedom HFS is actually a combination inverter/converter.  That means it also charges the batteries of the Airstream when we are plugged in.  But for the purposes of this discussion I’m going to just call it an “inverter” since that’s the function I’m talking about.)

There have been two problems with it, however.  Both of them are the result of how the inverter was installed, rather than the device itself.  The installer decided that rather than putting in an electrical subpanel (I’ll explain in a moment) he would wire the inverter directly to the main electrical bus. This saved him some work but it gave us a headache.

If that’s gibberish to you, let me make it simple.  His way of wiring meant that every AC appliance in the Airstream is connected to the inverter—including the air conditioner and refrigerator.  That’s not great because it means that when we are plugged in to power at a campground with the air conditioner running, and there’s a momentary power loss (or someone unplugs our trailer, which happened this summer), the inverter automatically will try to power everything by itself—which it can’t do.

So instead it goes into overload and shuts off AC power, with an alarm shrieking until someone comes along and resets it. Even if the air conditioner is off and the inverter doesn’t overload we’ll still have a problem because the inverter will provide AC power to the refrigerator.  That means instead of switching automatically to propane, the refrigerator will drain the trailer batteries instead, in just a matter of a few hours.

I realized this not long after the inverter was installed, and worked around the problem all summer by manually shutting down the inverter entirely whenever we were plugged into shore power.  But it was a nuisance, and sometimes I forgot, with predictable consequences.

The bigger problem became apparent in May when we tried to plug into a regular household 15-amp power outlet while “driveway camping” at someone’s house. The Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) in the household outlet tripped instantly. Most outdoor outlets have GFCI built in these days, and so we were unable to get power from the house.

It turns out that the fix for all these issues is to wire the inverter up properly, which I guess should be no surprise.  Xantrex has issued a technical bulletin to explain why our wiring scheme trips GFCIs, and how to do it correctly. It took me quite a while to find the Xantrex bulletin so I’m posting it here for anyone who also has a similar set of problems.

The solution is to install a second electrical breaker panel (called a “subpanel”) to which you wire all the AC-powered devices that the inverter should power. In our case this includes the wall outlets, microwave, and TV.  Things that the inverter should not power, like air conditioner, refrigerator, or electric water heater, stay wired into the main panel.  Then you connect the inverter AC input to the main panel on a separate circuit breaker and connect the inverter AC output to the subpanel.

With this arrangement, everything gets juice when the Airstream is connected to shore power, either from the main panel or the subpanel.  The transfer switch built into the inverter simply passes the AC power it receives through to the subpanel.  When the shore power is removed, the main panel has no power so the air con and fridge don’t run, but the inverter will turn on automatically and supply the subpanel using battery power.  For a bit more detail on this, click here.

Not only does this prevent the problem of the inverter accidentally powering things it shouldn’t, but this arrangement also fixes the electrical quirk that causes GFCI outlets to trip when you plug the trailer into them.

I haven’t gotten around to this project yet but I will later in January.  Once I have the parts in hand it should be a fairly easy fix, since there’s plenty of room in the compartment when I have to work (near the existing breaker panel) and there’s no need to run additional wires.  I’ll document it with photos at that time.  Meanwhile, if anyone else has already done this upgrade I’d be interested to hear from you.

Thinking forward to Airstreaming 2017

Each year around this time I usually find myself considering our prospects for travel in the coming year.  This is when we start to sketch out a rough plan, starting with a possible post-Christmas or early January break.

(I know for most people in North America a trip in January isn’t very practical, and you have my sympathies. When we lived in Vermont all I could do in January was measure the depth of snow covering our ’68 Caravel, and periodically peek inside to make sure all was well.  It says something about our family’s dedication to Airstreaming that we chose to relocate to a place where it stays reliably above freezing day and night most of the winter.)

tucson-neon-signBut this year the Airstream has been mostly left to sleep through the winter in the carport, under cover.  It has served as our guest bedroom and spare refrigerator instead of as a travel vehicle. While I still have a list of improvements and fixes I want to make before we head out again next May, for now we’re staying put and focusing on other things.

This is why I’ve been silent on the blog since we returned to home base back in early October. I came back from our summer of travel thinking that it was time to take stock and focus on personal projects for a while. The break has been good, an opportunity to look at the big broad world and consider my place in it for the next decade. To do that, I forced myself to step away from the “usual” and build time into each day to think about something completely different.

I don’t know what’s coming out of that yet, but it has been a meditative sort of exercise and thus well worth doing on its own virtues. As an entrepreneur I’m accustomed to the ground moving beneath my feet, so once in a while it’s good to stop the motion and just feel the earth beneath—metaphorically speaking.

Still, life goes on and periodically I have been forced to come out of my trance to engage with it. On January 17 at 1:00 pm I’ll be at the WBCCI International Board of Trustees (IBT) rally in Casa Grande AZ to speak about Airstream maintenance stuff.  This IBT rally is an obligatory one for officers of the club and so the program tends to be loaded with business meetings rather than the sort of stuff we do at Aluma-events.  I figured the attendees might like something a little different, so I’ll try to be that.

Brett & I are also working on Alumaflamingo, since that’s right around the corner in February (20-26, in Daytona FL. Brett is handling the heavy lifting on that one (I did the same for Fandango last September, so it’s his turn). I’ll be there for 5 days and probably doing a talk or two on something. If you are going to be there and have a request for a seminar or workshop, let me know.

The Alumapalooza schedule is also underway. That event, our “signature” one at the Airstream factory in Jackson Center OH, will be May 30 – June 3.  Once again much of the program is changing; we’re going for a heavy hands-on workshop format in 2017, so there will be at least two different workshops every day for you to try.  No experience needed, and I guarantee you’ll learn a lot. Of course, we’ll still have lots of entertainment and fun, too, so don’t feel like you’ll be forced to work and think while you’re on vacation!

People are already asking if we are going to hold another Alumafandango in California in 2017.  Sorry, not in 2017 but there will be some sort of west coast event in 2018.  We’re working on locations right now.

My zen state has also been periodically interrupted by Airstream’s relentless development of new products.  You already probably know about the upcoming Nest fiberglass trailer. It’s in development and is expected to be released as a 2018 model year product but official details haven’t yet been released regarding how it will differ from the Nest prototype that you can see on the Internet.  We’re going to do an article on it in the Fall 2017 issue of Airstream Life.

The Basecamp (version 2) is already out and we’ve got a big layout coming in the Spring 2017 issue of Airstream Life.  You’ll see that in February, both in our print version and online versions. The new Basecamp looks cool and I predict it will be a success.

And then there’s a new Airstream trailer motif that I’m not allowed to talk about until January.  All I can say is that you’ll see it on the cover of our Spring 2017 issue and subscribers will see a beautiful photo spread with all the details.

And then … well, there’s more stuff in the product development pipeline in Jackson Center.  I won’t even give a hint of what’s coming (not yet, anyway) but rest assured the folks at Airstream are definitely not resting on their laurels. I really have to hand it to them. With sales growing year-on-year for five years in a row, other companies might be tempted to “innovate” in RV industry terms. That means putting a different color of swoopy vinyl decal on the outside and adding some LEDs. But Airstream is stretching the boundaries of what it has traditionally done, with entirely new concepts for travel vehicles. That takes guts, willingness to accept risk, and forward thinking.

That’s a good example for anyone in business. I’m going to be doing a lot of similar things in 2017, mixing up the staid old formula anywhere it needs to be invigorated. Or to put it another way: I’ll be trying to obsolete my own ideas before someone else does.

Having a travel trailer is a great tool for that. You can sit at home all day thinking but sooner or later you’ve got to cross-pollinate, share ideas, get inspired, challenge your own thinking, etc.  And what better way than to find all those opportunities than to hit the road next spring?

So I can see a 2017 travel plan developing. Our Airstream, when it wakes up, will find a whole new set of roads ahead to explore. Where they lead, I can’t say.  For now I guess it’s good enough to start thinking about the first mile of exploration. After that, the story tends to write itself.

An existential crisis for the Mercedes GL

When I bought the Mercedes GL320 in 2009 to be our new tow vehicle, I knew I was taking a big risk.  At $66,000 (out the door, tax included), it was almost double the price of the most expensive vehicle we’d ever purchased.  Mercedes has a reputation for expensive repairs and maintenance, and their dealer service network is small compared to just about any other brand.

The justification for taking this risk is complicated, but the major factor was the diesel powertrain.  At the time, only the European brands (Audi/VW, BMW, Mercedes, Land Rover) offered diesel SUVs, and they rack up impressive performance stats.  In 2009 when we made this purchase, we were planning on many more years of Airstream travel, so it made some sense to invest for the long term. I felt confident the Mercedes 3.0 liter turbodiesel could last for hundreds of thousands of miles while carting as many as 7 people in comfort and delivering fuel economy (not towing) in the upper 30s.

airstream-mercedes-mountain-pass

In the past decade the European diesels have also been impressive for their emissions improvements and quietness. I can start my diesel dead cold in the morning at a campground and hardly anyone will even notice the sound, while the exhaust is scarcely more offensive than baby’s breath.

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That’s all very nice, but there is one thing that a tow vehicle must be able to do to justify its existence: tow.  Our GL320, despite having 127,500 miles on it, has done as good a job of that as it ever has—until this week. One tiny problem this week managed to cripple it, rendering the GL entirely worthless as a tow vehicle.

We had a gentle rain on our last night at Beachside State Park on the Oregon coast.  Over a period of hours, a drop or two of water managed to work past the gasket on the right rear taillight, wick through some insulation on the inside, and drip down to a black plastic cover below.  This cover has thin vent slits in it because it houses a very expensive electronic device called a “Signal Acquisition Module” (SAM).

The water dripped through the vent slits and down to the exposed circuit board inside.  When the SAM gets wet, it behaves like any other electronic device when wet: it malfunctions spectacularly.  This SAM happens to control most of the functions in the rear of the vehicle, including trailer lights and brakes. Just one tiny drop of water in the right spot means no trailer lights or brakes.

This has been a recurring problem.  It first cropped up in February 2015 at Alumafiesta after a heavy rain, with the symptoms being taillights that didn’t work for a few hours. I didn’t find the cause until May 2015 at Alumapalooza when it happened again.  I dried the computer with a hair dryer and took it to a northestern Mercedes dealer in June.  The dealer service tech glopped everything up with black sealant and pronounced it fixed, which it wasn’t.

Water hit the SAM again in January 2016, so I dried it again and took the car to another Mercedes dealer (this time in the southwest) and they replaced the right taillight, noting this the leak was a known problem. They said the magic words that they say every time I have to buy an expensive replacement part: “This is an upgraded design, so it won’t have that problem again.”

That was a nice warm and fuzzy thought, but three weeks later the SAM decided it had suffered enough from the prior repeated water intrusions, and it died without warning—while towing in downtown Castro Valley, CA.  Imagine the fun: suddenly, no brakes and no lights on a 7,500 pound trailer in heavy traffic.

This time the hair dryer trick wasn’t going to work.  I had to tow the Airstream through city traffic for a mile with no brakes, signals, or lights to a Walgreen’s parking lot large enough to dump it.  Then I had to convince the manager of the pharmacy to let me leave the Airstream overnight.  Then I had to find a Mercedes dealer and pray that they had the part I needed—on a Friday afternoon. Fortunately Mercedes Benz of Pleasanton had the part and installed it the same day, for $1,300.

All was well until last week, when mysteriously the upgraded taillight assembly let in just a couple of drips during an Oregon sprinkle, and our expensive new SAM got wet for the first time.  You can imagine my reaction when I got into the car and the dash lit up with five warning messages—and of course, no trailer brakes.

After I ranted for a while, Eleanor and I got to work.  About 45 minutes of the hair dryer treatment got everything working except the left turn signal and taillight.  We decided to start towing toward Eugene OR (nearest dealer location).  Two hours later the left turn signal began working again.

In Eugene I had a friendly chat with the service tech, in which I explained that intermittent lack of brakes and lights means the car can’t tow. That triggers what I would call an existential crisis for the Mercedes GL320.  If it can’t tow reliably after a light rain, I can’t use it. He understood the conundrum, but had little to offer other than tearing apart the interior of the car to look for other possible leak points—at $140 per hour, my expense.

I talked with Andy Thomson of Can-Am RV about possible replacement vehicles. Andy has been a very reliable source of information over the years, despite his tendency to terrify Americans with his non-truck towing suggestions. He listed the Audi Q7, BMW X5, and the new Durango (based on the Mercedes platform) as possible replacements, but pointed out that my GL has relatively little trade-in value.

Worse, there are no suitable new diesel SUVs available.  VW screwed us all on that one. Friends at Mercedes dealerships have told me that Mercedes has quietly suspended shipments of new diesel SUVs to the US. Audi and VW of course are out of the question, and BMW’s X5 might be available but it’s too small for us.

So we’ve taken the path of least resistance. The taillight assembly has been replaced again but I’ll never trust it.  We are going to rig up a plastic shield over the SAM to block the water droplets. It’s a low tech, easy fix that will probably work just fine for the life of the car.

And, despite my momentary lapse of confidence, I think we’ll stick with the GL.  Hopefully the SAM will survive this one episode of water intrusion. To be sure I’ll test it a week or two before every trip. I still want to see the odometer turn over 200,000 miles before we re-consider getting rid of it, and more miles would be nice.

On balance the car has been everything I hoped it would be: a comfortable, confident driving, capable tow vehicle. It’s amazing to me how something so small—a drop of water— can entirely destroy the practical value of the car.

[Nerd Alert]  I’m reminded of that scene in “The Fifth Element” when the evil Zorg chokes on a cherry and Father Vito Cornelius says, “There, you see how all your so-called power counts for absolutely nothing now, how your entire empire can come crashing down because of one little cherry.” [/Nerd Alert]  We live by a tenuous thread all the time, and little moments like this make that thread briefly visible.

I guess there’s nothing for it but to keep on towin’. We’re heading to the California redwoods next.