The last electrical upgrade?

Perhaps this is the ultimate and final power system upgrade  on our Airstream. I certainly hope so.

Over the years we’ve installed solar panels, bigger batteries, an amp-hour meter, an upgraded (Intellipower) power converter-charger (which we replaced with a Xantrex converter-charger), even bigger batteries, and finally a fancy Xantrex converter-charger-inverter.  It has been a great learning process and I really like how the capabilities of our Airstream have been enhanced, but … please … let this be the last electrical upgrade we do on this trailer.

We discovered an issue with the Xantrex converter-charger-inverter installation that I’ve already described in a prior post, and I’ve been preparing for the last month or so to deal with it. In short the device wasn’t wired optimally, and the result was that we could not plug the Airstream into any common household GFCI outlet without tripping it. That limited where we could “driveway camp” as we traveled last summer, so it has been a priority to get it corrected this winter.

Long ago when I installed the Intellipower charger, I removed the lower (converter/charger) section of the original Parallax 7155 power converter-charger and left the AC and DC distribution panels. We’ve continued using those original distribution panels, since there wasn’t any reason to mess with them—until now.

Airstream power distribution panel-3

Our goal here was to install a new AC distribution panel. That’s because it needed to be split into two: a Main panel for the air conditioner and refrigerator, and a Subpanel for the inverter-supplied circuits. Although that isn’t terribly complicated in theory, it triggered an avalanche of other tasks.

It started with the panel itself. The only product I could find to fit the bill was the Progressive Dynamics PD55B003 AC panel, and since it didn’t come with DC distribution built-in, I also had to order the companion PD6000 DC panel.

That meant we’d be ripping out every AC and DC connection in the panels and re-wiring them all.  And since the new panels are physically larger than the original, we needed to cut new holes in the fascia below the refrigerator.  And that meant the propane leak detector had to be relocated.  The avalanche had begun.

My buddy Nate and I spent a couple of hours analyzing what needed to be done.  In the process we realized that we’d have to run a new electric line to the refrigerator because Airstream originally had it sharing a circuit with all the other GFCI protected outlets in the bathroom and kitchen. (I wanted the fridge on a separate circuit so it can’t accidentally be run from the inverter, which would deplete our batteries very quickly.)

We also realized we’d need a completely new fascia built to mount the new AC & DC panels and the relocated propane leak detector. I could have made it myself but it was much easier to hire a local guy who made a beautiful and precisely-cut fascia from 3/8″ black walnut for $60. So Nate drew up a very precise drawing to show exactly what we’d need.

Power panel fascia diagramAirstream power distribution panel-2

Suddenly this little re-wiring project was looking a bit more daunting. We ended up with this shopping list: three new circuit breakers, an AC panel, a DC panel, assorted clamp connectors, 5 feet of Romex, GFCI outlet & box, black screws, plus the custom-made walnut fascia. The hardware was easy to get. The woodworking, on the other hand, caused a three week delay.

Over this past weekend we finally got started. Like many other “three hour” jobs, the various complications and surprises blew our estimate away.  Saturday’s work alone stretched into six hours as a result of minor complications and “might as well” items.

A few examples:

  • I found a section of floor covering that needed replacing while we had everything out;
  • We discovered small extrusions on the AC panel that required us to trim the opening in the wood fascia a little wider;
  • Nate spent some time cleaning up and labeling the mess of wiring under the refrigerator;
  • We had to remove the inverter to identify the input and output wire colors, since the previous tech didn’t label them and they were hidden from view.

There were several other small issues of the same variety, which inevitably result from “working behind” someone else who didn’t take time and care to do things as nicely as we’d like. This is why I prefer to do my own work (or with a good partner like Nate). If we ever have to get into this system again, we’ll find all the wires bundled, labeled, and secured.

Airstream power distribution panel-4

In the end, the job we that thought would take three hours stretched over three days, with a total of about 12 hours of time invested including runs to the hardware store. To be fair, the wiring part of the job did take less than three hours—it’s all the other “little things” that sucked up the rest of the time.

Airstream custom power panelAirstream power distribution panels done

I’m glad we did this.  Not only did we get the whole-house inverter finally set up the way I wanted it, but we fixed a bunch of small secondary problems and ended up making the interior look nicer too.  The new walnut fascia and the black plastic distribution panels are a big improvement over the way things looked before. We even managed to shave a few pounds off; those original distribution panels were framed in steel and they weighed a surprising amount.

 

One final important note

The final challenge was a GFCI circuit breaker that we re-used from the original installation.  It was fine right until we pressed the GFCI “TEST” button. Then it buzzed for a couple of seconds and fried itself. GFCIs have a definite lifespan, and this one was 12 years old and had not been tested recently. If we’d had an electrical fault in the trailer, this GFCI would not have protected us.

So learn from my bad example and go press the TEST button on each of your GFCI receptacles and circuit breakers today.  (The RV must be connected to shore power to do this test, so if yours is in storage, make a note to do the test before your first trip of the season.)

When you press the TEST button, the breaker or outlet should trip off instantly with an audible snap, cutting off the power. Then you can press the RESET button to restore power. If either the TEST or RESET buttons doesn’t work, you’re missing a crucial piece of electrical protection that could save your life someday.  Time to get a new GFCI.

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.

A sunshine lesson in TRNP

The north unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP) is disconnected from the south, separated by 70 miles of rolling terrain near the edges of North Dakota’s current oil boom.  There’s a strange confluence occurring in the area between the yellow hayfields and the gray derricks, trucks, and tanks that represent the rush to plunder the oil reserves below.

The north unit of the park is of course protected from all that, and I am glad to say that it is beautiful and worth the trip.  Still, not many people go there. I suppose this is because there’s less “stuff” to see and do compared to the south unit, and it lacks the convenience of a nearby tourist town (the south unit has the town of Medora).  There’s also no cell phone service in the campground, and no hookups or services, so you have to be self-sustaining and OK with being disconnected for a while.  I didn’t mind.

The weather finally turned on us, soaring up to 95 degrees during our one-night stay in the north unit. Without air conditioning we had to revive some hot-weather countermeasures we haven’t dug out in years.  Mostly the trick is to limit activity, have cold drinks, deploy all the awnings, run fans, and take cold showers.  We lazed around in the trailer for a while reading books, but eventually fled the Airstream to drive the scenic road through the park and soak up some chilled air in the car.

TRNP north CCC building

In the photo you can see Eleanor walking toward a CCC-constructed shelter on a bluff overlooking the Little Missouri River.

Emma picked up another Junior Ranger badge in the morning, and then we moved on to Fort Union National Historic Site, about an hour away on the North Dakota/Montana border.

Fort Union NHP

We parked the Airstream in the Montana parking lot, had lunch, and then walked to the North Dakota side to tour this interesting reconstructed fort and trading post. In the photo above, note the unplanned comparison between the work truck of the 19th century and the work truck of the 21st century.

Airstream Montana sign Fort Union

After all four nights of boondocking I was worried about getting back online to do some work, and getting the batteries re-charged.  We had drained the trailer battery below a certain point and I wanted to get it back up to 100%.  (The following discussion gets technical but those of you who are interested in solar stuff might want to consider this.)

Practically speaking, we can collect a maximum of about 55 amp-hours in a single sunny summer day with our two 115-watt fixed-angle rooftop solar panels.  In theory such a pair of panels could collect 150+ amp-hours in eight hours of full sun, but in the real world it doesn’t happen for various reasons: clouds/haze, sun angle in the morning and afternoon, time of year, wiring losses, efficiency losses in the charge controller, battery resistance, dust on the panels, etc.

We also have a pair of 120-watt GoPower portable solar panels, which I use when we need extra charging capacity or when the Airstream’s rooftop panels are shaded by trees—as they were at TRNP. They can add another 30-35 amp-hours in real world use.  (They are more efficient than the rooftop panels because they can be angled to capture morning and afternoon sun).

It’s not the goal to recharge to 100% every day. If the batteries manage to make it to 100% that’s nice but it indicates either we didn’t need much recharge or the panels are oversized relative to the batteries (or the solar charge meter is inaccurate, which is virtually guaranteed for voltage-based meters).

Since the last 10% of charge takes a disproportionate amount of time, our goal is to get the battery to 85-90% each day, and draw it down it to no lower than half its capacity overnight. Our battery is rated at 255 amp-hours with a rated duty cycle of 50%, which gives us a usable capacity of 127.5 amp-hours.  (We can discharge it lower but if we do we’ll be buying a new battery much sooner.)

On this trip the Tri-Metric amp-hour meter was telling me that we were using a lot of power (due to heavy use of 3 vent fans and watching a movie each night using the inverter), so we had a net loss each day. By the first morning we had used 74 amp-hours (Ah) and regained 51 Ah during the following day, netting out at -23 Ah from full.

The second night we were more cautious with our power use, but still by morning the meter showed that we were down to -93 Ah and we recharged to only -64 Ah.  The third morning it was down to -104.5 Ah and we recharged to -64 Ah again.

This was an unsustainable trend. At this point the battery was well below our theoretical maximum daily charge of 55 Ah and it would take two days of full sun to get back to 100%.

I was disappointed because we have been deploying the portable solar panels in addition to the rooftop panels, to capture morning and afternoon sun.  My calculations suggested we should have gained much more power than the Tri-Metric was telling me.  But I had a theory about why, and it was confirmed the next day when we plugged into city power at a campground in Culbertson MT: the batteries took almost no charge, despite the Tri-Metric showing that they were still at -104 Ah.

The problem stems from the fact that I’ve got two solar charge controllers in the Airstream and they’re fighting each other.  There’s a built-in BlueSky MPPT controller that takes the power from the two roof panels and puts it into the battery, and the portable GoPower panels have their own controller that does the same thing.  Each controller “sees” the other one, by detecting the voltage at the battery.  The GoPower controller gets confused and backs off on charging (thinking the battery is already fully charged) which results in it putting less power into the battery than it should.

Worse, the Tri-Metric gets baffled in this situation.  It uses a calibrated shunt at the battery to measure the current going in and out. For some reason, when I plug in the portable panels it only measures some of the electrical current, resulting in an inaccurate reading.  Thus, each day I was getting an inaccurate state-of-charge report, and I thought we were low on power even when we weren’t.  In actuality we were recharging to nearly full each day!

Fortunately the Tri-Metric is smart enough to know when it is wrong.  It uses an algorithm to sense when the battery is fully charged, and resets to 100% under those specific circumstances, thus compensating for any long-term inaccuracies.  It was interesting to see it “realize” that our battery was not at 50% but rather 100%, and after just a few minutes of being plugged in the Tri-Metric conceded and ‘fessed up.

I’ve got a fix planned for this.  I’m going to install a plug for the portable panels that ties into the existing wiring for the rooftop panels. This plug will go in the refrigerator compartment. I’m also going to disconnect the solar charge controller on the portable panels.  By tying the portables into the existing wiring (rather than having them directly connected to the battery as they are now) all of their energy will go through the Tri-Metric shunt correctly and through the BlueSky charge controller.

This should give us an accurate reading and no more trouble with two solar controllers fighting to charge the battery.  I plan to make this mod when we get to Seattle and settle in for a week or two.

Custom Zip Dee chair storage

We’ve never had Zip Dee chairs.

I know, it’s almost blasphemous to admit it, especially after all these years of Airstreaming.  Zip Dee and Airstream go together like Ford and Firestone did before the war.  Zip Dee awnings have been original equipment on Airstreams for over 50 years, and the chairs go back about that far too.

Airstream Zip Dee chairs and awningThe relationship is so tight that most Airstreams have specific storage just for these wonderful folding chairs—but the 2004-2006 Safari bunkhouse was one of those that didn’t.  And when we were full-timing, we just didn’t have room for any.  So we never sat down.

But these days we are making more opportunities to sit down under the awning and relax.  So I took the plunge and ordered three Zip Dee chairs to match our awning, one chair for each of us.

Of course, we still didn’t have anywhere to put them, so for the past few months those chairs have been riding in the back of the Mercedes.  This wasn’t ideal (it was a pain to get them out from under all the other stuff we carry), so I asked Colin Hyde to put on his genius beanie and figure out a solution for me.

His inspiration came in the form of an old propane tank cover from a 1980s Airstream Excella, which was for sale in the Alumapalooza Swap Meet for $25.  At Colin’s suggestion I bought it and brought it to his shop when we came in for the major front end repair.

As the front end work was being done, the guys fabricated a pair of steel braces where the battery box used to be, and began cutting down the Excella propane tank cover to the exact size and trapezoidal shape needed to fit tightly between the real propane tanks and the Airstream’s body.

You can see those braces below.  They are awaiting drilling and paint at this point in the job.  Note how they rise up to hold the chair storage above the hitch parts on the A-frame. With the front hatch gone, this is empty space so it makes sense to put something here.

Airstream welded base for storage

Airstream Zip Dee chair storage openI’m not really doing justice to the amount of work that went into this.  The modification of a propane tank cover into a very different shape was complicated, and in retrospect it might have been easier just to start with new aluminum.

Colin has some very talented guys on his crew, and what they did to make this cover—with weathertight base and top— was impressive. It even has bucked rivets!  But it was a ridiculous amount of work. Colin says he does not plan to ever make one again, so don’t ask.

The photo at right shows the chair storage with the lid open.  You just open the lid and lift the chairs out, which is easy.  The box stays in place, unlike the propane tank cover.

This is a “beta” version. I may add some weatherstripping to the lid later.  It might also get a latch, if we find the tight-fitting lid pops open during travel. There are already a couple of drain holes in case water collects inside the box.

The box can hold four chairs, believe it or not. Right now we are using cardboard to separate the chairs and fill some space since we only have three chairs at present.  A bit of Prodex insulation is fitted into the bottom to prevent chafing. Later I’ll get two Zip Dee Chair Bags (each one holds two chairs), which will protect the chairs and give us handles to lift them out, so we can ditch the cardboard.

Airstream Zip Dee chair storage closed

If you’re wondering about the net impact on tongue weight, it’s probably about the same as it was from the factory.  We’ve made many modifications over the years (switching aluminum propane tanks, relocating battery rearward, deleting hatch and steel battery box, adding chair storage) so it’s hard to gauge the net effect without going to the truck scale.  I’ll do that soon, but the weight of the braces, aluminum box, and three chairs is only about 35-40 pounds.

I really love this addition.  It looks Airstream-y (meaning cool), it’s practical, and it makes use of otherwise-wasted space on the A-frame. I can’t really cost-justify it but I love it all the same.  And now we can finally escape the stigma of not having any Zip Dee chairs in our Airstream.

Major work: a new front end & other repairs

OK, brace yourself.  This post is going to get detailed, forensic, and possibly scary to the faint hearted.  We’re going to do surgery on the Airstream.

Let me start with a little about how a modern Airstream is put together.  The aluminum body rests on a steel frame (or chassis) and is fastened down around the perimeter to that chassis. This is “semi-monocoque” construction, which is normally pretty strong.  The body and the chassis work to support each other, and as long as they are well tied together everything goes well.

Now think of the Airstream’s body as a teeter-totter, with the axles being the fulcrum.  In normal towing the rear of the trailer is bouncing up and down on the road a little. With every bump, as the rear goes down, the front end is being pulled upward from the chassis. Since the chassis of the trailer is held down at the front by the tow vehicle, there’s a lot of strain on the chassis-body connection.

The longer the trailer, the more force is put on the front end. When the attachment between chassis and the front of the body loosens, that’s “front end separation.” Essentially the body is now banging on the chassis rather than being firmly tied to it. As separate units, the body and chassis are now both weaker and they start to beat each other up. The visual symptoms are things like broken rivets, stress cracks in the body, mangled aluminum and gaps around the lower edge, and other things.

Now before you panic, let me point out emphatically that all Airstreams (and for that matter, all RVs of any type) will normally flex some as they travel.  They can even flex a little when they are parked if you crank the stabilizer jacks too much.  So some movement is good–it’s a way to distribute stress across the body structure.  Airstreams are not designed to be rigid, just like a bridge or the wing of a jet.  If the wing of a jet couldn’t flex in turbulence, it would just break off.

But separate movement of the body and chassis means problems. Longer trailers are particularly likely to have this problem, and they often have a particular symptom when they are flexing too much at the front end: they develop a fatigue crack in the skin just above and forward of the entry door.  On 30-foot bunkhouses like ours, the cracks first seem to appear at the corners of the front compartment hatch–and other places, as we discovered.

The 2004-2006 bunkhouses had what I consider to be a design flaw: a large square-edged front compartment.  The hatch for this compartment created a weak spot in the body, and it also eliminated the possibility of designing a structural attachment in the front center of the body where stresses are high.  (The shape of the opening is also relevant. Airstream has since gone back to rounded corners on exterior hatches and my guess is that this is part of the reason. Square corners are weak points.)

For years Colin Hyde, of Colin Hyde Trailer Restorations, has been pointing at our trailer and two tiny cracks by our front hatch, saying “You have front end separation.”  This became a sort of game.  I would deny it, and then he’d say, “You just don’t know it yet.”  Although I could not admit this to Colin, I knew he was right and that someday we’d have to go in there and find out how bad it was.  This week became “someday.”

Airstream front hatch ext before

Here’s a photo at the beginning of the project.  The front wrap protectors have been removed along with the lower beltline trim and the hatch door.  With the door removed, it’s more clear how little structure existed to spread out stresses that are transferred from the main frame members (A-frame) through the body.  The circles show the approximate locations of cracks that appeared, and the red lines show theoretical lines of stress.

The front is a high stress area, so in older Airstreams there’s sometimes a steel plate installed that extends upward from the chassis to the front panel of the aluminum body, connected by two or three rows of rivets.  Obviously that wasn’t possible with this front hatch design.  We struggled with leaks through this compartment because the door fit differently depending on whether the trailer was hitched up or not, and also the door would jam shut when the weight bars were tightened.

Airstream stoneguard mount crackAirstream stoneguard cracks2Airstream stoneguard mount repair

These two photos show cracks we didn’t know about until the front wrap protectors were removed.  This is the mounting point for the wrap protectors. Both mounting points (on opposite sides of the trailer) had the same cracks because they were weak points. The cracks are the result of metal fatigue from repeated flexing.

These cracks were definitely letting rainwater in, which is of course the cause of floor rot, so it was yet another reminder of how serious the side effects of front end separation can be.  The cracked spots were fixed with a new aluminum plate and sealant, as shown in the third image.  But this was only treating a symptom.  The real problem was down where the body and chassis were joined.

Airstream reinforcement failure

The photo above shows a reinforcement that was installed in 2008 by a dealer’s service center. They basically slipped some cut aluminum behind the existing exterior skin around the hatch in the hope of adding strength to the corners of the door.  You can see how well that worked: completely cracked through. This patch basically replaced a weak spot with another weak spot—and again, it was only treating the symptom.  It didn’t do anything to strengthen the body-chassis connection.

To fix this right, we made the tough decision to eliminate the hatch entirely.  This would allow Colin’s guys to fabricate and install two additional ribs, and attach those ribs to the existing ribs plus the new steel frame plate and a single sheet of aluminum on the inside and outside.  In other words, we were replacing a big hole and 16 rivets with a battleship-like sandwich of aluminum, steel, and 160 new rivets.

Airstream front hatch interior before

I pitched in a little by removing the front bed and frame, lower curtain track, and all our personal stuff.  This left only the big Lifeline 8D AGM battery and the Xantrex Freedom HFS converter/charger/inverter that we installed in January, plus some wiring.

The different colored floor tiles at the front end were installed way back in March 2006 when the front compartment first began leaking. Since we now had everything out, this was a good chance to remove those tiles and finish the floor with walnut (vinyl) flooring to match the rest, so I ran out to Lowe’s and bought a box of planks and installed them.

Now, compare that photo above with the one below.  Notice the two new ribs coming all the way down to the floor where the compartment used to be, and the black steel plate with three rows of rivets firmly attaching it to the body and ribs.  That plate is welded to the steel frame below.  It takes the stress between the body and chassis and distributes it, rather than concentrating it on a few weak spots. That’s the key: you can’t eliminate the stress, so you spread it out instead.

Airstream steel frame plate interior

The photo below was taken a little earlier in the process.  It shows how the steel frame plate was welded to the frame.  Notice that in our case we chose to remove the old battery box that hung between the frame members.  We weren’t using it, and it was in the way.

Airstream steel frame plate ext

The next photo shows the exterior work nearly done.  Joe is bucking rivets with Chris (inside).  Buck riveting is a two-man job and it requires access to both sides, which is why Olympic-style rivets are often used for exterior repairs.  But buck rivets are far stronger.  Notice five rows of rivets horizontally (four on the steel frame plate and one at the aluminum panel joint above) and four vertical rows added to the ribs (plus two vertical rows that were pre-existing and two rows for the vertical aluminum panel joint).  Seriously strong.

Airstream front end new rivets

Airstream new bedroom floorThe blurry photo at right shows the interior when done.  We didn’t put the white fuzzy Ozite fabric back, as we aren’t really in love with the stuff, and opted instead for a single sheet of aluminum.  The new flooring is in place also.

By this point I had been living in Colin’s parking lot for three nights, and we still had a lot of problems left to solve.  For one thing, we no longer had access to the storage space under the head of the bed.  Also, I wanted to muffle the fan on the Xantrex, since it’s right under Eleanor’s head and it runs when the converter is bulk charging the battery.

The solution was a pair of new hatches.  We divided the compartment with a 1/2″ plywood bulkhead.  The left hatch contains the battery and Xantrex; the right side is “dead storage”.

Airstream bed hatches

The battery is now secured with two big straps.  If we have a catastrophic accident, it won’t go flying and possibly short against something (which could cause a fire).  Also, since the battery no longer shares space with any stored items, we’ve eliminated the chance that some metallic object might accidentally contact the positive lead on the battery (which would cause a huge spark at the very least).

Airstream soundproof compartment

To soundproof the compartment, I lined it with acoustical foam used in recording studios.  On the underside of the bed platform (the hatch) I layered the foam over heavy automotive sound-deadening material.  We will have to pull the mattress out entirely to access this compartment, but since there are no routine maintenance items in there, it shouldn’t need to be opened very often.

You can see in an earlier photo that the right side hatch is much smaller.  We designed this so that we could simply slide the mattress toward the bedroom door to expose this hatch.  There’s a piano hinge at the very front edge. Lying on the bed, it’s easy to put things into the compartment below.  We will continue to use this as dead storage for things we need only rarely.  Funny thing is, it’s easier to access now than it was through the old front hatch, and so I was able to pack everything we were carrying before into a space half the size!

Obviously this was a big job.  But we got a ton of benefits from it:

  • eliminated leaks at the front hatch and at cracks on the body
  • eliminated possibility of future stress-related problems stemming from front end weakness
  • quieted the inverter fan
  • front storage is more usable and accessible
  • battery is much better secured
  • eliminated potential electrical risks at battery
  • cosmetics: got rid of stained Ozite, finished flooring, eliminated cracks at exterior hatch
  • much more stable bed platform

There’s even more that we did in this service visit at Colin Hyde Trailer Restorations, but I’ll wait for the next blog to talk about that.  Just a hint: it’s a really cool improvement that I don’t think anyone else has.