Pineapple season

Weather-wise this is one of the most pleasant times of year to be in southern Arizona.  It’s neither hot enough for air conditioning, nor cold enough for heat, and with abundant sunshine because this is one of our dry seasons.  We haven’t seen substantial rain in weeks.

Little wonder that this is when I find myself working the hardest on projects all over the house and both Airstreams.  The Caravel plumbing job is done, tested, and hopefully reliable.  Everything works perfectly.  My only job now is to take the trailer on a shakedown trip, perhaps across the county (potentially no small jaunt, since Pima County is 9,200 square miles) and camp in it for a night to thoroughly test all the work.  I am very confident in it but in this case I’m subscribing to Ronald Reagan’s philosophy: “Trust, but verify.”

(I’m also thinking of another less-famous Reagan turn of phrase: “I feel like I just crapped a pineapple.”  This wasn’t a fun job, but it feels great now that it’s done.)

The Safari, to its credit, is hanging in there just fine. Good for you, Safari.  I tweaked a few things after we got home in September, and while there are other projects in the wings, it needs nothing at the moment.  We are free to go camping.

And we might, if we had the inclination.  But when we were full-timing in the Airstream we found that in some ways this is the least interesting time of year.  The short days, even in the southernmost reaches of the continental US, meant that after about 5 p.m. we’d be back in the Airstream for a long dark night.  In the desert southwest, the temperature plummets after dark and so on those nights when we were in a national park with a ranger program to attend at 8 p.m., we’d have to bundle up like it was Alaska, in order to sit through an hour-long talk in the outdoor amphitheater on chilly metal benches.

So instead we tend to stay home in November and December, except for a break around New Year’s, and I try to get things done so that we can take off later in the season.  It’s also a good time to catch up personal maintenance, so this month I’ve had the full experience afforded the average 50-year-old American male, including a flu shot, a Tdap booster, (Tetanus, Diptheria & Whooping Cough), a examination here and there, dental cleaning, orthodontist, and the threat of having a colonoscope shoved up where the sun don’t shine.  Yee-ha.

(OK, having written that, I do have to wonder why I’m not hitching up the Airstream and driving as far away as I can … Then I remind myself that I’m trying to set a good example for my daughter.)

One use of the time has been to read several very interesting books.  One has been “The Great Brain Suck” by Eugene Halton. Don’t read it if you are thin-skinned (because he skewers a certain group of Airstreamers) or if you can’t stand wordiness.  Halton could have used a good editor to trim down his prose, but his observational skills are razor-sharp.  I would hate to have him review me.

Another one has been “Salt: A World History,” by Mark Kurlansky.  Admittedly, you have to be a history buff to really love this one.  It’s not a foodie book.  He takes the common thread of an ageless essential (salt) and shows how it permeates most of the major events of world history. Salt has caused and prevented wars, changed governments, nourished some societies while crushing others, and literally enabled society as we know it today.  I picked it up while visiting the Salinas Pueblos National Monument in New Mexico, where salt trading was a crucial element of survival for the Ancient Puebloans.

Mercedes 300Dx3

I’m sure I can blame the nice weather for this next item:  I have joined a gang.  We’re not particularly scary, but we do clatter around town in a cloud of diesel smoke.  Not exactly “rolling thunder” but at least “rolling well-oiled sewing machines.” Like Hell’s Angels Lite.

We are small but growing group of old Mercedes 300D owners in Tucson who share knowledge, parts, tools, and camaraderie periodically.  In the photo you can see the cars of the three founding members, blocking the street.  We call ourselves the Baja Arizona W123 Gang.  Perhaps someday we’ll have t-shirts and secret handshake.  Probably the handshake will involving wiping black oil off your hands first.

The rest of my time has been spent working the “day job.”  At this point I am glad to say that the preliminary event schedules for both Alumafiesta, and Alumaflamingo have been released to the public (and that was two more pineapples, believe me).  There’s still quite a lot of work to be done on both events, but at least now we have an understanding of the basics.  To put it another way, we’ve baked the cake, and now it’s time to make the frosting.  If you are interested in getting involved with either event as a volunteer, send an email to info at randbevents dot com.

The question now is whether I will tackle a major project on the Safari, or just lay back and take it easy for a few weeks.  The project would be to remove the stove/oven, re-secure the kitchen countertop (it has worked loose), and cut a hole to install a countertop NuTone Food Center.  On one hand, this isn’t an essential thing just yet, but on the other hand, I’ll be glad if it’s done before we start traveling extensively next February.  I only hesitate because it might turn into a bigger project than I bargained for.  You know how projects have a way of doing that.

Hmmm… pineapple, anyone?

 

 

Time to fix

We parked the Airstream back in the carport last Tuesday night, spent the night in it (because it was too late to start unpacking), and it has been go-go-go ever since. There’s just so much to do …

I think one of the problems with coming back to home base is that suddenly I have no excuse to avoid the projects waiting for me here.  I thought last winter season was busy, but already this one is looking like a record-breaker.

The Airstream Safari came back from its summer trip with many little things on the Squawk List, including:

  • belt line trim replacement needed
  • bathroom fan with broken handle
  • MaxxFan with loose motor/fan assembly
  • cabinet trim by refrigerator needing tweaks
  • loose attachment of the galley countertop
  • loose section above bathroom door
  • … and a few other things

As you can see, most of these items have to do with things working loose over time.  A rolling house tends to have such issues, and after six-figure mileage and eight years of heavy use I’m not surprised to have a few.  But these are generally not hard repairs.  Often it’s just a matter of a longer wood screw where an original one worked its way out, or a bit of glue or Loc-Tite.  I see a few hardware store trips in my future, along with a few hours of weekend puttering.

I plan to make a few of the jobs harder than they have to be, in the interest of preventing future problems.  For example, the loose galley countertop is just a matter of a few screws and brackets that could be fixed in a few minutes , but I want to remove the stove and thoroughly inspect the area under the counter to see if anything else is going on under there.  Instead of just re-attaching the loose under-counter brackets, I plan to install some of my homemade aluminum L-brackets (leftover from the cabinetry job of last spring) which are much lighter and offer more area to spread out the stress.  At the same time I will probably also install the countertop-mounted Nu-Tone Food Center that has been sitting in our storage room for a couple of years.

This is the way I’ve always done it.  I see repairing things on the Airstream as a series of opportunities to improve the Airstream.  Not only do I learn more about how it’s put together, the eventual result is far better in many ways than a factory-original model, since it’s customized to our needs.  This builds confidence (assuming everything I’ve touched isn’t going to rattle apart again).  Someday, when we tow over miles of washboard road at Chaco Culture National Monument, or take a long gravel road in Alaska, I’ll appreciate the extra effort.

That means the eight or ten repairs the Safari needs will likely take through October to complete.  And there’s still the Caravel, waiting patiently in the carport to have its plumbing finalized.  That project has been on hold since April, and it’s high time I got back to it.  So already I’ve got Airstream work to keep me busy for a while.

But who needs an Airstream project when you’ve got an old Mercedes to fix?  The 1984 300D has been sitting here waiting for its share of attention.  Everything was working on it when we headed out in May, so I think over the summer it started to feel neglected.  Not seriously neglected —it still started up promptly even after sitting a month—but just the car apparently felt the need for some TLC because three things failed on it:  a climate control actuator, the trip odometer, and the clock.  All of those problems are at least tangentially related to the heat.

You can’t have an old car like this if you can’t fix most of the things yourself.  It would have killed me in repairs already if I had to take it to the local Der Deutscher specialist for every little thing.  So I got on the phone to Pierre, and read the Internet forums, and figured out how to fix the climate control actuator and the clock this week.  That took a few hours, while the Airstreams both looked sullenly on (I swear, you can tell that they are jealous, it’s like having three young children all vying for your attention).  The odometer fix will have to be done later because I’m just about out of time for repairs at the moment.

This week has to be mostly dedicated to “real” work, by which I mean the stuff that pays the bills.  (Isn’t it ironic that the “real” work generates money and the “fun” work costs money?  If only it were the other way around.)  Right now the Winter magazine is in layout and I’m collecting articles for Spring 2014.  At the same time, the R&B Events team (which includes me) is busy trying to get tentative programs for Alumaflamingo (Sarasota FL) and Alumafiesta (Tucson AZ) put together, and that’s a big effort.

And we’re working on a new iPad Newsstand app for Airstream Life, which I hope to have released sometime in the first quarter of next year.  When it comes out, you’ll be able to get most of the back issues (at least back to 2008) on your iPad and read them or refer to them anytime.  That way you can carry all the knowledge around in your Airstream without also carrying fifty pounds of paper.  I’ve been testing demo versions and it’s very cool, so this is an exciting project.

Finally, I’ll be presenting a slideshow at Tucson Modernism Week next Saturday, October 5, at 2:00 pm, about my favorite over-the-top vintage trailer customizations.  It’s basically the best of the interiors we’ve featured in the magazine over the past several years.  The pictures are beautiful and inspirational.  I had forgotten about how incredible they are, until I went through the old magazines and re-read the articles.  My talk is free and open to the public, if you happen to be in the Tucson area right now.  If you aren’t, I might present the slideshow again at Alumafiesta in February.

Tesla dreams

I spent yesterday in the carport with Nick, working on both of our cars.  Nick is my local “Mercedes buddy,” a fellow enthusiast who owns a 1980s era Mercedes 300D like mine.  Neither of us are accomplished mechanics but we both enjoy learning and so periodically we get together to tackle car repairs together.  So far we’ve had good luck and no major disasters.

Yesterday’s jobs were to replace the front door seals on my car and the speedometer cable, and on Nick’s car we replaced the engine mounts, replaced the fuel primer pump, and changed the oil.  My carport is the preferred location for this because it has a nice smooth concrete floor and is fully shaded.  With the Airstream Safari summering in Vermont, there’s plenty of room for both cars. Unfortunately, Tucson hit 108 degrees yesterday so even though we started early in the morning, it was a brutally hot and dirty experience.

I say “dirty” because these cars are relics of the petroleum-burning era, producing copious amounts of soot and nitrogen oxides with minimal emissions controls.  They are about as far from “earth friendly” as you can get, and a fact revealed on every greasy carbon-coated engine part.  We wear gloves while working on them but still get our arms and faces smeared with black very quickly.  It’s hard not to think about where all that mess comes from, and realize that the car is really an obsolete rolling polluter.

The clunky old diesel engines do a particular job very well, namely motivating 3,000 pounds of steel for up to half a million miles. For this reason they are coveted by people who see them as the pinnacle of automotive engineering: user-repairable, computer-free, and incredibly durable.  I look at the mechanical engineering that went into it and I have to really respect it.  The thought and effort that went into every part to design it perfectly for the task is just amazing.

But honestly, I am conflicted about my car.  I run 99% biodiesel in it because it reduces emissions and is good for the fuel system, but that’s not going to make it a “clean” or “green” car.  It still emits much more unburned hydrocarbons, NOx, CO2, and soot than a comparable modern car.  If even a quarter of the country drove around in cars like this, the world would be a nasty place.  I’d probably be first in line to have them banned.  The only reason we get away with it is because most people drive newer cars which pollute only a fraction as much.  So as much as I love my 300D, I also know it’s an unsustainable antique.

The future, I’ve come to believe, is electric cars.  A few years ago I would have scoffed at that idea, since “everyone” knew that electric cars were silly toys that couldn’t go more than 80 miles and needed 10 hours to charge.  But Elon Musk and his team at Tesla have changed my mind.  The Tesla “Model S” and the national infrastructure envisioned by Tesla have changed everything—and despite widespread press, I don’t think the implications have fully sunk in to most of the car-driving public.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the changes Tesla has implemented.  The Tesla can easily go 200-300 miles on a single charge, with the option of picking up a 200-mile range boost in 20 minutes at a Tesla Supercharger station or swapping out the entire battery pack for a fully-charged one in 90 seconds.  That’s quicker than filling a gas tank.  With an in-home charger your car is always “full” every day you start to drive it.  And using the Supercharger stations is free.  Tesla even has installed solar panels at each station so that the station generates more power than it uses.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Imagine owning a car that has no engine, no transmission, and no emission or exhaust system. That means you never have to get an oil change, tune-up, belt replacement, radiator service, filters, emissions check, etc.  No more Midas Muffler, or Jiffy Lube.  No more 10,000 mile services at the dealership.  Heck, even the brakes won’t need service because they are regenerative (meaning they put energy back into the battery) and hardly ever wear out.

You can’t get any “greener” than an electric car.  Any traditional car (even a hybrid) burns petroleum.  Ain’t nothing green about that, even with a miniature chemical factory mounted on the car to reduce the emissions, which is what we have to put up with these days.  The electric car has zero emissions and can be powered (indirectly) through electric generation from lots of sources, including solar, hydro, wind, natural gas, nuclear, oil, and coal.  If the source of the power is dirty, at least it comes from one plant where emissions can be controlled more readily than on 100,000 separate vehicles.

I have come to realize that a lot of the negativity about electric cars comes from viewing them from a petroleum-powered perspective.  In other words, we tend to let our preconceptions taint our view.  An example is fear about the giant battery pack.  In eight years to ten years, you’ll have to replace it and that will cost a lot.

Sure, but in eight years of gasoline burning you’ll have to replace belts, hoses, plugs, fluids, filters, gaskets, water pump, battery, muffler, and probably a few other things, in addition to the risk of a major repair to the combustion engine.  Add to that the hard-to-quantify costs like health problems resulting from dirty air.  Then, add to that about $20,000 in petroleum fuel cost over 100,000 miles.  Suddenly that battery pack isn’t looking so bad.  We are so inured to the ongoing cost of maintaining our dirty little petroleum combustion engines that we don’t consider how expensive (and resource-consuming) they really are.

Another common gripe is what the automotive press calls “range anxiety,” the fear that you’ll run out of power and not be able to charge up again quickly.  Tesla addressed that one with their Supercharger network, which is being built out right now.  In 2015 you’ll be able to drive almost anywhere in the USA with a free 20-minute Supercharge (or battery swap) available within 200 miles. You can’t say that for hydrogen or natural gas fueled vehicles, and it probably won’t ever be true for those because of the cost of building those complicated infrastructures.  Electricity, on the other hand, is already piped everywhere.

An electric car won’t yet replace our tow vehicle, and I wouldn’t expect such a thing to be available for many years.  For now, we’ll continue to run the “clean diesel” Mercedes GL320 to tow the Airstream around.  Likewise, gasoline cars will continue to be the majority of the market for a long time.  The Tesla is still financially out of reach for most people.  But it shows us what the future will hold.

Every time I look under the sooty hood of my 1984 diesel Mercedes and compare it to the much-cleaner, computerized 2009 diesel I can see the progress of 25 years.  Looking at the elegant engineering of the Tesla S electric car, I see the progress of the next 25 years.  I’ll hold onto the old Mercedes as a reminder of the great engineering of that day, but I’m looking forward to the day when I can drive the future.

Remind me why …

It’s easy for me to forget that I have an unusual view of the Airstream world.  Most Airstream owners enjoy the simplicity of being happy travelers, and that seems blissful to me. I remember the first year we had an Airstream, before I started the magazine, and it was really a lot of fun.  We just thought about where we were going next, and not much else.

These days I look at the world of Airstream through a sort of cubist perspective, sometimes seeing both sides of an issue at once, often balancing the needs of the magazine with the desires of its supporters, living on both sides of the perennial “vintage versus new” debate, as a both a customer and a promoter of the lifestyle, and as an occasional consultant to the industry.  It gets confusing.

When I get tired of being the Publisher/Editor, I switch to Event Organizer or Industry Consultant.  When I get tired of those, I switch to vintage Airstream repairer and go out to the Caravel to do some more plumbing.  When I get tired of everything, I start planning vacations.  Think how lucky you are if you only think of Airstreams as travel opportunities.  That’s really the best part.

New propane regulator CaravelThe Caravel plumbing project has been halted this week pending the arrival of parts and tools.  I should have everything I need to complete it, on Monday.  In the meantime, I got the propane regulator installed.

It’s a fairly easy job, but it did require special-ordering a longer main propane hose, four new (smaller) stainless screws, and two right-angle brass fittings so that the lines wouldn’t bump into the tanks.  That’s all because the new regulator wasn’t an exact replacement.  The screw holes are smaller, and the physical shape of the regulator is different.  When I tried to connect the 30# propane tanks the first time, the pigtails bumped into the tanks.  The right-angle fittings fixed that, but getting the original brass fittings out of the regulator was a hassle.  Eventually they came out with the help of a vise and an extension bar on the wrench.

The other problem with this replacement was that the red/green “flag” that indicates whether the tanks are full can only be seen from the front of the regulator.  All the other ones I’ve owned had the flag on the top so it could be seen from any direction.  So that meant the new regulator had to be mounted to face forward.  This required a 23″ hose instead of the 18″ one I had already bought.

The whole job took three visits to the hardware store, and now I’ve got a bunch of screws, bits of brass, and a hose that I don’t need.  These are the kinds of surprises you have to expect when fixing a vintage trailer. My spare parts box is getting full.

Meanwhile, the Safari re-flooring project is just about ready to start this week.  I have recruited Mike to help out with the two-person jobs, like getting the bed frame and dinette out of the trailer.  We are hoping to start Monday or Tuesday on this one, day jobs permitting.  I’ve been scouting out tool rentals and planning our attack of the job.  First task is to remove the bed, bedroom carpet, and dinette.

For those of you who were following the Mercedes 300D project, it’s pretty much done.  Since my last mention of it, I’ve been just tweaking and adjusting.  I replaced the rear differential oil (really stinky stuff thanks to the high sulphur content), fixed some loose wood on the dash, had four new Michelin tires installed, fiddled with the monovalve to try to resolve an intermittent heat issue, lubricated a few things, bought new floor mats, and had the car professionally detailed.

None of that took much effort on my part, so I’ve just been enjoying driving it around town and on a few short trips.  I exhibited it in a car show a few weeks ago, and took a roadtrip up to Phoenix (120 miles each way).  It’s now exactly what I wanted it to be: reliable, 100% functional, and reasonably good-looking.  This summer I’ll probably have to get the windows tinted, but other than that it shouldn’t need anything but oil changes.   And no, I’m not going to put a tow hitch on it.

With all these Airstream projects past, present, and future, it seems only fair that we should take advantage of the reason we own Airstreams.  So we  have determined that we are going to California in a few weeks.  Everybody wants a trip, and I’ve got a few business things to do in SoCal.  It will be nice to get away from home, re-gain some perspective, and relax in the Airstream for a while.  At this point we don’t know how long we’ll be gone, but hopefully it will be at least two weeks and possibly more.  It will take that long to soak up the feeling of being on the road again and remember why we do all this stuff.

 

The hardest part of the job …

Several people were very complimentary about my achievements last weekend with the Mercedes 300D, but I have to be clear:  most of the achievement was Pierre’s.  I worked, but mostly I was there to learn while Pierre busted his knuckles doing the hard stuff, so I can’t take credit for most of it.

Today’s minor adventure in old car repair will demonstrate the true nature of my mechanical abilities.  As you may recall, we discovered a few minor needs toward the end of the weekend, for which we either lacked the proper tool or a Mercedes-only part.  I ordered a few things on Monday and they arrived today.  There were really only three tasks:

  1. replace a bad relay, one which controls the electric auxiliary engine fan.
  2. install a rebuilt kit in the mono valve. This is a fancy name for a simple valve that opens up to allow hot engine coolant to circulate in the heater core, thus providing heat to the cabin.  It has a rubber diaphragm that breaks eventually.
  3. replace one bad glow plug.  The glow plug warms the engine cylinders on a diesel, so that you can start it.

The relay was simple.  No tools involved.  You open a plastic cover, pull up the old relay, plug in the new one. Anyone who can change a light bulb can do this, so not surprisingly I managed to achieve it.

Then, buoyed by my success so far, I unbolted the mono valve and opened it up to reveal the internal plunger.  But I forgot that the engine was still warm from driving it 30 minutes earlier, so when I pulled the plunger out, coolant spewed all over.  Whoops! I quickly thrust the plunger back in.  Emma was standing by and got splattered, but fortunately it was not hot enough to burn.  That made me feel really stupid.

So I set that task aside and switched over to replacing the #3 glow plug.  I had a hell of a time getting to it.  You know how things that look simple often aren’t.  This happens to me a lot.  All you have to do here is unscrew an 8mm nut to remove the electrical connection, then unscrew the glow plug.  But I couldn’t do it.  The tools I had just wouldn’t fit in the space due to obstacles like the injector lines and injection fuel pump.

It was looking like I’d have to start removing injection lines, which would have brought the repair up to a new level of messiness and difficulty.  Instead, I finally managed to get the electrical wire and the glow plug by using a U-joint and a long extension on the ratchet wrench, and wrestling with it for a while.  It was frustrating because it seemed like it should be easy.  I dropped a nut three times trying to re-thread it, and once it fell into a spot beneath the injection pump where I thought I might have lost it.  Eventually the job got done, taking about three times longer than I had expected.

But in the process I made myself a new job.  I didn’t realize it, but I was leaning on the brake booster (vacuum) hose when I was fighting to get the glow plug electrical connection back on, and SNAP! a plastic vacuum fitting on the hose broke off.  This fitting goes to various transmission and engine accessories.  The brake booster is still getting vacuum, and I can plug the open fitting, but the transmission won’t shift right without vacuum, and the fitting can’t be glued back.  The hose was probably fairly old and brittle.

I could try to seal it up temporarily with some silicone tape, but why bother? The part has to be replaced anyway.  I sent the picture to Pierre and he confirmed that I need to buy an entirely new assembly, which includes the plastic fittings, vinyl hose, and metal ends.  The part comes only from Mercedes and it has to be ordered, so I’m lucky to wait only until Monday to get it.   Of course, installing it appears to be just a matter of two easily accessed nuts and two other vacuum hose connections.  I think I can do that without breaking anything else.

When the glow plug was done I went back to the mono valve.  Things were cooled down now, so it was fairly straightforward.  As expected the diaphragm was gone.  But unexpectedly, I found several 6-legged bug corpses inside the cylinder.  I’m not sure how they got in there, or why.  I cleaned them out and the rest was straightforward. Total elapsed time: about an hour.

So that’s the real glory of this type of project:  cleaning bug corpses, cursing at difficult nuts, and wearing Eau de Coolant.  With each step I feel like I’m learning, and simultaneously that I’m incredibly incompetent.  This kind of stuff isn’t easy for me, but in the end I do enjoy the sense of accomplishment and the gratification that comes from achieving something you’re not naturally good at.  So if you have any congratulations for me, let them be for having tried.  Turns out, that’s the hard part.