80% plumbed

For the most part I resisted the temptation to work on the Caravel over the weekend.  There were other things to do and the end of the plumbing project is within sight, so it seemed like a good idea to take a break for a little while.

Over the weekend the only major progress was on the last really tricky bit: the plumbing assembly for the water heater bypass and the connections heading off to the two sinks.  I built it in about an hour.  You can see an early draft of it in the picture below, not quite complete but showing all three of the ball valves and some of the major connections.

IMG_1832This piece will stand upright next to the side of the water heater (so the blue line will be at the bottom), and thus tuck in neatly to allow lots of free space under the bathroom sink where we formerly had wild plumbing lines going everywhere and blocking everything.  The draft in the photo doesn’t show two additional tees that I added later.  As with the Dreaded Closet Manifold, it was designed so that access to the three ball valves would be much easier than before, and of course it’s color-coded too.

This was definitely the hardest piece of the project but I wouldn’t call it hard, really.  The whole project has been fairly easy, although time-consuming, and despite the challenges I’ve really appreciated the chance to do this and learn some new skills.

I’ve since completed the assembly with tees for the sinks and swivel fittings for the water heater connections, and test-fitted it for the umpteenth time.  All that remains is to fix couple of under-sink mistakes I made earlier, and then crimp it into place.

The mistakes are going to hold up the project, though, because I need a de-crimping tool.  I had gotten this far without purchasing that tool, which is used to cut off crimps without sacrificing the brass fittings.  Then I made two serious mistakes: one bad crimp, and I rather stupidly put in two tees to connect the cold water side of the bathroom faucet.  Obviously I only need one.

I could correct these mistakes by cutting out and sacrificing a bunch of completed sections, but I decided to go ahead and purchase the de-crimping tool (about $20) so that I will be able to make other repairs or modifications later.  I added this to a final parts order on Friday and probably won’t get it until late this week, so in the meantime not much is going to get done.

Once the parts do arrive, the project list looks like this:

  1. Hook up sinks
  2. Finish connecting water heater bypass to heater and main lines
  3. Install new city water fill
  4. Add experimental water hammer arrestor (*)
  5. Add foam insulation and pipe clamps for sound dampening and security
  6. Pressurize system and check for leaks (first with water pump, then with city water pressure)
  7. Test for noise & add insulation as needed.

Notice I haven’t included the item “Fix leaks”.  There won’t be any.  Right?

The water hammer arrestor is a complete experiment. I’m wondering if it will have any effect on the pulsing that the water pump transmits through the entire system.  You can insulate and clamp down the pipes so they don’t move, but the vibration is still transmitted through the water, so the vibration can re-appear in the pipes downstream.

RV stores sell a device called a pressure accumulator which is supposed to smooth out the water flow, but I’ve tried one and found it ineffective.  The water hammer arrestor is designed to stop one heavy “slug” of water pressure rather than a constant series of pulses, but I’m hoping it will have some positive effect anyway.  I’m going to plumb it in on the main line from the water pump and see what happens.

With this project mostly under wraps, and the weather finally warming up here (I know, no pity from the northerners), it’s time to get serious about the Safari floor project.  That’s on my list for later this week.

Too much plumbing history

Like all projects, the Caravel plumbing replacement moves forwards a little unevenly—a few hours one days, and a few minutes the next.  Yesterday I got less than an hour of work done on it, because I was tied up most of the day with other projects, the kind that pay for this project.  The major accomplishment was screwing down the water pump and neatening up the wiring with some new butt splices. But although there wasn’t a lot of visible progress made, I was happy to take some time to think about the remaining plumbing to figure out how best to correct it.

There were two major puzzles to solve.  The first was the city water fill.  I had made some incorrect assumptions, namely that the original 2.75″ round filler was no longer available as a modern part, and also that it did not have a check valve.  This lack of a check valve was a major annoyance, since it meant that anytime the fill was not capped tightly our water would pump out it and onto the ground.

Because of those two incorrect assumptions, I had bought a modern Shurflo city water fill for $30 to replace what we had.  It comes with a pressure regulator and check valve built-in, all very neatly package but considerably larger than the original. I would have to enlarge the existing hole to 3.75″, and that gave me pause.  Anytime you have to cut an Airstream’s skin, you should take a day or two to think about it first.  It doesn’t heal itself.

Colin set me straight on this.  A replacement for the original filler is available, and it does have a built-in check valve.  (The original one did too, but the check valve failed many years ago.)  I found it for $12 at Camping World.  It’s Valterra part # A01-0172LF. You can see it in the photo, just above the original one.

The only problem is that the replacement unit takes three screw holes, and the original took two holes, so I’ll have to drill a couple of new holes.  I can live with that.  The old holes will be hidden behind the aluminum flange of the filler, and sealed with caulk.

Space inside the trailer closet to attach the plumbing to this filler is very limited.  For some reason, it was installed next to the black tank and so there are only 4 inches of clearance to work in.  If it had been installed just a few inches forward on the trailer body, there would have been plenty of working space.  This is one accessibility issue that I can’t rectify (at least, not without patching one hole on the skin and making another).

After some visualizing, I realized that it would be simple to put a 90-degree elbow on the inside of the city water fill so that the water line goes upward and then via an 18″ loop of clear flexible line (to absorb shock from city water pressure) to the closet manifold that we installed the day before.  This design also has the advantage of self-draining if the trailer is ever winterized again.  To do this, I need a special elbow that goes from pipe thread to PEX, and I couldn’t find one locally so I added it to another order from PEX Supply and will get it next week.

The second puzzle was how to re-route the plumbing to the water heater so that it would meet the design goals of (a) easy access for future maintenance/repair; (b) neatness (so we’ll have more usable storage space), and (c) reliability.  From a reliability point of view, I’m not a fan of the typical winterization valves sold in RV stores.  I like the way Airstream does it instead, with a very clear winterization bypass and three shut-off ball valves.  It took me a while to figure out a neat solution, and when I did I realized that the project will require more shutoff valves than I had ordered, so that went on the next order as well.

Since a major chunk of the project is now on hold for parts (which won’t arrive until sometime next week), the next thing to do was to rip out the rest of the plumbing, since I no longer needed it to understand what was going on.  The stuff that was left was frankly depressing to see and I was glad to get it out of there.

The most interesting bit was this (above).  This was a repair done by an Airstream shop to a section of PEX that was leaking at the fitting.  The fitting was leaking because it was installed without an elbow and thus had been overstressed.  The mechanic put in the blue section of PEX that you see, using steel clamps. This is a reliable system, nearly equal to the copper crimps.


The repaired section was fine, but the pinhole leak we found before Alumafiesta occurred right next to it, in the first 1/4″ of the white PEX, just past the clamp.  Why?  It appears that something (a fitting? a clamp?) cut into the white PEX a little bit.  It’s barely visible in the closeup view above. The mechanic should have trimmed off the last inch or so of white PEX to ensure good material, but for whatever reason he didn’t, and so this last inch sprang a leak when subjected to city water pressure.

This may help explain why I decided to just gut the entire system and replace it with new.  There’s too much history in this system.  I want a “no stories” plumbing system.  If something goes wrong, I will have to blame myself but also I will know exactly how to fix it, and that’s infinitely more satisfactory than being bewildered while cursing some anonymous prior owner or mechanic.

Even while waiting for parts I can still do some work on the bathroom sink plumbing and get started on the winterization bypass for the water heater, so it’s possible I’ll put a few hours in over the weekend.  Otherwise, expect updates next week.

Plumbing on the snow day

Yesterday my iPhone emitted a terrible sound from my pocket, one I’d never heard before.  It turned out to be warning me of an impending “blizzard” coming to Arizona.

A what?

Yep, this morning the snow level, which usually stays well above 4000 feet, dipped down low enough that we have gotten considerable snow here at 2,500 feet.  This is a rare event for Tucson, one which brings everyone out to look at the strange white stuff, take pictures, and slide around on the roadways.  Having seen my share of snow from life in the northeast, I was not impressed until  I saw it decorating the Caravel, and then I succumbed to the temptation to take a few pictures myself.  I really don’t know why.  I have lots of pictures of the Caravel buried in deep snow from Vermont, but I took a few more anyway.

There’s a little electric heater in the Caravel to keep it from freezing at night, and that makes the interior cozy enough for me to keep working on the plumbing project.  I had run out of Teflon plumber’s tape yesterday, and I needed to ponder the complexities of the next major phase, so I paused the project overnight.

Today, with large, wet snowflakes pattering on the aluminum skin, I got back inside to figure out what I’ve been mentally calling “the dreaded closet manifold.”  One of the narrow bathroom closets had housed a strange collection of plumbing intersections, and it was all wedged into a space only about 1 foot wide and three feet deep.  This made just reaching the plumbing a difficult task, since I don’t fit into spaces that small and my arms aren’t that long.

In rebuilding this rat’s nest of plumbing I wanted to design something that would be much easier to access and service in the future.  There was a shutoff valve that could only be reached if the gaucho cushions were removed, for example.  The city water fill lacked a check valve and a pressure regulator, so it needed wholesale replacement but couldn’t be accessed without disassembling half the bathroom.  Much of my time was spent figuring out ways to remove the whole mess before I could even get started on building a new system.

Eventually, with lots of struggling, cutting, use of extension tools, and even duct tape, I got the plumbing out. A neat new plumbing manifold was designed after lots of headscratching.  You can see it below.

Although it doesn’t look like much, this little bit solves several problems:

  1. It connects the water pump, city water fill, toilet, and main cold water line to the rest of the trailer.
  2. It fits in the exact center of the available closet space, on the floor, with room to swing the shut-off valve if needed.
  3. Nearly all of it can be easy accessed from the door without requiring the help of a small person.

It took Eleanor and I about 10 minutes to crimp all the fittings once I had the basic layout measured and cut.  In this type of job, it’s definitely a “measure twice, cut once” situation.  Actually, being a newbie to this, I measured about four times for each piece.  So although you may scoff, I regard this little bit of plumbing as a work of art.

Getting it into place was another matter.  I could easily make one of the connections, but for the two low elbows I needed four hands to hold everything in the right position when crimping.  Eleanor was recruited.  At one point she had to wedge herself into the closet, because she’s thinner than me.  And I’m not particularly big, so you can get an idea of how tight it was.

Or maybe this picture will help.

And now that part is done.  I won’t rest easy until we pressurize the system and verify there are no leaks, but I’ve done everything I can to ensure that it will be perfect.

So now onto the next phase.  Believe it or not, the plumbing project is almost half done.  We have gone from the fresh water tank  to the bathroom, which means the water pump, winterization valve, and toilet are connected.  I still have to rig up the new city water fill, water heater, and both sinks.  (The Caravel doesn’t have a separate shower connection, since it uses a takeoff from the bathroom sink.)

Time elapsed so far is probably about eight hours, not counting trips to the hardware store or pre-planning.  I think that’s not bad for a first effort.  I’m actually looking forward to tackling the under-sink areas and the water heater, as (again) they are a mess of stressed connections, all of which are in the wrong place.

I discovered today the real danger of doing this and blogging it: my Airstream friends might ask me for help with their trailers.  Well, let me say this:

  1. I’m still definitely not an expert.
  2. You can borrow my tools.

Farewell to Billybob plumbing

With Alumafiesta behind me and some Airstream travel coming up, it’s time to get serious about maintenance again.  I’m starting with the Caravel, because it sprang a few leaks recently and I really want to get those under control soon.

The big job is the fresh water plumbing.  This is the only major system of the trailer that didn’t get refurbished over the past several years.  It’s a horrible hodge-podge of “home handyman” work, with at least four different types of hose (PEX, braided stainless steel, PVC, and clear) and many different connectors.  The hose clamps in particular are a problem because they work loose during travel and are a constant source of leaks, but the braided stainless faucet connectors haven’t been very reliable either.

When it became apparent that repeated patches to the system would only result in repeated frustration and new leaks sprang up, I decided to just completely replace the fresh water plumbing—every piece of it except the faucets and water pump.  I rationalized this as an opportunity to learn something new.  More importantly, a complete refurbishment of the system would allow me to rectify all the little dysfunctional annoyances caused by the prior hack jobs.

For example, the water shutoff valves for the kitchen sink are nearly inaccessible behind the cabinetry.  A few inches to the left and they’d right where you’d want them; easily reached without removing all the contents of the cabinet and turned off in a flash if need be.

Somebody who worked on this system apparently had a phobia of 90-degree elbows.  Rather than plumb elbows in where they were needed, he just bent the plastic pipe around corners.  This works—sort of—but it puts huge stress on the connections and fittings.  This is probably the reason a line near the water heater sprang a pinhole leak just before Alumafiesta. Studying the system, I began to see all those stressed connections as leaks waiting to happen.

And then there was the shut-off valve installed where there should be a check valve (a one-way valve).  And the frequent use of screw-on plastic compression fittings that weep randomly, mostly when you’re 500 or more miles from home.  And the lack of a pressure regulator.  It’s all a fine example of what my friend Colin calls “Billybob plumbing.”

So out it goes.  I did some research and decided to go with a professional grade system.  I read a few restoration blogs, then looked inside a new Airstream to see what the factory is using these days.  They’re using PEX with copper crimp fittings.  It’s the same system we have in our 2005 Safari, and it has been utterly reliable.  The PEX is tough stuff and should be a “lifetime” installation.  This is the same stuff used in houses, rated for use in inaccessible locations.  That’s the quality I want.

Left:  “Before” in Hose Clamp Hell.    Right:  “After” PEX with crimp rings (except one pair of legacy clamp rings).

This system is really simple.  You cut the PEX pipe to length, slip a copper ring on the outside, slip a the fitting inside (elbow, coupling, whatever), and crimp the copper ring with a big hand tool.  It’s easy and the connection is permanent.  It won’t leak, and just to be sure there’s a gauge provided that you can use to check each crimp as you go.

RJ Dial’s website tipped me off to PEXSupply.com, where I bought about $380 worth of parts and tools to do this job.  I bought rolls of blue and red PEX-A (the good stuff, more flexible than the hardware-story-variety PEX-B and more resistant to freezing), about 50 various brass fittings, a bag of copper crimps, and a pipe cutter.  There was no need to get color-coded PEX for the hot and cold water, but I figured if I was going to do this I would make it a work of art.

The big expense was a pro-grade crimping tool at $119.  My friend the sword-swallower Alex confirmed this choice, saying that the off-patent ones for $30-40 really weren’t worth using in his experience.  I don’t know about that personally but I can say that this tool is really sweet, easy to use, and does a great job.

My plan is to go out to the Caravel every day and work for a few hours or until I realize I need to get something at the hardware store.  Today that point came after about four hours of work, which was more than I had planned, but I was having fun with it. It’s great to disassemble and toss out the crummy old plumbing and zillions of hose clamps, and replace it with a carefully structured system that will hopefully never give me trouble.

The job will take a long time because I am being very methodical.  Every pipe thread fitting will have Teflon tape and be carefully torqued, every crimp will be gauged, lines are being re-routed to avoid stress and clutter, etc.  I’m only planning to do this once, so I want to do it right.  Much of today I spent relocating the water pump & winterization valve, and rigging up a system to reduce water pump noise.  The old plumbing made such a loud noise when the water pump was run (rattling the rigid plastic lines) that it would wake the dead and scare small children.

Now, as recommended by the manufacturer, the water pump output goes to an 18″ clear flexible hose in a loose loop to reduce vibration transmission down the line.  I also installed some foam pipe insulation and a clamp to try to dampen vibrations, and I moved the water pump to where it’s (a) no longer in the way of storage, and (b) easily accessed if it needs to be replaced.  It feels good to finally get these things right in the Caravel.

Besides having a leak-free fresh water system in the future, an incidental benefit is that I’m learning how to repair or modify the plumbing in the Safari, and I have all the tools to do it.  We’ve discussed changing the kitchen sink and countertop, but I’ve shied away from it because of the need to re-do the kitchen plumbing.  Now, it’s a completely non-threatening job. So despite the fact that I’m once again putting time and money in the trailer we barely use, it’s a good project.  I’ll update later when things get a little further along.




This has been an interesting week, and I mean that with every definition implied by the word interesting.

There is an Airstream rally that has been going on for decades in Sarasota, FL called the “Florida State Rally.”  It is in some ways a piece of what the locals call “old Florida,” with sandy roots that reach down to the historical pinnacle of Airstreaming in 1960s.  The rally, run by the Wally Byam Caravan Club International (WBCCI), has been a long-standing tradition for many Airstreamers.  They migrate annually from points north, to park together for five or six days at the Sarasota County Fairgrounds and share the social niceties that have defined the club.

We started going to the FSR in 2004, with our then-four year-old child and our recently acquired 36-year-old Airstream trailer.  Back then it was a remarkable event with over 700 trailers in attendance, making it the second largest Airstream rally of the year.  We pulled in and marveled at the rows and rows of Airstreams, and found that nearly every one of them held inside a pair of grandparents who were generally delighted to see little Emma and give her some toy.  We were younger than the average attendee by a solid 30 years but we still felt very at home.

We also met some good friends at that first rally, several of whom are still close friends today.  (Have I mentioned before that we owe a lot to Airstreaming?)  We loved the vintage Airstream community, and the good times spent with friends around the campfire.  So we went again, and again, and I went by myself once too.  It was always a nice time.  I love visiting Sarasota in February.

But in recent years, attendance at FSR declined dramatically, hitting a low of about 316 trailers last year. There were many reasons for this, including a stagnant event program and the changing interests of Airstreamers, but the final blow was simply a matter of age.  I’ll quote Vic Smith (the Director of the rally for the past two years):

“The population we draw our volunteers from averages around 78 years old … Even with all the advertising and out of the box changes we made, we only increased participation by 17 Airstreams … With the rapid loss of the volunteer population and the unwillingness of QUALIFIED leadership to step up to the challenge, it was felt that if there was to be an Airstream based rally in February, in Florida next year and in the years following, it was going to have done by someone else. As much as it pained all of us, the only solution was the obvious one.”

So they called Brett and me and asked us if we’d do something to fill the gap.

This was a thrilling opportunity, but also a terrifying one.  Imagine being asked to replace something with a fifty-year history, with all the expectations that implies.  Imagine facing the economic and operational challenges of hosting 300+ Airstreams.  The FSR had over 60 separate organizational committees.  We have a staff of two, plus a handful of volunteers.  Even though we’ve done Alumapalooza with 200 trailers, this is a whole new level of complexity and expectation.

Plus, the final vote by the FSR Board of Governors happened on Wednesday.  They told the members on Thursday.  We were asked to make a presentation about our new event by Saturday.  Talk about pressure.  We didn’t even know if we could even pull off the event, much less announce pricing, dates, and any hints about what the event might include.  Brett was on-site in Florida trying to rapidly gather information and I was in Tucson trying to build a quickie spreadsheet and website, and we were both flat-out trying to make it all come together in 72 hours.

We’ve managed to get fairly far since then, by working day and night and flinging text messages & emails at each other.  Here’s what we know today:

  1. We’re going to do it! 
  2. The event will be called Alumaflamingo.  (Brad Cornelius is at work on the new logo and website design right now. Can’t wait.)
  3. Dates will be Feb 18-23, 2014, at the Sarasota County Fairgrounds, same location as it has been for many years.  (This is probably the only thing that will be the same as FSR.)
  4. It will be sponsored by Bates RV, the Airstream dealer in Tampa FL.
  5. Airstream will be there with parts & service.
  6. There will be a 30-amp power option for those who want it.
  7. Alumaflamingo will be open to any brand of RV, just like all our other events.
  8. It will be seriously fun, and we are going to be proud to host it.

The rest of the details … I don’t know.  But as of today, a mere three days after being told that we were stepping in, 29 Airstreams have signed up and paid to come to our future Alumaflamingo.  Some large caravans have committed to coming, too.  It’s a real vote of confidence that all those people have plunked down for our event, even though we can’t tell them much about it yet.  The Internet buzz has been good, too.

So it’s time to rise to the challenge.  “In for a penny, in for a pound,” as the saying goes, and it feels like we are in for a metric ton.  We will spend the next twelve months working on this event, knowing the entire time that the show that we produce in 2014 is standing in a 50-year-tall shadow.  It’s not about replacing the Florida State Rally, because that can’t be replaced.  It’s about picking up the torch and carrying it forward to something all new, and worthy of another 50 years.  Sounds like fun!