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, 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.



Airstream floors

Since this is our “off season” for Airstream travel, we’re getting on to maintenance projects in the Airstreams. The 1968 Caravel has taken precedence, by virtue of springing a leak.

A few years ago we replaced the subfloor in the Caravel and put a Marmoleum floor atop it, which I figured would last a long time.  Marmoleum is great stuff, although hard to install in a trailer.  Stored under cover, in the desert, it seemed unlikely that the floor would be water-damaged, but that’s what happened, right here in our carport.  The original plastic water tank began seeping water at a brass fitting (a fitting which has no purpose that I could glean).  The seepage was so minor that it was unnoticeable until it had leaked for a few weeks.  I went into the Caravel for a quick inspection and stepped into a puddle of water right at the entry door.

By then the wood subfloor was saturated with water, which caused the floor adhesive to fail, and allowed the Marmoleum to lift off and warp.  Most annoyingly, the water puddled entirely at the entry door where the damage would be most visible.

We had quickly disassemble the dinette, and lift the Marmoleum an inch at the edge in order to dry out the subfloor.  Even in our dry season, with outdoor humidity running about 15-20% during the day, it took over two weeks to fully dry out the wood.  In the meantime I consulted Colin Hyde and he warned me not to try to fix the water tank, as it was likely to fail again due to age.  I didn’t need much convincing. The old tank was riddled with various plugged holes for tank monitors (unused), drains, and who-knows-what. In the photo you can see the the old brass fitting that was the cause of our problem.  The white crusty stuff around the edges is probably dried minerals, and you can also see a split forming in the tank itself (barely visible at the 5 o’clock position).

So I bought a new tank from Vintage Trailer Supply with custom inlet and drain threads “spin welded” in place exactly where I wanted them.  The new tank is a little larger than the original, with a 28 gallon capacity, but it fit into the same space with just a little modification to the wood dinette that surrounds it.  I had to trim one edge of the lower storage compartment’s face frame, and fabricate a new wood piece to hold the tank in place.

Once installed, the new tank will be much easier to service because it can be positioned to avoid the outside water fill tube, and thus plumbing access will be straightforward.   The other one partially blocked the water fill tube, so it was a real pain to connect.  I’ve had to take that connection apart three or four times in the past because the water fill kept leaking, so I’m glad to see it go.  The new tank will have much cleaner connections that are under less stress, and the tank itself is less likely to leak since it has only two openings (fill and drain) and I’m using all new plumbing.  The threads will get Teflon tape, too.

I’m not so sure about the Marmoleum.  It got pretty warped in the drying process, and a tear formed at one point.  We have attempted to re-attach it to the floor using tan silicon caulk.  To flatten it, we’ve stacked a few hundred pounds of leftover slate tiles and flagstone, with a base layer of corrugated cardboard.  I’ll let it sit that way for a few days while the fall desert heat bakes it, and then see if we’ve had any luck.  If not, we’ll have to scab in a patch.

We can’t do much else inside the Caravel until the floor is fixed, so our attention is turned to the Safari.  A few weeks back I had announced an ambitious plan to face-lift the interior, but reality (meaning budget) has prevailed.  So we’re going to stretch out the work, and just start with the flooring.  John Irwin wrote an article about flooring replacement options, which will appear in the Winter 2012 issue of Airstream Life. Inspired by this, I began to look at quality vinyl planks and discovered that there are some really nice options, and they are cheap, easy to install, and will go right over the existing vinyl floor.  We’ll remove the dingy old carpet in the bedroom and put the vinyl planks there, too.

Eleanor and I bought some of the flooring today to do a test layout in the Safari, and it looks good.  I expect we’ll take a few days to complete the job, including time to pull out the furniture, prep the existing floor, cut around obstacles, and reinstall the furniture.  We will get on that job after the Caravel is done and back in its off-site storage spot.  We need extra space in the carport for all the furniture that we’ll be removing from the Safari.

I really don’t have any particular love for flooring work but, like painting, it is gratifying when it’s done and everything looks great.  And we’re entering the season of perfect daytime temperatures for outdoor work, so I’m looking forward to tackling the Safari floor soon.

Thinking about the renovation

We have roughly two weeks between the end of one trip (coming back from Vermont) and the beginning of another (going to Colorado).  It’s unusual for us to stop off at home base for a short time like this, but it has been an unusual travel year for us in general.

The two weeks were earmarked for various practicalities, like appointments, the final work on the Fall 2012 issue of Airstream Life, and Alumafandango.  Beyond that, I had hoped to have some free time to get started on our Airstream renovation, but very little has been done—I’ve just been too busy.  We have samples of Marmoleum in hand, and some definite ideas about upholstery and curtains, but so far haven’t managed to actually get out to the various suppliers and finalize the choices.

Eleanor did remove some of the curtains to see if we could get them clean.  Her plan is to re-cover the existing curtains rather than creating new ones from scratch. She did this on Emma’s back window a few years ago and the result was great: a completely “new” looking curtain without all the labor.  With the additional fabric overlaying the old, she was able to make the overall curtain a little wider so that it wouldn’t need to be pulled quite as tightly to close, and add all new hook & loop fastener for better closing.  Plus, the light-blocking ability of the curtain was greatly improved, which is a nice feature in the bedroom.

Our dinette curtain looks horrible right now. It bears the indelible stains and other marks that testify to the presence of a small child eating spaghetti a few inches away.  Emma began living in that trailer when she was a mere five years old, and now she’s 12 and I think at this point she deserves a clean start rather than forever eating next to the minor errors of her youth.  And we wouldn’t mind nicer curtains either.

Washing was ineffective.  The stains are permanent.  It doesn’t matter since they are going to be re-covered anyway.  We’ve chosen darker fabrics than the dingy off-white original material, which will cover the underlying history and match the other fabrics and materials that will be installed later.  For the upcoming trip to Colorado she is going to install a temporary solution of ribbon strips and new hook&loop so that we can close them better, and in September they’ll come off again for the permanent fix.

Tomorrow we will drop in on an upholstery place, or two, and try to get some samples of fabrics for the dinette.  We need to find a good shop to fabricate the new countertops as well.  That would be easy if I were willing to install typical household-style counters, but I want these to be the same thinness as the factory ones to keep the weight down and avoid hassles when re-fitting them.  Also, we’re going to install a larger, deeper sink, and cut a hole for a NuTone Food Center, enlarge the splashguard, and add in a good quality cutting board, so I’ll be looking for a company that we can work with on the details.

Much of the shopping has been online.  In particular, I’ve been researching inverters because a major goal of the renovation is to improve our power situation. Right now we have a great solar power system, but it can’t power appliances like the TV, microwave, NuTone, laptop computers, toaster, and coffee maker.  These are all things we would like to be able to use when off the grid.  A 2000-watt pure-sine inverter will take care of that problem handily.  The LCD TV consumes only about 110 watts, and the laptops are only about 85 watts each, so the electronic devices are easy to run.  The NuTone is rated for 625 watts, the toaster and coffee maker are both less than 1000 watts, and the microwave is an unknown (since we are getting a new one) but I expect it to come in at about 1100 watts. We’ll have to be careful not to make toast and coffee at the same time but otherwise it should work fine.

A big decision was to wire the inverter to the whole trailer with an automatic transfer switch so that every outlet will be powered when we are running on batteries.  This does require us to remember to set the air conditioner off, but that’s no problem.  (With a starting load over well over 2,500 watts, it would trip the inverter.)  Wiring the whole trailer simplifies the connection of the inverter.  It will sit in a front compartment near the battery so that the DC wire runs are short, and a long AC wire will run to the main breaker box and transfer switch, through the belly pan.

To keep the budget down, I’ve been collecting some items as we travel.  I found the NuTone Food Center at Alumapalooza, being sold by David Winick. We already had a big box of NuTone accessories from our days in the Argosy 24 “Vintage Thunder”.  We were parked next to a service customer of Paul Mayeux’s last October and bought their used Intellipower 65 amp converter/charger cheap (they were upgrading to a big solar charger).   I’m still scouting for someone with some Safari interior cabinetry so I can scavenge that, too.

You can see that nothing is going to happen quickly here.  The first real disassembly won’t start until sometime in September.  That’s OK.  The project is going to be expensive. I want to think everything through carefully.  We won’t be doing this again for several years at least, perhaps a decade.  So it’s not just a matter of picking out curtain fabric, it requires envisioning what we’ll be doing with this trailer in the next decade, and the challenges it will face in our future expeditions.

I also want to see if we can find ways to actually reduce the weight.  Usually in renovations trailers tend to get heavier, as owners add more equipment and household-grade furniture.  I can tell a difference of 500 pounds when towing up an 8% grade, by the way the Mercedes’ engine bogs down.  When we are lightly loaded it’s a much easier tow.  So it would be nice to trim even as little 100 pounds in the cabinetry, and as we take it all apart I expect we’ll find a few places where weight can be cut out.

After tomorrow I doubt we’ll have time to work on the renovation much.  But I will be making notes as we take this next trip, to try to discover the little things that could be done to make our Airstream more usable and efficient.

The renovation project

For the past couple of years I’ve been thinking that the interior of our 2005 Safari is looking pretty tired.  The vinyl floor is scarred and dull, the curtains are stained, the dinette foam is going flat, and the countertops are scratched.  Like a house, an Airstream does require a periodic interior makeover, and it’s looking like time has come for ours.

Two years ago I wrote a blog entry in which I advanced the theory that an Airstream can last a lifetime, with proper maintenance.  Now I have to live with those words, as we are beginning to reach the point at which shabby appearance must be dealt with.  Spending money on cosmetic upgrades is pretty low on my list.  I’d much rather improve the comfort, safety, or functionality of the trailer.  But if it doesn’t look good, it’s easy to fall into the trap of neglecting functional items because some little voice in the back of your mind says, “This trailer really isn’t worth it any more.”

Eleanor and I started talking about this a few months ago, and the first question we had to answer was whether we were going to keep the trailer long enough to justify further investment.  We decided we were.  As long as Emma is living at home (at least 6-7 more years), we’ll want a trailer that can allow us to travel as a family, and this is the only floorplan Airstream ever made with two full-time bedrooms.  They may come out with another two-bedroom floor plan in the future, but we like this one and we’ve customized the heck out of it already.  So we didn’t foresee making a switch anytime in the near future.  Perhaps once we are empty nesters we’ll downsize to a 25 footer, but that’s a long way off.  In the meantime, I know we’ll take many more long trips together.

Even though some investment is justifiable to keep the Airstream looking good, we’re going to try to keep the cost of this makeover down by focusing on the areas that need attention the most.  We won’t be gutting the entire trailer.  The front bed, dinette, and kitchen galley will come out, and the refrigerator compartment, rear bedroom, closets, and bathroom will stay in place.  We will not significantly alter the floorplan or plumbing.  The cosmetic goal is primarily to replace the floor, countertops, upholstery, and curtains.  Of course, while we are touching those parts we’ll also take the opportunity to improve a few things.

We can’t begin to tear the trailer apart right now, because in two weeks we are leaving for Colorado and Alumafandango.  So I’ll use the latter part of July to line up outside contractors, select colors for those items, and order various parts.  We’ll start the actual work as soon as we get back, approximately September 1, and I think the Airstream will be out of commission through at least November.  Other than the specialized jobs of upholstery, floor, and countertops, all of the labor will be done at home in our carport by Eleanor and myself (and any local friends who happen to volunteer).

There’s a good chance we’ll find some hidden issues once we start to disassemble the interior.  After all, this trailer has seen over 100,000 miles of towing and the equivalent of about five years of full-time use.   I know that we will find missing screws and loose brackets inside the cabinetry, because we have noticed some furniture starting to separate from the interior walls.  We plan to reinforce those connections so that the trailer will be ready for rough-road travel, in case we decide to do the Dempster Highway in Alaska or the road to Chaco National Monument.  I figure that it’s best to find the little problems proactively rather than when we’re on a long trip somewhere or after the little problems have become big ones.

I’ve got a long list of parts to order in the next few weeks.  I’m trying to find someone with a late-model Airstream with the same blonde faux-wood cabinetry who is gutting or renovating, so I can buy some used cabinet materials (drawers, doors, hinges, slides, and sheets of wood) to re-make into a custom cabinet in our trailer.  I’m planning to build a combination bench, laundry drawer, magazine rack, shoe cubby, recycling bin, and storage bin along the curbside wall to replace the kludge we’ve got currently.

We’re going to do a full replacement Marmoleum floor to replace the current vinyl floor and bedroom carpet, and ultraleather on the dinette.  Eleanor is going to cover the existing curtains with new material and Velcro so that they are more light-blocking and more easily closed.  We will also add a big pure-sine inverter to power the TV, microwave, or some kitchen appliances while boondocking.  To improve charging while plugged into shore power, we’ll replace the current charger with an Intellipower with 3-stage charging.  In the kitchen, Eleanor will get a new (bigger, deeper) sink, a NuTone food center, and inverter outlets for the toaster or coffee maker.  We are also considering a water filtration system if we can recover some wasted space under the counter, so I’ll be doing some plumbing improvements there and installing some dividers for better storage.

Little things include completing the conversion to LED lights throughout, a new microwave to replace the one that just died, replacing the hopeless ceiling speakers with surround-sound speakers (so we can actually hear a movie when the A/C is running), adding a good folding cutting board, removing the CD changer we’ve never used, adding an aux input jack, and adding lots of inverter-powered USB power outlets for portable devices.

My intention is to fully document this renovation this fall as it happens.  I’ll even be honest about costs, since most people don’t talk about them in their renovation blogs.  Right now I have a guesstimation budget of $6,000 for this project, using our own labor.  Once we’ve talked to the contractors I’ll be able to come up with a more accurate estimate.  In any case, it will cost more than I want to spend, but probably end up as good value for all the use & pleasure we get out of it.