A New Airstream

Airstream & Chevy

It’s been over two years since I have written anything here. I see my last post was about maintaining lead acid batteries, so it was probably time to take a break.

We do have an overdue update. Last year we sold our 28′ Airstream International back to the dealer. It was a very sad day.

There was no particular reason. We just weren’t using it. Iowa doesn’t have any “nature” left. Iowans use campers to tailgate, which we don’t do. I struggle having expensive things sitting in storage, to be maintained and slowly rot. So we sold it.

Fast forward a year to May, 2017. We bought our second Airstream. Unlike our first, we bought this Airstream just for fun, not to perform a full time lifestyle experiment.

So we wanted something more nimble, that could be towed easily with a smaller tow vehicle. I didn’t want to sign up for a lifetime of big truck ownership.

We sold ourselves on using it for a couple of big trips each year and as a weekend winter cabin. We imagined spending more time in the years ahead if job flexibility permitted.

We settled on the Airstream International 23FB. The largest of the small (8′ body) Airstreams, paired with a ProPride 3P hitch to a 2016 Chevy Colorado diesel.

Did this combination work? Yes – very well. More to come.

– Anthony, Waukee, Iowa

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Battery hygiene

Airstream batteries on charge

I wish this was a post about installing Lithium batteries and a $12,000 solar setup. Sadly what follows are rather more mundane observations about battery maintenance.

Our Airstream shipped with two fairly inexpensive Interstate SRM-24 deep cycle batteries. These retail for about $120 each. I have great respect for them – they kept us going for over two days in a blizzard.

Unfortunately the lifespan for deep cycle batteries in RV applications seems to be about two years and they don’t age gracefully. This is a function of two things:

  1. The standard factory installed charging systems are poor and never fully charge the batteries, which leads to death by sulphation. One of the best resources I have found on this topic is HandyBob’s blog.

    The remedy is to install a three-stage charging system. Outback chargers are highly regarded but costly at $1,700.

  2. Boondockers in particular tend to discharge batteries more than they should. Guidance on discharge cycles and effect on lifespan can be found directly from the battery manufacturer. For the SRM-24s, find a helpful document here . A rule of thumb is not to discharge batteries more than 50%.

    To monitor charge state properly you’ll need a real battery monitor. The factory installed one that also measures the holding tank status is insufficient. The Bogart Engineering Trimetric TM-2030RV-F is a good one – I bought it myself.

If you aren’t into boondocking it’s not unreasonable to simply regard batteries as disposable. After all, for the $1,700 cost of an Outback charger you could buy 7 sets of SRM-24s. If you get two years out of each set, that’s 14 years worth of batteries.

But if you are into boondocking, battery life is material. And the thing is, batteries don’t get to two years and then die. They die slowly, reducing the time you can run without shore power. So at some point you’ll find yourself running your generator 20 hours a day.

If we found ourselves living on the road again (you never know), then I’d probably invest in a 3-stage charger/inverter.

What about weekender boondocking? That’s the sort of boondocking we’re doing these days. Our goal is to be off the grid for two or three nights and run the generator infrequently. Even quiet generators are loud.

Our batteries were new in December, 2012. I know that because it’s printed on a label on the top of the battery. At nearly three years old they are still working well. We haven’t made any modifications to the factory power setup.

Airstream batteries

This is what I do.

  1. At the end of a trip remove the batteries and take them home. Tip: before yanking them out, take a picture so you can wire them back up! I have some clear plastic contractor glasses I wear when messing with batteries. 10 minute task.

  2. Ensure the electrolyte levels are correct. Pop open the two caps and peek into the individual cells. Top off with distilled water if necessary. Wear eye protection! 2 minute task.

  3. Leave them on charge in the garage using a BatteryMINDer 3-stage charger. $140. It is conceivable you could get a build up of explosive gas storing and charging in a small enclosed space.  Our garage is big and the door is opened quite often. I probably wouldn’t do this in a closet in the basement.

    The very first time I used the BatteryMINDer I de-sulphated the batteries one at a time over a period of several days. Simply follow the directions. I then connected the batteries together in parallel and now use this device to re-charge/maintain the charge when the Airstream is in storage.

  4. When we head off for a trip, I take the batteries back and re-install them. 10 minute task.

On September 14th, after taking the batteries off charge and letting them sit for 12 hours, I then tested them using a Schumacher Electric BTF-250. Results below.

Ratings
MCA: 690
CCA: 550

Test Results

Battery A
12.87V
702 MCA
586 SAE (CCA)

Battery B
12.78V
696 MCA
562 SAE (CCA)

The local Interstate Battery dealer will also perform a load test. If I get around to that I’ll post the results.

Anthony, Waukee, Iowa

Factory repairs

Our Airstream. Jackson Center, Ohio.

On March 10 I drove the 584 miles to Jackson Center, Ohio, to deliver our Airstream to its makers.

It was recovered 19 days later, all shiny and new. They left it outside for me to pick up on a Sunday. Fantastic service from beginning to end.

Doing this is straight forward. You request an appointment date on Airstream’s web site and are contacted by email with instructions shortly after. You’ll have to show up at 7am on the day of the appointment.

I drove the day before and stayed overnight in a town called Lima, Ohio, where the nearest Marriott property is. If doing likewise stay at the Courtyard not the Fairfield. Parking at the Fairfield is too tight for a trailer. I chose the low carb., low cholesterol, low calorie option for dinner with a meal consisting entirely of hots wings and Blue Moon at the Lima Buffalo Wild Wings, which has a parking lot big enough for the trailer.

At the service center I had a single page print out with the trailer’s serial number at the top, and all the repair items listed (see my list below). At the service center these will be typed up into individual repair orders.

Shortly after they will then pull the trailer into a service bay using a small tractor and you’ll do a walk through with a technician to cover all the items in more detail.

Then you’re on your way. An email estimate will be sent within a few hours and it’s a yes/no proposition. I found the estimate was almost exactly what my expectation was – no surprises at all.

One thing to note is you can’t really get a time estimate until you show up. In my case the repairs took 5 days but there wasn’t a firm estimate when I dropped it off. So I drove home to Iowa and came back for it a few weeks later on the weekend. Airstream will store the trailer at no cost for as long as you want — I suppose there is a limit on that statement — provided you pay the bill within 30 days. The point here is this isn’t a Ford QuickLane. Expect to do two trips.

Here’s a copy/paste of my one-pager:

Warranty

  • Repair wheel well gap on curb side.
  • Water found seeping under bathroom cabinetry – may be related to wheel well issue above.
  • Repair exterior light above entry door. Works intermittently. Bulb has been replaced. Suspect wiring.
  • Examine tears in fresh water tank belly pan near wheels. Seal if appropriate.
  • Examine air conditioning unit mount. Occasional interior leaking specifically during wind and rain.
  • Shower door alignment.
  • Investigate source of water evidence at back of primary closet.
  • Investigate source of water under hot water tank bypass pipe.
  • Fresh water tank straps.

Non-warranty

  • Inspect exterior caulking and seals, including roof and belly pan. Evidence of water penetration noticed back of clothes closet.
  • Replace door and screen door.
  • Replace tongue jack.

– Anthony, Lake Anita State Park, Iowa

19 steps to winterizing

Sunrise. Lake Anita State Park, Iowa.

Below are the steps I take to winterize after each trip. I perform these steps at the campsite before leaving.

I have gone through this routine about a half dozen times this season with only one failure – in one instance I forgot to purge and add anti-freeze to the toilet causing a small and inexpensive plastic valve at the back to break. Don’t forget the toilet!

I have this down to about a 20 – 30 minute process.

My instructions are below. For items that may benefit from a bit of visualization, photographs are inline.

1. Turn off hot water heater (switch probably in the bathroom).

2. Run hot water until cold.

3. Disconnect city water line.

4. Remove water filter (under the galley sink).

5. Open low point drains.

6. When low point drains stop flowing, close again.

7. Open faucet and turn to hot (nothing will flow). This prevents the hot water tank from “gulping” as you drain it.

8. Open hot water tank from the outside – stand to the side! Leave this open while being transported and stored.

Airstream winterizing. Lake Anita State Park, Iowa.

The 3/4″ drain plug can be difficult to wrangle due to its extraordinarily bizarre placement. I use pliars.

9. Once hot water tank is drained, close bypass valve and close faucet previously opened (step 7). This valve is located by the hot water tank which, in the 28′ International, is under the front couch next to the sink.

Airstream winterizing. Lake Anita State Park, Iowa.

Note the winterized and non-winterized position – it will be marked next to the valve.

10. Hook up air compressor – set to 50 PSI.

Airstream winterizing. Lake Anita State Park, Iowa.

In the photograph above you will see my Bostitch pancake compressor attached to my water hose using a Camco Blow Out Plug. This purges the hose as well allowing it to be stored safely in the Airstream.

11. Go back inside, open up all faucets (including toilet and shower) one by one and purge. Repeat as necessary. You’ll probably be surprised how much water comes out.

11(a). You may need to do this for the outside shower as well unless you have previously winterized this.

11(b). You should purge the black tank flush intake as well. Do this once at the beginning of winter and don’t bother flushing the black tank for the remainder of winter.

12. De-pressurize compressor & detach from Airstream.

13. Open faucets and de-pressurize the system.

14. Attach anti-freeze hose line to anti-freeze.

Airstream winterizing. Lake Anita State Park, Iowa.

In the photograph above you can see a cheap Camco 36543 winterizing kit installed. This is a one minute install. Just leave it in place forever once installed.

Airstream winterizing. Lake Anita State Park, Iowa.

15. Turn on pump. Run faucets (including toilet and shower) one by one until pink comes out. Do not forget the toilet!

15(a). Do this for the outside shower as well. We avoid using the outside shower in winter after it has been winterized.

16. Put a cup of anti-freeze down all sinks, showers and into toilet bowl.This prevents (in theory) the rubber toilet bowl seal from drying out and cracking.

17. Re-open low drains and leave open while being transported and stored.

18. Drain fresh water tank (pepcock between wheels on road side) and leave pepcock open while being transported and stored.

19. Dump black and grey tanks.

Airstream winterizing. Lake Anita State Park, Iowa.

You may have to shovel out the dump station.

A nice video on this topic here, showing location of the low point drains and fresh water tank drain pepcock.

2015-02-18 update – things you’ll need:

– Anthony, Waukee, Iowa

Maintenance day

Maintenance day, Pomona State Park, Kansas

We’re on a maintenance bonanza this week as we feel the warm weather coming to a close.

Washing, polishing, waxing, caulking, caulking, caulking. I think many of us living in Airstreams have developed a fear of water. Water will ruin Airstreams – shortly after the warranty has expired – due to rotting of the plywood sub-floor.

Every two weeks I check the floor by sticking a moisture meter through the laminate flooring at various intervals around the trailer. I also look for caulking gaps outside around windows and seams, the banana wrap and the roof.

Here’s the best caulking method I’ve found. To remove old caulk, use a plastic caulk removal tool combined with WD-40 combined with paper towels. I found a cheap plastic knife helps too – the kind you find in a big pack at Wal-Mart.

Before applying new caulk tape around the area. Both sides of the joint. This takes forever and is as boring as watching caulk dry. Then apply a bead of caulk – we use Vulkem 116 ordered online from Home Depot. Wear disposable gloves and use your finger to push the caulk into the joint. Just run your finger along it like you would caulking anything else.

Then pull up the tape. Easy. I don’t mind if there is caulk visible around the seams and windows as long as it’s neat. Vulkem 116 color matches quite well too.

We also have a general rule these days to avoid driving in the rain at all costs. Rain is a 70mph all-angle power wash of a thing that is made of wood and caulk with aluminum painted on it.

And yes, our bank did re-issue our credit card due to the Home Depot breach.

– Anthony, Pomona State Park, Kansas

DVD revival

photo 1

Iowa doesn’t have “high speed” internet in the commonly accepted sense. A single South Korean Millenial’s mere presence would bring the entire state network down. But it does have good-enough-speed internet to abandon cable TV.

So some years ago we became early adopters and fans of the Apple TV. The Apple TV is a very small device that plugs into your television via a single HDMI cable. It connects to your network wirelessly or wired if you prefer. During the setup you associate it with your iTunes account.

It’s operated by a remote with easy menus on the screen. No computer required. Once set up you can browse the Apple media store and buy TV shows in standard or high definition (about $2 and $3 respectively) and do the same with movies – you can also rent movies which was generally our preference. No contracts, no monthly fees. Just buy what you want, when you want.

In contrast our cable bill topped $100 a month and spewed nothing but garbage. Everything we really wanted always seemed to be pay-per-view anyway. We don’t watch live sports and television news I only watch in airport lounges.

One of the other wonders of the Apple TV is not needing to store anything. You buy a show, it streams to your TV, that’s it. Want to watch it again? It streams again. Since all your Apple devices are linked to your iTunes account, you can buy a show on one device and watch it on any of the others. For example, you could buy a season of “Rome” on your Apple TV then take it with you on your iPad. Easy. Oh, it works with music too.

So the first accessory we installed in our Airstream was an Apple TV.

We never use it.

We live in a bandwidth constrained environment. Wi-Fi does not exist at campgrounds. Allegations are occasionally made that wi-fi is available but these are inevitably affirmations not fact – rather like my weight loss.

Our internet connection is all through a 4G Verizon Jetpack. It works surprisingly well. It also acts as a little router and switch for up to five connected devices. So we don’t need any other network gear in our trailer. Within its service area it would be more than capable of serving up media. The problem is it’s metered. 10GB/month with astonishing overage fees. Streaming a single HD movie could consume half of that. Several other cloudy things have been killed off as a result, including Dropbox and Evernote.

What to do? While wi-fi does not exist in the wild, Wal-Mart does. Everywhere. In Wal-Mart you can procure things never seen by a South Korean Millenial – small shiny discs. These are sometimes called Blu-Rays or DVDs. They are like magic crystals. They don’t require any connectivity to use. You put them in a device usually referred to as a “player.”

A single Blu-Ray disc containing an uncompressed high definition (1080p) movie consumes about 50GB of storage. Let’s say a round-trip to Wal-Mart is an hour. That translates into the equivalent of 110 Mbps of bandwidth! Now you’re approaching South Korean dial-up speeds. Buy two or three while you’re at it and you’re talking bandwidth that well exceeds what your router could push.

Another benefit is that often you will receive an iTunes code along with the disc. Enter this code into iTunes and now you have the best of both worlds – a version in the cloud you can watch on any device and a local cache (Blu-Ray) in your Airstream for when you’re in the forest.

But Blu-Rays are bulky? No they aren’t. They’re 1.2mm thick, which is 83% thinner than an iPhone 6. What are bulky are the cases they come in. Dump those and put them in a little paper pocket. You buy these by the hundred from Wal-Mart. Then you can have lots of them in a very small space. They even sell boxes for this purpose. I never knew. The main buyers of these are apparently country-music fans who still buy lots of CDs. In fact a Blu-Ray actually provides more storage per cubic inch than a hard drive. So amazing is this technology that even Facebook is stockpiling this more than decade-old format.

One last thing – the $5 bin at Wal-Mart.

Works off the grid. Provides an iTunes copy. Retro. Cheap. To the Blu-Ray.

– Anthony, Pomona State Park, Kansas

Is living in an Airstream a bad idea?

So shiny!

I enjoyed the recent “Life’s Not Perfect” post in Melanie’s blog, “A Small Life.” It made us smile.

We like beautiful Airstream photographs. We like the cheerful stories. But like Melanie I think they offer a rather stylized perspective. Perfectly manicured moments.

That’s to be expected of course. I suspect there is an element of affirmation taking place.

Plus, who wants to hear bad? The power of positive thinking! Fair enough I suppose. But I think there is also joy to be found in the shared experience and struggle of real life, with all its warts.

A year ago today we bought an Airstream. It seemed like a good idea at the time. It was.

But in contrarian form, in honor of the first anniversary of our Airstream purchase, I’ll tackle the question, “is living in an Airstream a bad idea?”

One. Campgrounds are dreadful.

We have talked about this before. We created a naive and fantastical dream where every day resembled living in a National Forest with birds singing and Bambi and tame bears. And a beach. But with full hookups. In Kansas.

It’s not like that. There are shirtless people and biting insects.

Two. Airstreams aren’t actually very good.

I am convinced our Airstream is the most unreliable, poorly built thing we have ever purchased. Hyperbole? Think about it. Most of the things we buy were made by machines. They are uniformly produced.

An Airstream is made by people who bang things together and screw stuff in by hand. And make no mistake, our Airstream was not built by a group of Swiss watchmakers painstakingly attaching the value of their family’s heritage to the quality of their craftsmanship. This is a shed on wheels built quickly in time before beer o’clock.

I never thought of myself as handy – you know, as someone who could fix a toilet. Yet over time I have become a person who fixes things in uncomfortable settings. I have downloaded and filed away plumbing diagrams. I keep bolts on hand. There’s one in my pocket now.

“Not me,” you say, “I’ll have professionals fix it.” I’m with you. Except when there aren’t any around, which is most of the time, and when you realize what a PITA it is to leave your house at a dealer for a few days.

So if you are, like us, an owner of a new Airstream, find some communion knowing that it’s not just you. You are sharing the experience with hundreds of others who have dropped a lot of money on a fashionable thing that is, well, really quite awful and depreciating rapidly. Remember, a lot of people buy boats too.

For an equally uplifting perspective on this, I recommend reading this entertaining opinion from Robert Platt Bell, author of the fantastic Living Stingy blog. “I love the Airstream, in concept. But like an old wooden boat, I will let others buy them and suffer, and admire them from a distance instead.”

The good news is Airstreams are shiny, so we can still take nice pictures of it.

Now with the acceptance that your coveted do-bob is actually depreciating junk comes powerful and liberating joy. We have discovered, finally, that we cannot buy happiness. The photograph of happy people running around an Airstream with their kayaks is not an experience for sale.

We make our experiences, often randomly, and mostly obliquely. Your Airstream provides a new context for living. Its flaws don’t matter one little bit. Remember why you bought it. Do those things.

And no, you can’t have your money back and yes, you still need to make your payments.

Three. Working is even more stressful.

There are two parts to this.

The first is that work is less stressful because our cost of living has reduced substantially. The dependency on work for survival has reduced. So the consequences of working, or not, are different. This has had real implications for our quality of life and on the quality of work produced. Work produced with dependency diminished is better work.

Unfortunately the second part is that it’s now hard work to do work. If you have a real job job (note – we do not advocate real job jobs at all) you need to be in certain places at certain times. Initially we tried to do this by traveling with our Airstream. We quickly burned out with day after day of driving. The stress was compounded by needing to fix broken things while trying to get to business meetings in a certain place at a certain time.

More trivially but importantly, internet and cell phone availability are not what we assumed. We assumed these things were effectively ubiquitous outside of the Northwest Territories. They are not. Not at all. So we have had to to schedule travel around work and schedule work around internet availability. This is complex, generally unworkable, and therefore stressful.

These practical limitations also apply to community involvement, like volunteering.

Four. Laundry is a drag.

Nobody likes doing laundry.

But what came to mind as streamer_j described her visit to a laundromat in Colorado Springs was the bar scene in Venusville – the red light district in Schwarzenegger’s “Total Recall.” Edgy at first but rapidly unsavory.

total_recall_full

Five. Dishes are a drag.

streamer_j complains about this. I think she over states the problem and dishwashers are over-stated as a solution.

Insert from streamer_j: streamer_a has done the dishes approximately 2 times in a year. He should have no “statements” on the matter.

Six. Dirt is a drag.

“Cleaning must only take two minutes.” Sure, but we clean all the time. Small space, dog that sheds, bad.

I refer to Robert’s blog once again, “Camping should be about camping, not keeping some talisman of an icon in perfect condition all the time. When you worry about tracking dirt into your camper, maybe it is time to give up on camping. I’m just saying….”

Seven. Seasons.

The Airstream is generally regarded as a three season trailer. Two of the three are Spring and Fall. But we can’t figure out what the third is supposed to be. It can’t really deal with Winter or Summer.

Despite producing a racket that would mask a nearby event of Krakatoan proportions, the Airstream cannot stay even moderately cool in summer. Nor can the fridge.

In winter, the Airstream does a reasonable job of keeping the living area warm. We don’t mind that it consumes a lot of propane – it does stay warm in our tests down to -17F. However, plumbing does not work at those temperatures. We can get water to the Airstream using a heated hose and faucet. We can also leave the grey open and generally the water will flow out without freezing. But we can’t get black water out and the interior pipes freeze. Last winter we ended up with ludicrous but effective skirting.

Realistically we’re keeping it on the fairway between 30F and a cloudy 80F.

Without any effort (aside from the heated hose) we can take overnight lows down to the mid-20s provided we get above 32F for a good portion of the day.

Above 80F and sunshine you’re in for a hot day. Worse, a hot night. Fans help. Eat the stuff in your fridge quickly.

We think with a composting toilet we could solve the black water problem which would get us down to 0F before we’d start having insurmountable interior pipe issues (then we’re back into skirting).

Of course if we didn’t have to work (problem three), we would encounter newfound joy in harmony with nature, following the seasons, the wind, humidity and elevation to be always in the right place at the right time. Summers at elevation, winters by the beach. The seasons problem is obviously user error. We’re doing it wrong.

You get it. For at least half the year weather is an issue.

Eight. Goods and services

When you live in an Airstream, visiting the doctor, dentist and finding things is more difficult. Not impossible. Just more difficult. That should be obvious.

And so that broadly wraps it up. Eight reasons why we think living in an Airstream is a bad idea.

Pessimistic? Quite the opposite. These problems are awesome! An order of magnitude fewer and less substantial than the problems we managed before we lived in an Airstream. If doing dishes is in your top eight list of problems, you’ve got something going for you.

Stream on.

– Anthony, Dauphin Island, Alabama