Things I Learned on Roadtrip #5

So… we’re getting there.  This is the first trip where things started being… genuinely comfortable.  We traveled over two thousand miles in nine days from Denver to Alamosa (via the mountainous highway 285) to ABQ to the Grand Canyon to Las Vegas and back.

All appliances function as they should.  We’ve got running water and drains, a working toilet (which is completely custom and water-less, though not quite perfected yet), a working dishwasher, kitchen cabinets for pantry storage, a powerful whole-house vacuum (a must-have with dogs), a dining table with seating, television with game console (N64!), propane heat, air conditioner, a Fantastic Van, and comfy beds.  The only major thing that’s missing is a water heater (and eventually the radiant heat system), but we didn’t really miss it on this trip, even though there were times when outside temps were below freezing (in a pinch, if you really need warm water to wash up with, you can always heat up a pot on the stove).

I still need a more permanent window covering solution (we’re currently using panels that fit inside each window cavity), but I’m getting close on that.

The Fewer Things You Have to Move for Access the Better

I made the dinette seating so you can keep bins below for “utility stuff” and other sundries (extension cords, bungees, lantern, tape, velcro, etc.), as well as access to the 12v system (batteries, converter/conditioner, and 12v fuse panel).  While it’s really nice having all that storage space, it really is a pain to have to move people, cushions, and anything else sitting on the bench before lifting the bench panels to get at the things you need.  And I found out quickly that I need to get at those things a LOT more often than I anticipated (don’t even think about keeping dog food under your seating!).

Future builds will definitely include a larger exterior-access utility bay for tools and other “heavy utility” things, and I am still working on ways to make the under-seating storage better without resorting to front-access panels/doors/drawers (I don’t like the look or the function of front access storage at feet level).

You Can Use a Lot Less Water Than You Might Think

Because I’m still dealing with freezing temperatures (March in the mountains), I have been testing out an auxiliary interior water tank system.  I found a nice looking 10 gallon, silver colored Thermos drink cooler (like you’d use at a Soccer or Football game).  I removed the bung/spout where you’d get your drink from, and replaced it with a valve that hooks directly to the water pump.  This trip was 11 days long (including two days in the driveway), and I only filled the tank once.  To be fair, we never ran the dishwasher, but I tested that before we left, and a full load of dishes only uses three gallons of water.  So teeth brushing, washing up (there was a lot of that with all the work on the Tow Vehicle), cleaning dishes, etc. didn’t use more than around 15 gallons for the two of us for 11 days in the desert (CO, NM, AZ, NV).  I’m sure we’ll use more in the summer, but that’s kind of the beauty of the auxiliary tank for winter use when temps are below freezing outside the Airstream.

Put a Conveniently Located Switch on Your Water Pump

After several stops where water was evident in the sink, on the countertop, and in various other places, it became apparent that it would be a good idea to shut off the water pump while driving.  At first I was just removing the fuse, but it’s a pain to access on a regular basis, so I decided to mount an on/off switch next to the kitchen sink to control the water pump.

Dogs Make a Huge Mess

There doesn’t seem to be any way around this. Towels and carpet are the only apparent “solution,” but they can only do so much (catch dirt and water to make it a bit easier to clean up).  A “buffer area” outside the door (under an awning with a rug) would be a good step, but we aren’t quite there yet.  Luckily I’ve got the whole house vacuum installed, so we could perform a “meaningful” clean up whenever we had an electrical hookup.  And the dogs had to learn to sleep on the floor on this trip.  There’s just no way 11 days on the road can be comfortable with two 80 pound, adventurous (meaning: covered in nature’s filth) beasts in your bed.

Your Refrigerator Might Not Be Closing All the Way

I couldn’t figure out why our fridge wasn’t getting cold enough.  I switched between propane, 120v, and 12v, but it just wasn’t getting much below 50 degrees F.  I tried cleaning the exhaust flue and making sure the exhaust fans were working.  I adjusted the propane flame.  I messed with the thermostat and the thermistor (the wire attached to the fins inside the fridge).  Nothing was changing the situation.  Finally I realized there was a small gap around the door and the door wasn’t sealing completely.  It turns out a plastic washer on the door hinge had worn away and the door was sitting slightly lower than it should have, thus it was rubbing against the bottom of the fridge and not closing completely.  This has also happened when items inside the fridge aren’t Tetris-ed perfectly.  Once I realized the door wasn’t actually closed (!!!) and fixed the problem with the washer hinge, our 50-year-old Dometic was back to keeping perfectly cool.

The Hensley Hitch is Massive Overkill for my Setup

With the ongoing issues I’ve had with the Hensley hitch (see other posts), I decided to use only the “back up hitch” on this trip (the kind with chain leveling bars and a small, friction-based sway bar).  It worked fine, and that included facing the huge trucks on Interstate 40 as well as crazy Arizona cross-winds.  The Hensley Hitch is still more of the “dream” while driving, but factoring in all the issues I’ve had with it’s inadequate design, plus the  added size and weight, I have decided that the standard WD Hitch works plenty fine for a 25ft. Airstream built to be a little lighter than factory issue… even when being pulled by my tiny Jeep Liberty CRD.  And the non-Hensley Hitch is certainly more dependable.

 

Things I Learned on Roadtrip #4

We recently took another 2,500 mile trip to Ohio and back for Thanksgiving.  Here are some important things I learned on this adventure…

Vibration is the Enemy!

This Airstream has never had shocks.  When I first purchased it and had the axles and breaks checked and the bearings packed, the RV dealership I took it to told me that shocks on an Airstream are pretty much worthless, and that the torsion axle would do all the work.  Since they were actually cutting their own profit by not selling me something, I believed them.  They were certainly wrong.  And on this trip, not only did we not have shocks, but one of our tires had tread that was actually coming off (though I didn’t realize this until later), so there was additional trailer vibration from an irregularly shaped tire.  When we arrived at our destination, I found that all of the storage drawers and bins were filled with a fine dust consisting of plastic and metal, many  things had “changed color” (the finish had rubbed off), and lots of things were broken.  Imagine turning on an orbital sander and tossing it in a drawer with your stuff for 12 hours.  It was exactly like that.

Storing Things in Bins Instead of Easy Access Cabinets is a Real Bummer

If you have to take a lid off of a bin every time you need something to cook with (bearing in mind that you have likely also set things down on top of said bin), it makes cooking and other activities arduous.  Being able to get at things quickly and easily, especially kitchen utensils, pots and pans, spices, etc., is going to make a HUGE difference in the livability of the Airstream.  Having a pantry and kitchen storage with drawers and/or shelves and a latching door will be one of the first things on the build list from now on.

A Thermostat on Your Heater is More a Necessity than a Convenience

Our Mr. Heater propane heater is fantastic for heating up the Airstream quickly, but leaving it on all night, even on low, makes things uncomfortably hot and wastes too much propane.  Thus, I usually turned the heater off right before bedtime, which meant waking up to a super-cold Airstream in the morning.  It was toasty and cozy under the blankets, but getting out of bed was paaaaainful. The portable propane heater is a good temporary solution for winter time heating, but a dedicated system (which will likely entail radiant hydronics) with a thermostat will definitely need to be installed.

Under Bed Storage is a Serious Inconvenience

I’ve got copious storage under the rear beds, but when the beds are made up (which ends up being pretty much all of the time on a trip), it’s a real pain to access that storage.  The under-bed storage is accessed from the front via either drawers or fold down doors, but having to move the bedding and mattresses and slide the extensions back before being able to get at the openings is way more difficult than I had anticipated.  I started leaving things “out” in the walkway area between the beds (under the sliding extensions), but even accessing that stuff was a pain.  I’m going to really have to rethink what goes under the beds and how we get at it.

Camping Toilets Suck

We are currently using a “camping toilet” since the permanent toilet hasn’t been installed yet.  It’s small and uncomfortable, and I HATE emptying it at the end of the trip (I puke every time!).  I am really looking forward to having a “big boy” toilet.

The Zeppelin’s Maiden Voyage

After installing a brake controller in the tow vehicle and then having the Airstream professionally checked for mechanical integrity, having the bearings packed, and having the electric brakes inspected (turns out they were brand new!), the maiden voyage of the Zeppelin has been completed: 1,200 miles from Indiana to Colorado, with minimal negatives to report.

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The biggest “bad” was that I lost one of my 40 pound aluminum vertical propane tanks.  Luckily no one was hurt, but it was brand new, full, and the replacements cost $200 (without the fuel).  The weird (lucky) thing is that only ONE tank fell out.  They were mounted correctly using the t-bar screw down holding system, but the failing point was a weak cotter pin holding the vertical bar in place (in retrospect, we should have used a bolt, perhaps even drilled a larger hole for a stronger cross-bolt, but the existing hole was really tiny, so we used a cotter pin that eventually failed).  After a bit of bumping (well… many hundreds of miles), the cotter pin began to bend and slip within the cylinder that holds the vertical support, thus allowing the tanks to rattle free.

I still can’t believe the tank fell in such a way that I didn’t even notice it was gone ’til I stopped for gas.  How did it NOT hit the tow vehicle or Airstream?!  How did it NOT hit another car (luckily there’s no one on the road in Kansas at 3am)?! How did it not EXPLODE in the absolute dark of the Black Kansas Night in some kind of Jerry Bruckheimer glory?!

At first I thought it must have been stolen by a meth head, but in going over the situation again and again in my mind I realize it was missing as soon as I pulled up to the pump, so there wouldn’t have been enough time for a theft.  Good to note though… these things should really be locked down so nobody can snag them.  They are pricey in the first place, and the larger 40 pound tanks are “extra-special” to crank heads, who use propane tanks to hold the anhydrous ammonia used in the production of their product.

I’m still not sure what the Airstream weighs sitting empty and gutted as it is (well, filled with parts and pieces but no cabinets, furniture, flooring, etc.), but hooked up directly to the Jeep’s ball hitch and using an electric brake (Tekonsha 90160 Primus IQ), it was pretty easy towing.  I averaged around 60-65mph and got nearly 18 mpg (oh, yeah, baby –I love my Liberty CRD!).  Late at night when the temperature dropped and the wind started blowing in KS, I could definitely feel the gusts, and I quickly learned how to prepare for passing a big rig or having one pass me, but it wasn’t too bad.  Looking forward to seeing how a good WD/Sway Control hitch changes the feel of the tow.

At one gas stop I took the turn too sharp and scraped the side of the AS on a yellow guard pole, but I noticed right away and the damage was minimal (I got most of the paint off the aluminum simply by rubbing it with a rag).  It was a good way (not too much damage) to learn the lesson of “PAY ATTENTION EVEN WHEN GOING SLOW” and maneuvering in tight spaces, and the only real pain I suffered was having the hill-billy with the three four wheelers on the trailer behind his pickup look at me with disdain (“How about a toothbrush, there, fella?”).

I also had a bit of overheating going on during the journey.  It never reached a point where any alarms went off, but the Jeep was certainly running hotter than normal, and I’m definitely installing the auxiliary transmission cooler I’ve been considering.

It was a little painful having a trip I typically make in under 18 hours take well over 22 (including my initial “stopping at every rest stop to check things out”), but once I’ve got company in the tow vehicle it’s going to be great!