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Archive for Maintenance

Eugene, OR

The Airstream is moving again. This morning we towed it about two miles over to Skipanon RV & Marine to get the dead brake actuator replaced, and all went well. Joe the service guy shoehorned himself into the bedroom floor near the closet where the actuator is installed, and removed it without personal injury. That itself was impressive to watch, because Joe is a big guy and the floor area he had to lie on was extremely cramped. As he said, “I don’t get any smaller as the day goes on.”

warrenton-dead-actuator.jpgUPS dropped off the replacement unit around 10:30 and Joe had it wired in place within 30 minutes. The job was about 1.75 hours of labor in total, including a few minutes to swap our spare tire for the new one we bought this week. By noon we were on the road. It’s great when the plan comes together.

I have to acknowledge the behind-the-scenes contribution of David Tidmore at Roger Williams Airstream in Texas. David’s shop installed these brakes originally, and he made himself available to consult with me several times during this episode, offering advice and facilitating the replacement unit from Actibrake. That’s really great customer service.

There is one small problem remaining to be fixed. During the swap of the actuators, a tiny bit of air may have gotten into the brake lines. Skipanon doesn’t normally work on hydraulic brake systems, so they didn’t know how to bleed the lines. During testing of the system, I could tell that the brakes are not quite as aggressive as they were before, and I suspect air in the lines is the cause. The brakes are still very good and the trailer stops well, but it could be just a tiny bit better.

So we put some miles behind us and headed straight down to Eugene OR, where we can visit our friends at George M Sutton RV (an Airstream dealer).   I may have them bleed the brakes tomorrow, but mostly it’s a good excuse to drop in on George and Martha Sutton and say hello. George and Martha have been major supporters of Airstream Life magazine for over two years, and we’ve parked overnight in their lot every time we’ve been in Oregon. This is the third time we’ve visited with them.

By coming down to Eugene via I-5, we’ve made a conscious decision to skip the rest of coastal Route 101. Our next major destinations are in California, and the season is getting near the end for certain places at higher elevation. After a lot of discussion over the atlas, we made the tough call: we’ll skip the rest of the coast (most of which we’ve driven before) and speed up our travels through Oregon so we can get to California sooner.

If you’ve just started reading the blog in the past few months, you may be wondering about other great destinations in Oregon that we’ll be missing. Don’t worry, we’ve been to a lot of Oregon already. For a recap, see these blog entries:

Oregon Caves National Monument

Crater Lake

Bend and Sisters, OR

Medford, OR

Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area

I’ve discovered that just a few miles from here are the Monaco and Marathon Coach factories, and both offer factory tours. Tomorrow we’re going to drop in on at least one of them, while the Airstream is being serviced.

Waiting with Lewis and Clark

If you believe that all things must be scheduled and everything must fit the schedule, you may not be well suited for a full-time travel life. Likewise if your fear of the unexpected paralyzes you into inaction. To live this traveling lifestyle, I have found that we need to deal with changes in circumstance that arrive like snowflakes in January.

The brake actuator is a highly visible example but far from the only one. In the past two weeks we’ve probably had a dozen small unexpected changes to the itinerary due to weather, road closures, campground closures, mechanical problems, work considerations, and fuel prices. It’s all part of the game.

Today the news is not good. The actuator we have is a discontinued model. The replacement model is not a direct fit. It requires a new bracket and different wiring, and thus it should be installed by someone who knows something about the wiring of an Airstream. But the nearest Airstream dealer is George M Sutton RV in Eugene, about 150 miles away, which is too far for us to go without brakes.

None of the local service centers have ever seen this braking system before. The automotive shops don’t know 12v systems and the RV shops don’t know electric-hydraulic disc brake actuators. So we will have to find a way to telephonically transfer the knowledge of the original installers (Roger Williams Airstream in Weatherford TX) to the local RV shop. I’ve found a local company that is willing to attempt the task.

The other bad news is that the earliest we can get the replacement part is Monday. We were not planning to spend more than about 10 minutes here but it seems we will have plenty of opportunity to get to know the local area. We have three days to wait, and I don’t like to wait, so instead we will pretend we meant to stop in Warrenton and explore some of the local attractions.

Primarily this is the heart of Lewis and Clark country. There are no less than twelve historic sites related to the famous expedition, including the Washington state park we just left (Cape Disappointment) and the Oregon state park just up the road from here (Fort Stevens). We can’t visit them all in a three-day weekend, and Emma would go insane if I tried, but we can at least visit one or two.

There’s also a scenic drive down Rt 101 to Tillamook. We were going to do it with the Airstream, but with this delay it makes more sense to just go down for the day without the Airstream.

Just between you and me, however, I will admit that I really want to hitch up and go right now. I’d like to be at a beautiful beachside state park, which was the major goal of driving down Rt 101 through Oregon. I’d like to be heading relentlessly toward the warmer temperatures of California (even with the wildfires burning down in San Diego County). And as with last summer when the wheel came off the trailer, it’s hard to remain calm in the face of a mechanical problem that has no clear resolution at the moment. We can only trust that things will work out.

I think the Lewis and Clark historical sites will help with this. It will certainly put our current problem into perspective. Those guys in the Corps of Discovery basically floated, rode, and walked from what was (to them) the known world, into a completely foreign land of plants, animals, people, and incredible obstacles. They didn’t know when they’d be back, and they knew their chances of survival were unpredictable. The nearest analogue to that expedition today would be hopping in a space ship to Mars with a big pile of canned food.

So at those times when I feel like I’ve received a sentence to serve under “trailer arrest,” perhaps it will help to make a visit to the nearby site where the Corps stopped for a month to make salt. My worst food problem is finding a grocery that stocks those tasty maple cookies I like. Looking at it that way, things aren’t so bad after all.

A bad break

About a year ago we had a tough series of malfunctions, starting with a balky cell phone and failed hard drive, and culminating in a wheel coming off the trailer. At the time, it seemed like an odd string of bad luck coming all at once. And now, the luck seems to be returning …

It started with a tire that was wearing badly on one edge this summer. I figured we needed an axle alignment, but that procedure (completed about a month ago at the Airstream factory) didn’t arrest the unusual wear pattern. I’ve been eyeing that tire all month. Something hasn’t been right about it. So I finally removed it this morning.

The tire issue may not have been the axle after all. Upon removal, it looks like the tire may have suffered an internal failure (broken belt?) Still, it lasted over 20,000 miles. It’s the only tire failure we’ve had in 55,000 miles of towing that hasn’t been related to a road hazard (screw, nail etc).

Swapping out a wheel for the spare isn’t all that hard. I did the task this morning and we went on our way, across the Columbia River bridge to Astoria OR. But then we had another failure, and this one was far more serious.

Coming down the circular exit ramp from the bridge, in the rain, to a stoplight, I suddenly found that I didn’t have the usual braking power. It wasn’t a great place to discover this, but I managed to stop the rig without too much trouble before the stoplight.

At the time, I thought the trailer had been skidding on the wet road. But half a mile later at a rotary, I noticed the same lack of brakes. The brake controller reported that the trailer brakes were still connected, so again I thought perhaps I was imagining it. But just to be safe, we pulled into a Fred Myer parking lot for gas and quick check.

In the parking lot, I tried the manual lever on the brake controller. This is supposed to activate the trailer brakes. Nothing. I stopped the rig and pulled out the “breakaway switch” (an emergency device to activate the brakes if the trailer becomes disconnected from the truck). No brakes.

Well, they were working when we left. I know because I test them every day when I hitch up. I made some calls to the folks who installed the disc brake system, and after about 30 minutes of diagnostic work, we determined that the hydraulic disc brake actuator has gone away. It’s a goner. It is an ex-actuator. It has gone Tango Uniform.

So we’re facing a challenge here. No brakes means no towing. I gingerly towed the trailer about two miles to a nearby RV park and plunked it down. Here we shall stay, in Warrenton OR, until I can find a place locally that is competent to replace the disc brake actuator. I’m expecting some calls on Friday that should shed some light on this, and in the meantime it seems like an opportunity to get some things done. Eleanor went out this afternoon and bought a replacement tire, and as of this writing I have completed about 11 hours at my “day job”.

This little drama isn’t over for sure. I’ll have more reports on the problem and the solution in the next couple of days. But it isn’t a crisis. We have a roof over our heads and we are still home, even without brakes. There’s a nice state park nearby and the weather is expected to be nice for the next week. We’ll just have to postpone a few things we were planning to do in Oregon until it’s all worked out … and cross our fingers that nothing else goes wrong.


Ilwaco Marina, near Cape Disappointment State Park

Anacortes, WA

Time seems to be passing very slowly in the northwet, um, I mean “northwest”. Has it been two days? Three? Is this a mild winter or a cold fall? I’ve lost track of time and season. The visual and climatological cues I’m accustomed to don’t seem to apply. Is the rain stopping or starting? Both, it seems, and at any time of day.

A friend asked me today if we were going to attempt to flee the rainy weather. Unfortunately we really can’t. The northwest rain extends down to northern California at present, and east to Montana. If we wanted to race 500 miles south we could but we’d miss all the great coastal camping along Washington and Oregon. Even in the winter, the state parks along that route have a great reputation.


We are taking an intermediate stop in the San Juan Islands before going to the Olympic Peninsula tomorrow. There are a lot of state parks in the islands worth visiting, but for convenience we chose a city park, Washington Park in Anacortes for a one-night stop (full water/electric hookup, $21). In the summer this place is reportedly very busy, but after Labor Day nobody seems to come here despite the mild weather. We are one of only four families camped here, so we had our pick of spots.

The park is heavily forested with what appear to be cedars and Ponderosa pines. It’s mossy, damp, dark, and it smells of aromatic trees and decaying vegetation. Within a minute of arriving Emma found a large green slug moving slowly across the forest floor, which is orange from the decaying cedar. That entertained her for quite a while.

A short walk from our campsite is a short stretch of shore and a dock looking out toward a cluster of other islands to the northwest. The water is calm, clear and cold, with only the occasional ferry meandering by. I can imagine how nice this place must be in the summer with all the shade. Even now it has a sort of rugged grandeur and peacefulness. If this were summer, we’d spend a week exploring the islands.

Although the campground has full hookups, I’ve learned that one can’t take voltage for granted. Not all 30-amp outlets are created equal. Last summer I bought a digital voltage monitor, which is plugged into an outlet in the bedroom, specifically so I could identify marginal campground electrical systems before they had a chance to cause us problems.

The air conditioner in our Airstream is also a heat pump, and we use it as our primary heat source when the temperatures are above freezing and we have 30-amp electric. But it doesn’t like low voltage, and Dometic specifically warns against using it below 103.5 volts. At that level, we’d risk burning out the motor. Without the voltmeter, there’s no way to know.

As it turns out, this is the first campground we’ve hit since we left Vermont that has serious problems with voltage. With nothing turned on, the meter shows the voltage at an acceptable 118 volts. When the heat pump kicks on, it drops to 106 and then stabilizes at 111. A strong electrical system wouldn’t do that. It’s marginal enough that we have to be careful to turn the heat pump off before using the microwave, otherwise the heat pump might try to start and drive the voltage below 104, which neither appliance likes.

hitch-ball-1.jpgMaintenance has been on my mind lately. The Hensley hitch has been squeaking lately. That means the hitch ball needs lubrication. Normally you never see the hitch ball with a Hensley because it is permanently covered by the hitch head. To get to the ball, I leave the truck hitched up, loosen the weight bars and strut bars, and raise the trailer off the hitch head using the power jack.

This reveals the ball enough to lube it. I use Reese “On The Ball” hitch ball lubricant, which works well and doesn’t seem to attract dirt like grease does. Back down goes the hitch jack and the job is done for another year or so.

We were also overdue for an oil change for the Armada, which I got done at the local quick-oil place in Anacortes, and a pair of new wiper blades. The Armada will soon need its 60K major service interval and a set of tires, so I’m thinking ahead to cities in California where we may want to park for a few days and get all that done too.

Tomorrow’s plan is to ride the ferry to Port Townsend and eventually end up at Olympic National Park. It’s only 83 miles, so we’ll take our time and stop in a few towns. I don’t expect much cellular coverage once we get to the park, so the blog may drop out of sight over the weekend.

Hitch damage

Our tow over from East Berne NY to our current courtesy parking spot in Cherry Valley NY was only about 50 miles. That turned out to be a very good thing, since in the last four or five miles a part of our hitch broke.

Eleanor was following the Airstream in the Honda Fit. I heard a noise and felt a lurch, and then she called on the walkie-talkie, “Did you hit that piece of metal in the road?” My response was clueless: “Wow, I didn’t even see a piece of metal in the road” and I went on my merry way.

Upon arriving a few minutes later at the home of our hosts, I went to unhitch and found a shocking sight: the right-side weight-distribution bar was completely gone. A U-bracket which held it on had apparently snapped from metal fatigue. The sound I had heard, and the metal Eleanor had seen, was our weight distribution bar spinning away on the road surface.

Cherry Valley broken bracket.jpg
The remains of the broken U-bracket (bottom part missing)

We immediately went back to the scene and found the bar still lying in the road, a bit scraped on one side but otherwise in good shape. The bolts that held the bracket were still in place, as was the bottom side of the U-bracket that had failed.

Cherry Valley broken bar.jpg
The weight distribution bar with the rest of the U-bracket still bolted on

I called David Tidmore at Roger Williams Airstream for advice since he sold us the hitch initially, and then spoke to tech support at Hensley. The broken bracket will be replaced under warranty, but I volunteered to pay for overnight shipment ($33) for a pair of them so we could have it fixed by Wednesday. The tech support guy said that this sort of failure seems to be related to inadequate greasing of the hitch head. Apparently, lack of grease will put extra stress on the bracket, and since the bracket is the weak link, it breaks first.

I have lately been scrupulous about greasing our hitch every 500 miles as recommended, but I have to admit I was not as good about it in the first several thousand miles, and so this may have contributed to the problem. In any case, given the number of miles we put on the trailer, I think replacing both of these brackets annually may become part of our service routine. That should pre-empt any future failures as a result of metal fatigue.

We were lucky that the weight distribution bar didn’t do any damage as it exited the hitch. Apparently it slid under the trailer neatly. I slid underneath and inspected carefully, but could not find any visible damage to belly pan, gas lines, tires, or any other component. It could have been a much more expensive problem if that 20 pound steel bar had whacked anything as it went spinning away at 50 MPH. I’ve told Eleanor that if anything else shows up in the road she should let me know. I’ll stop next time to check!

The episode shows that the trailer is towable even with one bar missing, which is nice to know. I noticed no change in handling as a result of the loss of one weight distribution bar, although I certainly would not recommend doing this deliberately. With uneven weight distribution the tow vehicle could become dangerously unstable, and so we won’t be going any further until the new part is installed.

Cherry Valley good bar.jpg
The way it’s supposed to look!

Fortunately, we’re not in a hurry and our courtesy parking spot is really sweet. Wendy, a blog reader, set us up at her parent’s house next door in this quiet and cute little central NY town. There’s a heated swimming pool, barbecue grill, and cabana available for our use. Wendy’s dad is sharing his wi-fi with me, and the weather is just beautiful. They may have trouble getting rid of us.

I’ll blog about the historic downtown of Cherry Valley tomorrow, after we’ve had a chance to explore further.

Fridge defrosting and online banking

The hike was too much for Emma yesterday. I’m glad we called it off rather than completing the hike, because she spent the rest of the day lounging and still slept 12 hours last night. She awoke today to find gray drippy skies, cool temperatures, and Mom and Dad firmly parked in the Airstream.

Eleanor is still deep into Harry Potter, feverishly reading Book 4 at this point. As a writer, I feel her speed-reading of the series is an affront to J.K. Rowling. It took a year to write each book and Eleanor is gulping them down like goldfish crackers. If Eleanor continues at this pace, her head will likely explode. She admits to having Harry Potter dreams each night. But she’s under a magic spell of sorts and so she spent the morning reading about Harry and Hermione and Ron again.

Being a gloomy Monday, and since I am recharged with a week’s worth of sunshine and good times, I felt it was appropriate to get right back to work and deal with some ugly accounting issues that I’ve been postponing, related to our new bookstore accounts.

New bookstore accounts, you ask? Yes! The Fall 2007 issue of Airstream Life is going to be available in select Barnes & Noble, Borders, Hastings, and Books-A-Million bookstores as of Aug 22, 2007! That’s huge news for us, drastically broadening the reach of Airstream Life magazine, but it also means I’ve got more work to do each quarter, keeping track of the complex bookstore sales-return accounts.

Panton fridge coils.jpg

Eleanor finally put down Harry and got into her long-postponed task too, which was defrosting the refrigerator. Being full-timers, our refrigerator is never turned off. So eventually, it needs defrosting. This time we let it go a little too far. The coils were completely encased in ice (above photo shows them half-cleared), which really limits the ability of the refrigerator to cool itself.

Panton defrost.jpg

It turned out to be an ideal task for the day. The cool weather meant she could put everything in an ice chest for the hour or so it took to do the job, without worry of food spoiling, and with Emma paused by the cold virus, there wasn’t much else to do anyway.

I had another task related to full-timing, too. A few months ago I moved our company bank account because the bank we were using had completely inadequate online services. As I’ve mentioned, I run an entirely virtual business and am dependent on good online services from as many vendors as possible. Our former bank couldn’t give me online access to our business line of credit, couldn’t manage online transfers between accounts, couldn’t supply monthly statements that showed the names of payees (even when I used their bill pay service!), and in general has been about as hip to the Internet as Lawrence Welk. When I sent a payment to the line of credit at their bank using their bill pay service, it took five days to clear, because — get this — they cut a paper check and sent it to another branch of their own organization.

Today I went into the local branch to close the old accounts. I felt I needed to look the branch manager who opened the accounts for me several years ago right in the eye and tell him honestly but politely why I was switching. He understood my reasoning and sent me to the teller windows to get the job done. And here’s what happened:

1) The teller could not get a payoff amount for the line of credit. She didn’t have access to that information, even though I opened the line of credit at that specific branch.

2) The teller called the bank’s account closure department and THEY couldn’t tell us the payoff. They can only fax the payoff amount “within 24-48 hours”. (What if you don’t have a fax?)

3) They told me that once I got the payoff amount via fax, I’d need to come into the bank to actually make the payoff (or call it in). Can’t do it online, of course.

4) They couldn’t close the line of credit account, because I need to send in a “request” via fax referencing the “request number” I was given over the phone when I, uh, made the request. Got that?

5) They couldn’t close the checking account because it will take five days to clear the payment I’m making, even though that payment is from their bank to their bank.

So in the end, I got virtually nothing done as a result of my twenty minutes at the bank. I’m not mentioning the name of the bank out of respect for my friends who work there, but I’m sharing this story as an example. Those of you who want to work on the road: My recommendation is to have low tolerance for large businesses who still can’t provide decent online tools.

To those of you in the banking industry: Quit spending all your time merging with each other and start competing! My bank has been through half a dozen mergers in the past few years, and each time the changes they institute “to serve you better” haven’t done a bit of good. I don’t care how many branches you have. In the age of the Internet, for me, bank branch offices are about as useless as travel agent offices. Haven’t stepped into a travel agent’s office in over ten years… and considering how little I managed to accomplish as a result of my visit to the local bank branch, I suspect it will be a long time before I bother doing that again either.

Surprisingly, I came out of the bank amused rather than aggravated. I can only attribute this to the fact that we’ve had such a spectacular past week. Or maybe it’s just having extra space in the refrigerator …

Leak test

I am in a large part governed by the weather. The last week of dampness and gray was beginning to annoy me, but the weather changed in the middle of the night and suddenly everything was different. I could feel it even in my sleep.

Cool, dry air slipped in the open windows of the Airstream and the moldiness was swept away. The sheets of the bed became crisp and dry, and I rolled over just to feel them against my legs. I lay there for a while, looking up at nothing in the dark, just reveling in the thrill of the refreshing night air, and then turned back to dreams filled with fantasies of exploration.

Lake Champlain ferry Safari roof.jpg

It has been a beautiful day. I got up early and hitched the trailer and then loaded it up on the Charlotte-Essex ferry for an absolutely gorgeous ride across the lake to New York state. My mission today was to visit Colin Hyde, and see his elves work magic on Airstream trailers.

I had only two things on my list: First, to replace the standard plastic RV toilet with a new Dometic Sealand china toilet. The one that came with the trailer has had an intermittent issue where it lets sewer gas into the bathroom. In other word, it stinks. We’ve never been able to figure out exactly where the gas was leaking in, and it turned out to be easier to swap the whole unit for an upgrade than to fix it.

Plattsburgh leak test fan.jpg

The second item was to leak test the trailer. Colin says, “They all leak” and I tend to agree with him. There is no such thing as a trailer that has never leaked, despite what sellers claim on eBay. What they really mean is, “I don’t know where the leak is.” Even if your trailer doesn’t leak today, after a year or two of bouncing down the road things can be different, so it pays to preventively check.

The machine above is a big fan that sucks air in the roof vent and lightly pressurizes the interior of the trailer. The guys close the doors and windows, and then go around the trailer spraying a soapy water solution on everything and look for bubbles. It’s simple.

Plattsburgh step light leak.jpg

Our trailer did pretty well on the test. We found several places which formed bubbles, but some of them are not really leak points and so we ignored them. Three “real” leaks were found. The worst was on the plumbing vent (on the roof), and repairing it was a matter of removing the vent, trimming the vent’s gasket, and re-sealing it. The other two were on the patio light and the step light. They only needed re-caulking.

Plattsburgh patio light leak.jpg
Colin marks a leak at the patio light

The guys said our trailer was the least leaky one they’ve tested so far … remember, they ALL leak eventually. If you haven’t done a leak test, I recommend it as relatively cheap insurance. Just because you can’t see a leak doesn’t mean it isn’t rotting out your Airstream’s floor!

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