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Archive for July, 2008

Setting up the Jam

We’ve arrived at Saratoga Spa State Park, site of the Vintage Trailer Jam this week. As always seems to happen when I’ve got a major event to attend, we had a glitch before departing. The trailer was hitched up and ready to roll at 8:15 this morning, but the Prodigy brake controller reported “N.C.” which means “no connection” to the trailer brakes.

We tried the obvious things, and determined that the trailer brakes were working fine, and the problem was in the truck. Since we just came out of the Nissan dealership the day before, and they were working on the trailer wiring, we assumed they’d mixed up something. So we unhitched and drove up to the dealership again, where they tested everything and could find no problem.

After an hour of that we gave up on the dealer and drove over to the local RV shop, where they understand brake controllers. Pete’s RV hooked up a testing unit and saw the problem, and in less than 10 minutes had it diagnosed as a bad 7-way plug on the truck. The factory-installed plug has seen three years of heavy use, and has been connected and disconnected hundreds of times. Something inside a sealed module seemed to have worn out, and it wasn’t serviceable. The tech at Pete’s popped in a new plug and we were good to go again. Minimum service charge plus parts: $65. By 11 a.m. we were on the road with the Airstream right behind us.

After the refrigerator failure, the turn/brake indicator failure, and the 7-way plug failure, I was starting to wonder if we’d make it to Saratoga at all, but we did, even through heavy rainshowers along I-87. By the way, the front compartment repair done in May by Colonial Airstream’s service department has been proven successful. After towing in heavy rain the compartment was snug and dry.

vtj-parking-setup.jpgToday is probably going to be the worst weather day of the week. The humidity flirted with 100% (meaning a hot fog formed in some spots nearby) and with partial sun beating down on us while we walked the grounds to mark parking spots.   Tomorrow a cold front is supposed to come through and bring us sunny and much drier air, which will be extremely welcome.

In addition to Brett and myself, Colin Hyde, Hunt Jones, and Don Collimore were here to get the pre-event jobs done.   We all sweated and guzzled water and wandered around the field trying to figure out how exactly 83 trailers are going to manage to get parked on level ground, reach the power lines, and depart later without crunching into each other or falling in one of the many massive gopher holes that dot the field.   Colin had made a plan months ago but there were significant logistical barriers he had not accounted for (a couple of large muddy spots, low overhanging branches, etc).   It was not the finest hour of any of our lives but we did manage to get it all worked out.   I hope.

We’ll find out tomorrow when 38 trailers are expected to arrive.   Those are our “early birds,” many of whom are also volunteering to help with the rest of the Jam.   With their help we might even survive this thing.   It’s a good thing that many of them are friends from previous Airstream rallies.   They’re more forgiving.

vtj-colin-awning.jpgThis evening after we’d done what we could to get ready, we pulled my Airstream and Colin’s over to the official site and parked ourselves in two of the most difficult spots.   We’ll be the last ones out, so it makes sense for us to take the most “buried” spots.   Once the other trailers arrive we won’t be able to leave.   We even set up awnings and broke out a generator for some air conditioning.   That’s Colin wrestling with   his vintage awning at right.


The last minor issue of the day was the arrival of the NY State Park Police, who apparently didn’t get the memo that we were going to be camped here.   Fortunately the officer was willing to listen to Colin’s explanation and didn’t pursue it any further than asking some questions. We are still here and nobody is trying to move us out.   That’s good because tomorrow this empty field is going to be dotted with a lot of vintage trailers, and on Friday we expect to have 83 parked all over the place.   Saratoga Springs State Park may never be the same.

Pumped and ready

When there’s no time for creativity or Grand Verbiage, I just write what I’m thinking. This is one of those posts, because it is the eve of the Vintage Trailer Jam, an event I’ve been working on for several months, and the past week has been too busy to even talk about. This is just a brain dump.

Tomorrow morning Brett & I will pull out around 9 a.m. We’ve got everything done, and so tonight we can relax. We might even get a chance to see the last half of the movie we started last night. Eleanor and Emma will be pulling out in the morning as well, but for a separate trip to visit family in the Boston area.

The events leading up to our departure have been so complex that I can’t begin to tell the full story. But at this point, the logistics are worked out, everything is being shipped or delivered, checks have been cut and contracts signed. It’s enough to say that we met a dozen different deadlines and are still managing to have a good time.

The Armada almost became the straw that broke the camel’s back. In Plattsburgh last week we discovered something was wrong with the Armada that caused the right turn-brake signal not to work. The local dealer finally got to it today. Their tech spent two hours confirming that all the necessary components were working, but the signal still wasn’t being sent. It looked like we would have to tow down to Saratoga Springs tomorrow without a functioning right brake/turn signal, but then after 2.2 hours of shop time, it was discovered that a connector beneath the carpet was “bad”. At 5 pm today we got the Armada back, just in time to wash it, fill it up with gas, and hitch it up to the Airstream.

OK, so we’ve got a new refrigerator full of food, two full tanks of propane, a full tank of gas, three new Yamaha generators, 24 wooden stakes, two bicycles, $75 worth of beverages, three cans of spray paint, 100 copies of Airstream Life, and a dozen hats. The holding tanks are dumped and the tires are pumped. We’re ready. I’ll report daily from the Trailer Jam with photos.

A few random notes:

(1) We met a very nice couple on the ferry from Essex NY to Charlotte VT, namely Mary and Dave. They were on vacation, roaming upstate New York and Vermont. It turned out that they are Airstream fans (future owners). I wouldn’t be at all surprised to meet them again when they are ready to get their Airstream.

(2) The Honda Accord is already down in Glens Falls NY awaiting us. It chewed up another set of wheel bearings on the right front wheel and is currently awaiting parts for a warranty repair. Apparently the folks who replaced those bearings in Tampa a couple of months ago did something wrong (possibly used a wrong part). We’ve gone through extensive machinations to discover this, and get the car to the nearest outlet that can do the repair under warranty. No word on when it will be fixed since they are still trying to figure out what was done wrong, but I hope to pick it up while we are in nearby Saratoga Springs.

One lesson has emerged: on a car this old, when you bring it in for repairs, bring your own parts too. Too many repair shops don’t want to have to go hunting online for rebuilt parts for a 25-year-old car.

(3) With extreme humidity yesterday and today, but temperatures only in the 70s and 80s, I can now confirm that yes, it is not the heat, it’s the humidity. Fortunately, a cold front is expected to pass through tomorrow night. We should have excellent weather for the Jam.

Pre-Jam task jam

 charlotte-lori-emma.jpgThe week before a major Airstream event is often a busy time for me, and this week is an exceptional one even by that standard.   That’s because this time the event is one which I’m co-organizing, and that means a lot of last-minute details to be managed.   Add in my attempt to start rebuilding the entire interior of our 1968 Airstream Caravel, two guests staying in the Airstream with us (Brett and now Lori, who flew in last night), last-minute work on the Fall issue of the magazine, and then the complete & sudden failure of our refrigerator … well, you can see how things are a bit hectic.

The day Brett arrived by air, I picked him up in the morning and we immediately headed over to the hardware stores to get supplies for the Jam.   Then we dropped by Sterling Hardwood to pick up the Caravel project wood (11 sheets of plywood and lots of lengths of ash hardwood cut to various sizes), and by the time we were done unloading at 4 p.m., I noticed the bleeding refrigerator.


Yesterday was about the same.   At Colin Hyde’s shop we got the new Dometic refrigerator installed, which is a major relief and a substantial upgrade.   The new refrigerator has about 25% more useful space inside, and more importantly, it isn’t bleeding coolant.

While we were there, somebody noticed that the trailer’s right brake and turn signal wasn’t working.   We isolated this to the Nissan easily, using a light testing rig that Colin’s guys made up.   You can see it in the picture.   Digging around the Armada, we discovered there isn’t a specific fuse for the trailer lights but there are relays, which we couldn’t test.   So off it goes to the dealer on Tuesday.

We also discovered that there’s a Technical Service Bulletin which is possibly related to this issue, involving the need for a new Body Control Module (think, “computer”).   We’ll find out on Tuesday if the cause is simple or not, but either way it needs to be ready to tow to the Jam on Wednesday.

Then we hauled the Airstream back to Vermont, dumped the tanks and refilled the propane at a nearby campground, and got parked again by 7 p.m.   After dinner and early this morning, I squeezed in a little time to review layouts for the magazine and reply to email.   Late last night Brett went to the airport to pick up Lori and then we were four in the Airstream (with Emma sleeping in the house with my parents).

Today we took a break, mostly.   We had Colin and his son over for the Fourth of July, under spectacular clear skies and fine temperatures.   The humidity has broken at last, and the thunderstorms have relented.   We got the sort of weather that makes Vermonters forgive the state for the awful conditions they’ve experienced lately.   So a little boating, a lot of conversation, a grilled dinner, and a late sunset have given us a nice break from the pressure of being ready for next week.   We have a long way to go before we can rest easy, but I think we’ll be ready for the Jam by Wednesday.



If you walk past your fridge compartment and see this yellow stain, what should you think?

I’ll give you a hint. The yellow stuff is the refrigerant that normally circulates through the refrigerator’s cooling unit like blood through your veins. So if you saw someone bleeding like this, what would you think?

You’d probably think what I thought: “Uh-oh,” followed by several other unpleasant things. Because this is not a Band-Aid type of injury. This yellow liquid pouring from the refrigerator compartment is more akin to a major chest wound. For the refrigerator, it is fatal.

This morning I left around 10 a.m. to pick up Brett at the airport. He’s staying with us a few days before we head off to the Vintage Trailer Jam next week. We spent the day picking up supplies we’ll need at the Jam, had a nice lunch out at Henry’s Diner (a Burlington Vermont fixture for 80 years), and also picked up the wood for the Caravel project.

When we returned, I glanced at the refrigerator compartment and found the grim sign above. Our refrigerator had suddenly blown an artery and died while we were away.

It didn’t just spring a little leak like most refrigerators do when they are beginning to lose it. Those leaks leave a little residue of yellow powder, which is the dried residue of the coolant. Ours failed catastrophically with a big leak all at once.

I know it happened suddenly because I’ve been checking our refrigerator compartment weekly. I’ve known for a few weeks that our refrigerator was included in a recall by Dometic, for a problem that which is said to affect 0.1% of refrigerators in the recall. The issue is that a fatigue crack can form in a coolant tube near the burner. When running on propane, it is possible for a fire to start, and apparently this happened to a few refrigerators. Dometic’s website advised us to shut off the refrigerator (not an option for us), or at least run it exclusively on electric until the recall service could be performed.

vermont-fridge-leak2.jpgWe’ve been running our refrigerator only on electric since we arrived in Vermont, but to be safer I have been checking the refrigerator weekly for tell-tale yellow signs of a leak. Up until today, I saw nothing. And then this.

My plan was to have the recall service done at Colin Hyde’s shop immediately after the Trailer Jam. But time was against me on this one. Interestingly, if I had gotten the recall done, it would have made little difference. The recall doesn’t prevent the crack from forming (nor prevent a leak from occurring). It simply contains any leak that might occur, to prevent a fire.

At this point the refrigerator is officially dead. We got three years of full-time use out of it, which is less than I would have liked, but still quite a lot of use. We almost never turned it off. It can be brought back to life with an expensive repair, probably in the form of a replacement cooling unit. But instead of fixing it, we are going to install our spare refrigerator. (Yes, we own a spare refrigerator. Doesn’t everybody?)

Honestly, it just happens that through a series of events far too complex to explain here, we happen to own a brand-new Dometic NDR1062 refrigerator and it has been sitting up in Plattsburgh waiting for us. It’s the same size as our existing refrigerator, but has more interior space due to an advanced insulation design. We had one in our 1977 Argosy (“Vintage Thunder”) and loved it. I had been planning to upgrade our refrigerator eventually and just never got around to it.

We are lucky that our dear friend Colin is willing to take an hour or two out of his extremely busy pre-Jam schedule and install the new fridge on short notice. So we’ve mopped up all the leaking coolant, off-loaded all the food, and of course shut down the refrigator. Tomorrow Brett and I will tow the Airstream up to Plattsburgh and help Colin do the swap. If all goes well, we’ll be back in Vermont in the afternoon, with a couple of cold cans chilling in the new refrigerator.

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