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The big cat is home

It turned out to be an all-day session in Plattsburgh yesterday.   Things started out well: Colin’s crew had my new catalytic heater installed fairly quickly.   At last we have an alternate source of heat in the trailer for boondocking.   The catalytic heater uses no electric power at all, and converts propane to heat with 100% efficiency, which is vastly better than the furnace.

catalytic-heater.jpg Despite being the largest “cat” heater I could get, the unit fits nicely in a spot right in the center of the Airstream.     It is hung on the wall, looking like a black monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey where it won’t interfere with traffic flow and uses a relatively “dead” space.   For a catalytic heater in a long trailer, a center location is ideal because the heat it produces needs to be distributed by natural air flow through the trailer.

It works like this: We will open a center window near the heater to let cool air from outside spill down to the floor.   This air will be warmed by the heater and rise up.   Slightly opened roof vents at front and rear will create a natural flow through the trailer and bring the warm air to all parts of the trailer.   We know this works because it’s exactly the system we used to keep our former Argosy 24 warm.

The heater we’ve chosen produces 9,000 btus, which is far less than the 30,000 btu furnace that came with the Airstream.   But that’s no problem, because a catalytic produces heat silently and steadily as long as it is “lit”, whereas the furnace cycles on and off.   We used a 6,000 btu model in our 24 foot trailer and it could always keep the trailer warmer than we needed.   Since these heaters don’t have thermostats (but rather just a Low-Medium-High dial), you regulate the temperature by opening the roof vents a bit more or less.

I’m a big fan of catalytics, having used them in two prior trailers with great results.   The only real disadvantages of the catalytic are that they produce moisture and consume oxygen.   For both problems you must have a window and roof vent partially open.   Nine square inches of opening is recommended for this particular model, which isn’t as much as it might seem. And as I mentioned, opening the window and vent is the way you distribute the heat anyway.

The one remaining potential issue is that the catalytic heat won’t reach the holding tanks. Most modern Airstreams come with ducts to direct furnace heat to the tanks, to prevent freezing in really cold weather. Using only the catalytic heater we run the theoretical risk of a frozen tank but in reality we’ve never camped in temperatures sufficient to freeze a tank.   An overnight low of 25 degrees (with above-freezing temperatures during the day) has never managed to freeze our tanks, and if the overnights are colder than that,   I know how to drive south.

There’s usually a payback due to Colin for the work he does on my trailer.   He is brilliant with mechanical things, and hopeless with computers and software.   I’m just the opposite, so when he fixes my trailer I try to pay back with something he needs.   In this case he wanted his email system fixed (on three computers) so it would send email reliably without getting “bounce” messages due to other people’s spam filters, he needed lake-champlain-northern-lights.jpgMicrosoft Office installed on one computer, an external wifi card installed on Susanne’s computer, and cable Internet installed in his house with a wifi router.   None of those are normally difficult tasks if you know what you’re doing, but Microsoft and the local cable company did manage to make everything harder than it had to be.   By the time we’d been to Best Buy, the cable company local office, the shop, and his home, and installed everything, it was 6 p.m.

lake-champlain-airstream-empty-ferry.jpgAt the end of it all I was glad to be rolling down the road again, headed to home base with leaks fixed and heater installed.   Lake Champlain was glassy calm and hardly anyone was on the ferry.   The Airstream just seemed to serenely float across the lake on the top of the ferry platform, enjoying its semi-private ride past cruise boats and jumping trout, while the sun slowly set over the Adirondacks. I’ve parked it in the usual spot and set up camp for the next two weeks.

5 Responses to “The big cat is home”

  1. Mark S. Hammer Says:


    Your heater looks great. What brand is it?? I am going to get one installed in my 2006 25′ Classic.


  2. Rich Says:

    It’s a Northstar Flameless 9000 that I bought from Vintage Trailer Supply.


  3. John Says:

    Rich I have a 6000 btu swedish model.I never knew how to properly distribute the heat.thanks again,John.

  4. Simon Jones Says:

    You did not say whether or not your Cat is vented to the outside.Thankfully mine is in my 29er–watch for noxious gasses accumulating in the trailer isf yours is not.

  5. Rich Says:

    Simon, I’m glad you brought that up. There’s a lot of misinformation on the Internet that claims or implies that unvented catalytic heater produce “noxious gases”. That’s not true of a normally operating catalytic heater. Unless it is starved for oxygen (to the point that you also would be having trouble for lack of oxygen), the heater will not produce any noxious gases.

    The output of a catalytic heater is water vapor and heat, nothing more. Keep a supply of fresh air for you and the heater as I described above, and it will operate safely as designed. We have used catalytics in three of our Airstreams over the years without any problems at all.