Friday, December 30, 2016


This gets my vote for Worst Class B Maintenance Job Ever.  Seriously, I'd rather dis-mount the black tank.
When you see the likes of this, you know you've got trouble, and you need to deal with it pronto.  That caulk is cracking and pitting and is past its useful lifespan - it needs to be re-done.  This is one of the four "feet" that support our roof rack, which in turn, supports our solar panels, so these connectors must be maintained in tip-top shape. 
The question has been asked previously on Air Forums... what's the best way to tackle removal of the old caulk and application of the new?  There were a variety of responses.  Here's a few observations of mine.
The main tools I used were blunt-nosed pliers, a metal putty knife, and a plastic putty knife.  General rule of thumb: Use the plastic blade right up until the point where you are forced to use the metal blade.  The plastic is preferable in that it will not scratch the roof, but for much of this work, only the metal will be strong enough to free the existing caulk. 
I suggest that this job be done by a male of the species, if possible.  I'm not saying that to be sexist - just realistic and practical.  Obviously there are huge physical strength differences between males and females.  In my DIY experience, nowhere do those differences manifest more starkly than in the hands.  My husband is not a husky guy, and yet still, his hand strength is easily twice mine.

In our case, though, I've been doing a lot of smaller projects single-handedly (pun intended) because I don't want my husband to be diverted from our lithium battery retrofit.  If he gets diverted, we'll simply never get it finished.  So I had to suck it up on this re-caulk.
If you are lucky, some of your old caulk will come off in one piece.  But in numerous places on our rig, it was a painstaking process of cutting and yanking tiny fragments one by one.  Awful job.  

And as far as I know, most of the work has to be done by brute force.  There isn't really a product on the market that can chemically penetrate the caulk, which was designed to be impenetrable in the first place.  This product called Marine Forumula DeBond was recommended to me by one of my marine fabricator clients.  But it can't be used for wholesale removal - just for residue removal.  
A special note regarding roof appurtenances that may be underlain by caulk, not just surrounded and encapsulated by it.
Our roof rack "feet" are an example.  Airstream built up the area beneath each foot with a sealant layer.  I trimmed away the old excess that was surrounding that original layer, so that a new protective layer could be added on top.  This seemed like a sensible way to proceed because that underlayer was still intact and in good shape.

In the course of this, I did not spray the DeBond product directly on the exposed edge of the underlayer because I was worried that would seep underneath it and break down the underside of it.  I sprayed the DeBond onto a paper towel and used the towel to wipe the surrounding surfaces to get them as clean as possible for the new application.  You can see how nice it looks after doing that. 
The most outrageous issue that I uncovered on our roof was this.
It appears to be yet another example of Airstream's legendary build quality (I'm being sarcastic).  This is the black and gray tank vent, stripped of all layers of its caulk.  
It appears as if Airstream simply smashed an ill-fitting vent into the roof as best they could manage.  It was too large to be set properly between the Sprinter roof ribs even after they cut down the left side of it, so they just forced it like this, shattering much of the plastic base in the process.  Obviously we have to deal with replacing this with a more suitable vent, but God knows what we're going to find once we pull this one off.  That could spiral into a massive project in itself, and right now we don't have time for it.  So we temporarily re-caulked the whole mess as-is, to be sure that it's waterproof (the vent sits directly above the bulk of our electrical system so it absolutely cannot leak), and we will revert to the job of wholesale replacement when we get the time.

Now for a word about the Fantastic fan, and the Ultrabreeze cover that we put on ours.  If you initially decided that you don't really need a cover on your own Fantastic, what I have to say here just might change your mind.
Here you see the unexpected benefit, the unadvertised special, associated with having a Fantastic cover in place.  The bottom lip of the cover shields the Fantastic caulk line from a lot of environmental exposure (see this blog post for cover installation instructions).  As a result, the caulk in that area breaks down more slowly.  This layer of self-leveling product was added by the previous owner more than two years ago.  Compare the appearance of this to the "foot" of the roof rack shown in the very first pic at the top of this blog post.  Both applications were done on the same day, and yet look at the difference in the integrity of it now.  
I estimate that, when the time comes, it's going to take me at least a half day's work to strip and re-seal this Fantastic.  Given that this re-caulking process must normally be done every year or two, I'm estimating that having the cover in place will save me a couple of days of work over the term of our Interstate ownership.  It's already saving me a half day's work right now, because I don't have to do it yet.  That fact alone makes the $50 price of the Ultrabreeze cover an absolute, utter no-brainer.

So basically my Fantastic-related work yesterday was limited to removing the Ultrabreeze cover, visually inspecting the caulk lines, and cleaning both the Fantastic and the Ultrabreeze before re-installing the Ultrabreeze.
The Ultrabreeze hadn't been removed since its initial installation 18 months ago, and it was filthy in there.  I always haul a small pail of wash water up onto the roof as I'm working up there.  This is what it looked like after I got done cleaning the Fantastic, the Ultrabreeze, and two of the three solar panels I could reach from amidships. 
The solar panels were absolutely filthy.  Remember, we mostly store our rig indoors, and still, they looked like this.  I'm going to research waxes or some other product-compatible application that might help these to repel dirt because this kind of build-up simply has to degrade panel efficiency.  
Now for a word on the re-caulking process.  Forum users had recommended a product called Sikaflex 221, so we tried it.  Or rather, my husband tried it, because by the time I got done stripping the caulk, I was physically exhausted and didn't want to deal with it.

Sikaflex 221 caused my husband to literally utter more expletives than I've ever heard come out of him in a single interval during our 9-year marriage.  It was very difficult to manipulate, especially given that we were both very tired.
Oh, this is waterproof, alright, but it's also uglier than sin.  This was one of my husband's experimental applications.
You've heard the expression "friends don't let friends drive drunk"?  Well, an analogous expression is "wives don't let football-obsessed husbands try to do automotive work after they were up until 2:00 a.m. watching the Texas Bowl and then had to report to work by 7:00 a.m. that same day and now it's 4:30 p.m. after an exhausting day at work."  This is a great reality-check for people doing DIY who also have full-time jobs.  I opened up the roof yesterday because the weather was finally optimal for it - in order to keep the lithium project on schedule, I had to get the roof re-caulked because it becomes doubly important that we don't spring any water leaks.  And I knew how bad that existing caulk had become.  And Houston's weather simply didn't cooperate in the month of December, so I had to seize the opportunity when it became available to me.  Which was bad timing from other perspectives, but one plays the hand one was dealt.

Nevertheless, exhausted or not exhausted, I still don't know how best to manipulate this Sikaflex product, which is not self-leveling and which has the consistency of extra-sticky chewing gum.
We are going to have to remove and re-do some of this mess.  This is the wet bath vent, and my finger is pulling yesterday evening's bead of caulk away from it because by this time it's only half dry.  
One potential strategy that occurred to me based on the photo directly above was as follows:  What if I apply the Sikaflex, then let the outer skin harden a little bit, and then push the bead more firmly into place?  The problem with trying to manipulate it straight out of the tube is that it just turns into a sticky, stringy mess.  It's not like a bead of household caulk where you can just take your finger and smooth the fresh wet bead into place.

Anyway, those re-caulking experiments are forthcoming, and in the meantime, let me just say... lessons learned.  A few of them, anyway.  I'm sure there are more to come, but hopefully they'll be a little less painful than the one associated with stringy Sikaflex.

Monday, December 26, 2016


We need to keep carrying these danged things because we do most of our overnights in boondocking locations that are never made-to-order flat, like a paid campground space would be.  But they take up one heck of a lot of precious Class B storage space under our couch.
The space-hogging objects of my love-hate relationship:  Fourteen Valterra stackers, two wheel stops, and two chocks. 
It takes all fourteen stackers to level our Airstream Interstate in our driveway.  However, I recently completed these four wooden ramps that were custom-made for home use with the Interstate - you can see one of them under the wheel in the pic above.  For that reason, I no longer need to keep hauling out the Valterras every single time we do driveway DIY - I can stash them and use them only when we set up camp.  For that reason, it was time to free up some interior space by finding most of them a new home.

To make a long story short, I searched the entire under-chassis area for the best nook for them.  I initially also thought about putting them on the roof, but my husband vetoed that idea.  This is what I came up with as best contender space for adaptation - on top of two of the outriggers that support our Class B's extensive OEM running boards and ground effects.
I've learned from experience that, if I want to sell my husband on an idea, I first need to produce convincing proof of concept.
Stackers and wheel stops balanced on two yard sticks for the purposes of illustration to show that they could be made secure there, and that they are far enough away from the muffler so that heat should not be an issue.
Spousal approval secured, I proceeded with design.
We had eighth-inch angle iron and steel flat bar left over from our custom hitch carrier project.  I picked out some pieces to fashion into a shallow tray. 
My very first metal saw cut.  I'm getting more comfortable with this stuff.  Not necessarily more skilled, but more comfortable. 
Here's what the tray looked like dry-fit, after I got done cutting the pieces.  It weighs about 8 pounds.  
My husband is focused primarily on our ongoing electrical re-wire and lithium battery retrofit (blog posts to come), and I did not want him to divert to this little project of mine for one minute longer than necessary.  Eventually I will be able to do the welding - I'm convinced that anyone who knows how to sew can also learn how to weld properly.  The whole metalworking process is very similar to working with textile - it's just that the "textile" is one hell of a lot more durable than your average broadcloth.  But in the interest of expediency, I did every phase of the project, including set-up and take-down, from concept through execution, except for the actual welding, which took about 30 minutes of my husband's time.  And then he spent another 30 to 45 minutes helping me to re-work some zip tie holes, which I'll describe a bit further on.  

After the welding was completed, I used an angle grinder to obsessively deburr the workpiece.  This tray doesn't have to look pretty because nobody is going to see it under the chassis, but few things irk me more than reaching to grab something and getting sliced by a steel hangnail somewhere.  It has to be as smooth as a baby's butt.  
I just found the most a propos meme of all time.  With our daughter out of town visiting other family and with our own Christmas observance having taken place a few days ago, I did almost all of this project on Christmas Day 2016.  And yes, right now my welds suck.  But I'll get better with more practice.  
After deburring, there came a couple of coats of Rustoleum.  And then came the attachment to the outriggers, at which point arose the first of two project confounds.  With DIY, there are always unforeseen project challenges that must be overcome, no matter how small the project.
Do you see where my finger is pointing at the top of the photo?  That is a down-dropped curved surface of the chassis.  For as long as I was loading and unloading stackers on two Lowes wooden yard sticks, that curve was not a problem.  But as soon as I added the "lip" around the shallow tray, a clearance issue manifested.  For that reason, I'm now anticipating reaching under and loading / unloading the stackers from the aft end rather than the fore, which is great if you're a left-handed person.  Maybe not so much if you're a rightie.  But I can live with it.  
The second issue took a bit more work to resolve.
I was originally planning to attach this tray to the outriggers in a very straightforward, fuss-free manner.  However I decided that my original plan wasn't sufficiently secure.  Therefore, I needed to drill holes through which I could run strong zip ties.  Here I am marking the hole positions with the workpiece in place.  
I said to my husband, "If I were really good at this, I would have anticipated the need for these holes, measured them in, and drill-pressed them even before this thing was welded."  He sputtered and replied, "If you were that good, you would no longer be a DIYer.  You'd be a professional and people would be paying you a lot of money."
You know the drill.  
See, this is what I mean.  Each zip tie will go around the structural member of the outrigger.

Ladies, if you do this kind of work, forget about manicures.  It's just not possible.   
My husband helped with a triangular file to square up the zip tie sides of the holes so that they'd be a little less likely to cut into the edges of the zip ties, as a circular hole would tend to do.  And I used a Dremel tool to smooth those edges a bit. 
After we got done punching these holes, I had to repeat my initial de-greasing of the workpiece and re-paint the scuffed up areas, and the new holes.  Labor, labor, labor.  DIY always takes more time than it seems it should.
It's important to get paint into the inner surfaces of the holes.  
These are the zip ties I used.
Over-spec'd at 120 lbs., but the stackers were going to be sliding by them, so I wanted them to be durable.  I cut off the long ends with wire cutters.  
In order to protect the 8 stackers (two groups of 4) from road grit, I wrapped them in scraps of tarp the way a grocer might wrap a couple of pot roasts in butcher paper.
I had the tarp scraps left over from the dirt cover I made for our hitch carrier.  Each piece was around 33 inches by 22 inches. 
Here's a close-up of the rack as attached to the outrigger by zip tie, and this pic reveals why I was so keen on using zip ties.  I have a large job ahead of me to sand down and re-paint the outriggers themselves, as they are rusting after a decade of environmental exposure.  When the time comes to do that job, I'll just snip the zip ties, remove this apparatus, and have unimpeded access to both the outriggers and the underside of the fiberglass ground effects, which I would like to clean and seal with a protective coating as well.
Into every Class B life, a little corrosion will fall.  Trust me on that one. 
EDIT MARCH 4, 2017:  I describe cleaning and refinishing of these grounds effects supports in this post.  Here below is a pic showing one of the pieces sealed using silver-colored POR-15, which is wonderful stuff.

We interrupt this blog post for a picture of our expressive dog, whose sour face indicates that she's sick and tired of me spending my time underneath this camper van when I really should be taking her on interesting walks instead.
"When are you going to get tired of crawling under that damned thing?!" 
This has to be the most un-glamorous money shot of all time.  Remember, it's the underside of a ten-year-old van.  It's a big rough looking.
The 8 stackers are wrapped like pot roasts and then held to the tray with bungee cords.  The two wheel stops are cinched in place to the tray with heavy velcro.  This represents a significant reclamation of interior cargo space. 
For the time being, I might keep the six other stackers inside the van for those times when I just need a quick, shallow lift in a Cracker Barrel parking lot, two stackers high, an application which doesn't call for wheel stoppers.  But for those other times when the Earth is hell-bent on being inconveniently curved, the rest of this kit will be here under the chassis waiting to be deployed as needed.
Well, I do, now.  Sort of.  

Sunday, November 27, 2016


It's the principle of the thing.  Money is not trash.  Money should not be landfilled.  It's not a matter of guilt-tripping or green-shaming, as in, "Shame on you, neighborhood, for going to all the trouble to segregate and recycle cardboard cereal boxes but then you haul countless tons of wood to the dump."  I see no merit in those approaches because they are not required.  This is simple common sense.
Some people see construction waste generated during replacement of a subdivision perimeter fence.  I see opportunity.  
I always take pictures of waste heaps before I pick them.  That way, if anyone accuses me of stealing, I can show them the pictures confirming that the materials I took were discards, not part of the construction stock.  In all my years of trash picking, nobody has ever accused me of stealing, though.

The opportunity in that waste heap shown above was the opportunity to finally upgrade these.
This is an absurd Valterra stacker configuration, but I need maximum height while we are working on our Interstate in our driveway.  I stack our Interstate because I hate feeling like one of my legs is longer than the other, as is the case when it's parked on the driveway pitch, un-leveled.  So I stretch these stackers to maximum height.  But it's a P.I.T.A. to break out all those little pieces and assemble this configuration every single time I park.  So I needed a dedicated set of ramps to keep in our garage, such that the stackers could remain in the Interstate. 
My design was dictated by our relative lack of woodworking capacity.  We have plenty of metalworking equipment, such as everything we used to fabricate our custom hitch carrier.  Not so much for wood.
Just this one miter saw.  We don't even have anything to put it on, so I assume yoga leg postures whilst sitting on the floor in front of it. 
Here's what our chosen configuration looked like (I say "our" because my husband had input on the design).
There are many different ways to accomplish this, but here are my main measurements, remembering that ours is a Sprinter 2500, not a 3500, so we do not have to account for dual rear wheels:
Bottom pieces: 29" long
Middle pieces:  All six are 10.75" inches long, with three turned perpendicular to provide structural integrity.
Top pieces: 19" long
Wheel stop: 10.75" across.
After I got done cutting lengths, I made the slope cuts by turning the miter saw to its maximum angle, which was approximately 50 degrees.
The lengths as stated leave about 3.25 inches (give or take) setback on each row.  This makes for a fairly shallow grade which really helps with the ease of driving aboard these contraptions, but let me not get ahead of myself.
Here's a tip:  Rather than relying solely on measurements, I find that it's a lot less fatiguing to the brain to simply eyeball where possible.  So in creating the second ramp, I measured my cuts but then did final adjustments by simply comparing to the first unit.   
These are the screws I used.  They are coated, which made them very easy to use.  They went into the wood with a minimum of pre-drilling (we also don't have a hammer drill at this point).  
The not-quite-finished products.  The two-by-fours are still very wet, so I cannot paint them yet.  I will paint them so that they look a little less hillbilly.  Our subdivision is not really the kind where one sees a lot of vehicles on ramps, so it's best to make these as nice looking as possible. 
Moment of truth.  Notice I ran a carry rope through the gap.
Money shot.
With these, the Interstate is now almost perfectly level in our driveway. 
So I diverted some virgin lumber from the landfill and probably saved us forty or fifty bucks over the cost of a commercial alternative, such as these Rhino ramps.  More importantly, I built some additional skill and exercised some of the gray matter in my aging cranium.  To my recollection, this was my first woodworking project.  I may have chopped a board here or there, but historically that kind of work has all been done by my husband.  He never touched the saw on this one.  And now I'm better prepared for our next project.
Didn't spend anything on this camping support project.  Which is good, because we need the investment elsewhere, like on our upcoming lithium conversion, which is still in progress.  

Thursday, October 27, 2016


A work meeting took me to the global oil and gas powerhouse known as the Permian Basin  (722 million barrels in proven reserves, but according to figures quoted recently, that figure could be well into the billions, with the Permian possibly becoming the world's largest oilfield as new fracking-related discoveries are verified).

Along the way, I managed to snag a couple of personal overnights at two state parks that could hardly be more different from each other.  Here's a photo tour of these unique places.
"Watch for sand on road"?  Ya think?!

There's almost as much money in West Texas as there is sand.  I was impressed by the Monahans Sandhills visitor's center - it had to be a seven-figure facility in an otherwise-underfunded state park system where some visitor's centers are little more than converted shacks.  
There's some sand on the road.  I watched for it, eh?  
The visitor's center rents plastic disks that kids use to toboggan down the sand dunes.  It's hilarious.  
By the way, I've left these photos almost entirely unprocessed.  You'll see the tones shifting back and forth from yellows to pinks to blues as sun angles and the compass directions of the photos changed.  That's part of what made this place unique - different colors manifested in every direction I turned.
It was a Monday night in late October - there were a couple of ham radio enthusiasts towing Casitas and three other miscellaneous dispersed campers, but the park was almost empty and I had this branch of the campground all to myself.  
It was very hot while the sun was still high, to the point where I plugged into shore power and ran our roof-mounted air conditioner for several hours, which is something I rarely do.  But as the sun sank lower in the sky, we went out to play.

Incidentally, this is the only state park I have ever seen that does not have defined trails.  The reason for that should be obvious.  Even if trails were designated, the sand would simply swallow them up.  So the humans do just as the animals - they walk wherever they please.
I've never happened upon a better track-viewing place in my entire life.  The density and diversity of unseen life was just amazing. 
Feline, I think. 
Big Bird, perhaps the one from Sesame Street?  Because what else could be out here?  Normally if I saw a bird track that large, I'd guess some kind of heron, but there's no standing water in this part of Texas.  
With tracks there are scents, and our dog reveled in the complexity of it all. 
Texana shot of the old windmill in the park, for contrast.
And the old section house, which is now rented out as a group lodge. 
There's a new term for me - "sand-bogged".  Like a physical analog to "mind-boggled".  
As the sun got lower and lower, the colors intensified.
We could have done without the color contribution from the inversion layer, however.  That air pollution you can see in the distance was originating with the Midland-Odessa metro area. 
What will happen
A dog instinctively knows
If she steps over
The angle of repose
Dog on fire, as we climbed our final dune to watch the setting sun. 
As we sat up there on that sand dune, the creatures that had made all those footprints began to emerge in droves, and we could hear them scurrying about in the twilight.  At one point, our dog began growling at the darkness and shaking uncontrollably with fear.  My guess was javelina, which will attack dogs if they are able.  At that point we retreated to our Airstream Interstate for the night.

After the completion of my work in the area, we proceeded to Junction, Texas.
I actually took the route in blue, which was not what the Apple app had told me in real time - I had to figure it out for myself.  My acute dissatisfaction with current navigational options and especially cell phone connectivity in rural areas (i.e., the lack thereof) is a rant for another day.

By the way, I had a very strong "wish I were 20 years younger" moment in conjunction with this leg of travel.  I broke camp in Monahans Sandills before dawn, traveled 20 miles to Odessa, put in a lot of technical work throughout the day (= mentally challenging), then drove solo 230 miles through vicious West Texas cross-winds with an unexpectedly car-sick dog to my next overnight in Junction.  I was so tired that I couldn't even manage to get the protective cover over the rear door of the Interstate that I left open overnight.  I just couldn't manage it - I crashed out on the sofa bed and did not get back up again until the next morning.   
Every natural venue has its pros and cons, and South Llano River State Park is no exception.
It boasted really good hiking in a diversity of of terrains (18 miles of trails), from the limestone relief that defines the Texas Hill Country to the river bottomlands.  But... 
...river access was mediocre.  Most banks were steep and there were almost no gravel bars or other low-lying physical features that would allow easy entry to the cool, refreshing water.  Not a good place for young children to splash.  
South Llano is famous for its wild turkeys, and in fact the river bottomlands were off limits for all but 5 hours of the day so that they would not be disturbed.  I didn't see any turkeys, but we did see plenty of insect life.  We are definitely well into autumn here, but not yet into the brownest, deadest part of the year, so there is still some color and activity.  
We hiked for almost three hours in the morning before striking out on the final 5-hour leg of driving back to our home in League City Texas.  That's actually my favorite way of traveling if I can manage it - hike in the morning, get everyone's legs tired, and then just relax and drive all afternoon and into the evening if necessary.
Two successive nights, two very different views - Monahans Sandhills on the left, and South Llano on the right.  I was carrying our Yeti cooler full of ice (I didn't need it but I find that the van drives more stably with it in place), and I didn't bother to drop it to the ground, so I only have single-door million-dollar views in these cases, as the cooler blocks the other door while it is in place.