Sunday, March 19, 2017


Normally I title my maintenance- and repair-related blog posts, "BLAH BLAH BLAH IN AN AIRSTREAM INTERSTATE" but this issue is all on Mercedes Benz, with nothing to do with Airstream's Class B conversion.

The T1N Sprinter van series was designed with an unfortunate configuration along its upper windshield seam.
A picture tells a thousand words.
From a materials science perspective, those upper corners could scarcely have been fashioned into a more vulnerable configuration.  Not only are they highly stressed at the molecular level to begin with by virtue of their shape, they have to receive a deluge of drainage coming at them with a certain degree of force.  It's a one-two punch that eventually might lead to the likes of this:
The gasket begins to peel back.  
One of those corners looks worse than the other.  Let's see it in close-up.
Ewwww.  As soon as I saw this, I said to myself, "Well, my original plans for the day just went into the toilet."
It's just a tiny area on a very large van, which may make you wonder, "How did she even notice it?"

May I offer the obvious answer:  Water penetration.  Actually, only the driver's side degradation had worked its way all the way through to form a pin-hole leak.  The passenger side looked bad but was still water tight.

I always wash and wax our Sprinter and I always encourage other people to learn to do the same.  Every time someone on a forum gloats about having gotten a cheap and convenient truck wash, I wonder, "Yeah, but what incipient maintenance conditions might you have missed because you yourself were not examining your vehicle during that process?"  This case in point is a typical answer.  There is always something demanding attention with a large, complex machine.

And some of those things can get serious quickly if they aren't caught early.  In our case, we are triply motivated to not let any condition like this get out of hand.
We have a great deal of extra tech in our van, and a lot of the wiring for that tech runs down the driver's side pillar.  Water in here is a bad, bad thing. 
Fortunately, I spent much of the weekend working on some cellular improvements in the van, and so I had dismantled the Airstream trim-out and removed the headliner on the same day as I happened to hand-wash it.  For that reason, everything was exposed and I spotted the pinhole leak immediately, a condition that otherwise might have gone unnoticed for quite some time.  What did I say above?  Doing your own work is a good thing.

Do you see the white twisty wire in the foreground of the photo above?  That actually belongs to this device.
It's a long-corded water leak detector.  I had been using it around my fresh water tank, but I pulled it up and repurposed it for the driver's side pillar (I'll put another detector at the water tank).  I ran the detection wire the entire length of the pillar...
...even shoving it up above the headliner...
...and then I mounted the noise-making end of the device under the dash next to the bluetooth on-board diagnostics (OBD) scanner.  In case you're wondering why it's upside down, that's because the 9-volt battery is replaced via the "top" end which would be too difficult to access in this location if I put it rightside-up.  This way I pop off the little flap and the battery falls out the bottom instead. 
So, OK, that's my future leak alarm system for this vulnerable location, but what about fixing the leak itself?  That process went like this.
Being a POR-15 junkie, I first used a toothpick to coat the exposed areas, where the gasket had pulled away.  I let that dry for about 4 hours.  We had a beautiful 80 degree sunny day here, so 4 hours was more than enough time. 
Then I applied an RTV sealant over the top of the degraded areas.  You'll notice that I did not attempt to bend back or push flat the portions of the rubber gasket that were lifting away from the body of the van.  That material is a decade old and stiff and I was afraid that if I tried to lay it back down, it would just pop off again, tearing away any new sealant with it.  Rather, I mounded up the RTV compound to encapsulate the corners that were poking up.  These are very small areas and this patchwork is not noticeable from the ground, so I'm OK with the somewhat amateurish-looking application.  The main thing is that it Must Not Leak
This is the product I used, which might not be ideal.

This Sprinter Forum thread is not necessarily fond of using any silicone-like product around the windshield perimeter, but (a) I wasn't sure what else to use that I could obtain in sufficiently small quantities on short notice, and (b) I was only doing a couple of linear inches, so we'll just pay extra attention to prepping those corners in the future if we ever have to do a wholesale windshield replacement (there's some suggestion that a silicone product might interfere with a future sealant application during windshield replacement).

So there you have it, another chunk of a Sunday afternoon devoted to rig maintenance.

EDIT 20170321:  See also this Sprinter Forum thread on this issue for further discussion.
Actually, it never stops.  

Friday, March 17, 2017


This was the first of three rather odd alignments on March 16, 2017:
This was featured in the Campendium email blast that I opened as I was drinking my morning tea.  
I had already been planning to scout around Port Bolivar today for good boondocking locations.  I took the email blast as A Sign and decided to try out the Flats as a first measure.

But first I had to get across the channel.
I had been hesitant to try the Bolivar Ferry because there are plenty of pics on the internet of vehicles that had bottomed out, scraping the approach ramps severely (not to mention the vehicles).  But after riding the boats several times recently by car and by bicycle as a walk-on, I deduced that the pics must be older, because the issue it appeared well-fixed.  I had no trouble with clearances and my departure angle in getting on and off.  
That oceangoing vessel in the background cutting our path represented one of the other two weird alignments today, but I'll save that for the end of the post.  The grand finale of sorts.

This was actually my first ever on-the-beach camping.  Numerous times we've overnighted adjacent to the beach, at a private residence or public park, but I had never boondocked (notice how I linked that term - that's an odd alignment clue) right on the public beach until this trip.  As well as being DA BEACH!!, I figured it would be a good performance test for our solar-lithium system.  What better abuse for an electrical system than roaring high winds and salt spray??  Seriously, when I went to boil water for my tea, I had to close the Fantastic because the air flow was so strong that it blew out the burner on the SMEV.

Beach blogposts are so easy to do, because I don't see fit to photoprocess anything.  The colors and shadows change dramatically with each passing cloud and change in sun angle, so why alter the natural results by shifting color and lighting parameters?  Here's some show-and-tell, in the raw.
I was pleasantly surprised at how few people were here.  Greater Houston does have 6.5 million residents, and this is Spring Break week for most of them.  But in about a mile stretch of beach, there were only about four camping groups.  It's hard to get any privacy in an urban area this large - it doesn't always happen. 
One of the warnings on Campendium is to watch the weather and tides at this location.  In an area as impossibly flat as the upper Texas coast, even minor storms can raise the high tide level significantly.
Best thing to do is use an app of some sort and observe what high tide is going to look like that day.  In my case, there didn't seem to be an issue.  Here I was at high tide and the seawater was not flooding under my wheels. 
It was an unsettled, blustery day, but not storming.  My dog and I walked southeastward toward the Galveston side of the peninsula.  Those ships in the background are parked between the jetties.  
Don't even think about it. 
The public access area gives way to an area that has been partially restricted for nesting birds.  The sign is pretty funny.
Zombies everywhere these days. 
I thought they were kidding, but maybe not. 
Wouldn't you know it, I had decided not to take my DSLR and only had my cell phone for all these pics.  One could do some really interesting photography out here with a good camera.
Birds, birds, and more birds.  
The cloud conditions change, and all the lighting changes with them. 
Not everybody had as enjoyable a day as I did.  With that many birds concentrated in an area, there's bound to be a few whose time has come and who fall from the sky.  
Apparently he or she never made it back to the nest.  The entire area shoreward of the high tide line was roped off to safeguard the nests as we are at the height of breeding season.  
I promised myself I would not stuff my pockets with more shells than I could ever have a place or a use for.  I promised myself that I would collect just one single shell.  This was it.  
These markers were for a twentysomething male who was killed at this location, reportedly because he was doing donuts in the sand and flipped his vehicle on top of himself, because he wasn't wearing a seat belt (per internet entries).  The loss of life is regrettable, but life often favors those who are judicious in their behavioral decisions.  
Although the density of beachgoers was unexpectedly low, I did see a couple of weird things.
What the hell is that?!  Is it government or private?  Probably private.  Not everyone wants to spend endless DIY hours working on upgrading the electrical system on an Airstream Interstate.  Some other people prefer to work on Jeeps and Westies and Hummers and who knows what else.  
Probably unrelatedly, a military chopper did a low pass with a full complement of missles hanging from its undercarriage.  But I'm not far off the Houston Ship Channel and Texas City Ship Channel and Galveston Ship Channel with all of their special security zones and needs, so that in itself is not that unusual. 

It wouldn't be one of my overnighter blog posts without at least one obligatory back-door view shot.  Or in this case two, because the lighting conditions changed so dramatically and delightfully.
Now it's bluer than blue...
...and now it's gone gray.  
I typically check Instagram prior to turning in for the night, and thus came the day's second odd alignment.
What are electrical, water, and sewer hook-ups?
As is often the case, I slept unusually well in the Interstate, and awoke to this sight.
I first came to greater Houston 31 years ago, and not once in all that time have I ever seen the sun rise on the beach.  Last year we even stayed a night in Galveston Island State Park, but it was socked in with fog, and I saw nothing. 
I wasn't the only one who was happy to greet the new day.
A blur in the morning twilight, my dog tearing around as fast as her legs could carry her. 
The moment of truth.
How a propos that my first beach sunrise occurs on the day when I'm testing our new solar system. 
And speaking of that solar system, what about that third odd alignment?  I said it had to do with the oceangoing vessel that had cut our ferry's path the day before, as I was en route to the Flats to further test our Interstate's solar and lithium battery system.  Look closely at this pic - can you see it?

Maybe not, because you're reading this on a tiny little cell phone, aren't you?  So let me zoom in for you.

Advantage solar - no doubt about it.  To boldly go where no solar-lithium van has gone before!  But what are the odds on that name??
Sol is my new best friend. 

Saturday, March 11, 2017


I'll know it when I see it.  That was the mantra that I adopted more than two years ago when I began searching for a portable grill that we could take with us in our 2007 Airstream Interstate.
There's a lot of truth to this meme.  We waited a long time before buying a grill, and there were good reasons for that. 
We had two considerations that most RVers do not have to weigh when choosing a grill.  Number one, there are no external storage spaces in almost all Mercedes Sprinter-based Class B motorhomes.  And who wants to carry a stinky greasy grill inside a very small living space?
If it were not for the decrepit condition of many campgrounds, I wouldn't have purchased any grill at all.  This was my campsite grill at Brazos Bend State Park in 2016.  Notice that all of the rungs for adjusting the grate height had rusted clean off.  It became a giant hassle to prop up the grate by inserting pieces of wood where the rungs once were.  Pieces of wood that would catch fire and periodically fall to the ground, plunging our dinner onto the coals below.  
Number two, a big portion of our outdoor cooking is done under conditions that more closely resemble this scene below than a campground with decrepit amenities.
Remember Crocodile Dundee saying, "Now THAT'S a knife!"
This is me saying, "Now THAT'S a cooking fire!"  
Because one of our primary travel destinations involves this piece of waterfrontage that we have, which comes complete with an infinite supply of firewood, we don't always need a grill per se.  We just need to cook food the old fashioned way, over the open fire.
The fire is almost always burning when we are here, for black fly and mosquito control.  These pics were from 2015 when we crammed all our camping gear into duffel bags, paid excess baggage fees, and flew up north, rather than taking our Airstream.  We had just too many work- and family-related time constraints that year to make the 6,000-mile round trip by road.   
So for those reasons, my grill criteria were as follows:

  1. As small as possible (because it will be stored inside the van).
  2. Easy to clean (because it will be stored inside the van).
  3. Not very expensive (because we won't use it that much). 
  4. Able to be encapsulated in a storage case of some sort, such that it wouldn't transmit any residual grease or smoky smell to the inside of our van.

The UCO Flatpack Portable Grill and Firepit spoke up and said to me, "Three out of four ain't bad, especially given that you can create the fourth yourself."  Here's a 3-minute video by James of TheFitRV explaining this product, and it will reveal what I mean by the fourth.

The part that is missing from the product as sold is a robust storage case.  The internet positively howls with despair that UCO's Flatpack Mini grill version comes with a storage case, but the regular-sized product does not (but for $33.73, which was the Amazon Prime price that I paid, I wouldn't necessarily expect a case to be included).

In the series of pics below, I show how I was able to create a durable and semi-waterproof case in about an hour's time.
I used a remnant of an 8-dollar silver tarp that I had purchased last year to create a protective cover for the Yeti cooler we transport on our hitch carrier.  
I do most of my projects visually rather than numerically.  In other words, I fit step by step, rather than measuring.  Such was the case with this tarp scrap.  I first determined how big I wanted the fold-down flap to be, and I chose an existing finished edge of the tarp piece for that flap, to save myself work. 
Then I folded up the bottom around the grill, in order to determine the overall length of the tarp piece.  That "cuff" on the underside of the flap is the first line to be sewn.  
I turned in the side seams as they were the second sewing lines to be completed, but not before matching them in the next step. 
Then I put the side seams against one another, right sides together, before shifting the pins to form single side seams. 
This process essentially amounts to sewing an envelope inside-out.  After those side seams are completed, turn it rightside-out.  
The final step is to sew Velcro strips on the front of the case and the underside of the flap.  
And voila.  A secure case is thusly made.  Word to the wise:  Always make your cases a bit larger than you think they need to be, just in case you get a post-project idea that you want to add something else in there.  In this case, I decided that I wanted a dedicated set of BBQ tongs to live in there as well.  Fortunately, I had left sufficient room in the design.
You can see how this has excellent potential to be stored in a Class B RV without making a mess of the interior, even if it remains a bit dirty after use.  
Now, you don't have to use plastic tarp for this project, but bear in mind that the grill is made primarily of sheet metal and has a few sharp corners.  Whatever you use in the way of material should be resistant to snags and tears.

OK, so there's the product and there's the the four-out-of-four home-made case that now goes with it, but how does this grill actually function?  How well does it cook?
Fire that sucker up, and we'll see.
I cook with charcoal on average about once per year (until now), so I'm not very good at it.  I often don't have the patience, and thus my inaugural meal was acceptable but I didn't knock it out of the park.
I prefer my BBQ potatoes cooked this way, spiced and buttered and cooked in foil.  
The UCO "Mini" size is said to be suitable for 1 to 2 people, but it would not work for my husband and me.  If I'm going to all the trouble to fire up a grill, I want to cook an entire meal on it.  Meat, potatoes, vegetables, extras, everything.  Above you can see the potatoes wrapped up and ready to go on.
See what I mean?  Smaller would not work for all of this food.

By the way, my hand is on the grill stand to remind me to tell you that you don't need a heat shield underneath.  The stand stays cool enough so that it will not harm a table surface.  I had put this concrete paver there as an initial precaution.
I was too liberal with my use of wood chips during this endeavor, and I had some flare-ups that char-broiled my meal a bit too intensely, as you can see in this photo below.  But that fault was mine, not the UCO's.  It functioned very well.
Meat-a-thon.  Whether grilling on gas or charcoal, I usually throw on additional stuff to put in the fridge so that we can eat it during the week when we are working and too busy to cook.  

Those potatoes are even better than they look.
Do you ever use charcoal only to realize that they only get to their optimal burning condition after you've already completed everything you needed to cook that day?
That would be me.  Next time I'll plan better. 
In closing, the UCO Flat Pack Grill is a great product, and I have only two procedural recommendations over and above what the manufacturer seems to recommend:

  1. I shoulda known better, because I've spent decades living in Texas, where we use both clay and cast iron chimineas.  It is never a good idea to set the combusting media right on the bottom of your fire container.  You should always line the bottom with sand or clean gravel or a grate so that the coals or wood or whatever you are burning does not thermally over-stress the structure.  I get the same instinct with this UCO.  Especially given that the bottom of it consists of a piano hinge, my tendency would be to insert a narrow metal secondary grate in order to raise those coals off that hinge just a little bit, to minimize the chances of damaging it over time.  I will procure and cut-to-fit something to do just that, and update this post to show what I mean.
  2. In a similar vein, I'm also going to look for some non-polymerized* aluminum foil, to line the base of it.  Such a measure doesn't seem to be strictly needed, but it will make clean-ups faster and easier.  (*A lot of the foils sold today are coated with plastics for non-stick purposes.  That's fine if you're using the foil in a conventional oven at 350 degrees, but with the elevated temperatures in a grill, the plastic can fuse the foil to the grill structure and make a complete mess. 

Future update will go here:

20170327:  Well, here's the first update, but it's not about protecting the bottom of the grill.  It's about storing them - both of them, the original Flat Pack, and I later purchased the Grilliput as well.  The Flat Pack is most suited to campground cooking, while the Grilliput is best for wild-land and less-regulated areas where open fire cooking is permissible.

We have a small inset area beneath our Class B's couch.  It contains a panel that must be removed in order to access water valves during winterization (which we have never done, given our geographic location).  I removed two screws, pierced strips of Velcro with a small scratch awl, put the screws through the Velcro, and re-installed.  Now I have a convenient lashing point for the grill case, with no cabinet modifications required.