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Old 03-22-2010, 11:36 PM   #1
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Airstream Karma -- Out with the Vinyl, In with the Alclad

Wow, it’s been a long time since I posted anything here. In fact, I’ve only posted once or twice anyway, but who’s counting – no one, I’m sure. At last post, well over a year ago, I had completed some initial “working gear” repairs on my ’74 Overlander Int’l – translation: plumbing, general winterizing, cleaning, etc. All in preparation for a winter at 7,000 feet in Park City, Utah – a plan, I was assured by virtually all sane people with whom I shared it, was insane.

But spend the winter in my Airstream I did – not always in total comfort and not without incident. Bear in mind, Park City is located in the heart of Utah’s Wasatch range, home of “the greatest snow on earth,” all 300 or so inches a year of it. That’s right, no misprint – 300+ inches a year. Feel free to check with any reputable weather service. That is something like 25 feet to put it in perspective. Fortunately, as a rule, it does not accumulate just like that. There are things like settling, occasional melts, etc. Still, the packed down base for skiing around here is generally about 5 or 6 feet at mid winter. Oh, did I mention also that extended periods of below zero (farenheit, or however you spell it) are common during winter. But, hey, I survived.

Let’s face it – as a 21st century society, we’ve all gotten a bit soft. No matter what hardships I might have encountered, my Airstream – complete with built-in furnace plus more than one oil-filled radiators – was hardly the equivalent of a tee pee heated by a few smoldering hardwood coals.

Now, March 22, 2010, near the end of winter #2 in Park City, I think I can safely say I’ve got the winter living (full-timing, or whatever) thing pretty much knocked. In the process, I also debunked more than one commonly-held Airstream myth – perhaps the most commonly-held of all, regarding winter living, being this one: “DON’T DISABLE OR TRY TO GO WITHOUT OPERATING YOUR FURNACE IN WINTER. PER AIRSTREAM DESIGN, IT NOT ONLY KEEPS THE TRAILER WARM, BUT THROUGH INTENTIONAL AIRSTREAM DESIGN, IT ALSO KEEPS YOUR PIPES FROM FREEZING.”

Hah!! Read on. I will share more detail in a later post, since I am already hopelessly off what was supposed to be the topic of this one, but I can’t resist a few observations about the “furnace myth.” And yes, Airstream compadres, it is a myth, provided you have a decent understanding of cold temperatures and plumbing generally and especially of “Airstream design” – I put the last item in quotes regarding winter or cold weather matters only because I think the designers of these things, well, of my trailer anyway, had in mind, when they thought of “winter,” something like the temperatures dipping to a bone-chilling 40 degrees or so.

I like to think the same impaired Airstream designer on duty on the mid 70’s came up with all of the following items, shortly before he was fired ( I hope): the winter, furnace-based pipe heating thing; the overhead storage sliding doors (or whatever you call them) that either cannot be opened without a hydraulic jack, or else open and close so freely that sticking your hand in to retrieve something amounts to playing Russian roulette with a guillotine, the overhead everything else, designed specifically to connect with the forehead of any occupant over about 5’4” trying to do some outlandish and unforeseeable thing as, oh, washing the dishes; those plastic sliding cabinet door latches, prone to the same sort of all or nothing functionality as the overhead guillotine doors, that I am quite sure have ripped off more than a fingernail or two from persons other than me; and finally, the Airstream design snafu of all time, those plastic drawers nestled behind cabinet doors (in my trailer, located in the supposed bedroom, more on the bedroom in some future post, these cabinet doors, by the way, with the aforementioned fingernail-snagging latches) that cannot be budged one nano-millimeter, if there is such a thing, unless the door is completely, and I mean 100%, not 99.9%, open. Not to be down on Airstreams, cuz I am anything but. I think the fuselage construction is nothing less than a pure work of industrial art. But the interior design, vintage 1970’s, hmmm, how to put this… Well, I’ll let you use your imagination…

Back to the furnace-myth. Over the course of my first Airstream winter, I survived only with essentially full-time operation of the furnace, together with two small electric blow heaters, one of which was part of a me-invented plumbing pipe-heating system, and my radiators. It all worked – I’m here, aren’t I? – but was not exactly the model of efficiency. Between electricity and propane, it cost me something like $250 a month to avoid freezing. By the way, I have revised my original opinion on oil-filled electric radiators. FYI, I bought mine on close-out from Walmart for $10 apiece. I originally thought they were not all that effective and nearly threw them out or, in the alternative, contemplated giving them to my second ex-wife as a somewhat back-handed form of gift (ok ok, I confess, a saint I am not). And FYI, if you are in the market for a heater of any type, stop reading this instant and head down to your local Super Store. Right about this time of year, Walmart puts their heaters on close out – generally 80% or so off Walmart retail (which is low enough as it is). I bought 6 of the radiators this time last winter. At $10@, I couldn’t resist. Anyway, I digress.

Fast forward to winter #2, in which I have survived, and toasty warm I might add (warm to me is minimum 75 degrees inside; I’m not one of those 62 degree tree-hugging, resource-conserving masochists), without ever once turning on the furnace, using only my two trusty oil-filled radiators, thermostats turned on medium, one very small blow heater, thermostat also on medium, powering my pipe heating system, and only occasionally, on very very cold nights, turning on my other, slightly larger auxiliary blow heater. And since the park at which I have spent this past winter does not charge for electricity, my total utility bill for the entire winter was something like $45, not per month, but for the entire winter, $45 being for a couple of 7 gal. tanks of propane. It’s amazing how long the stuff lasts when your only demands on it are for cooking and heating water.

Here are a few non-mythological hints on winter living and heating, to be expanded upon at some future time. And feel free to take issue with me, myth-believers. The proof is in the pudding – pudding in this case being comfortable, non-pipe-freezing living all winter at 7,000 feet above sea level, 40.66 degrees north latitude (which I venture few of you myth-believers, and even fewer 1970s era Airstream designers, have ever done). Picture attached. So, without further ado (yes, I realize there has been much too much ado already in this post), here goes:
  • The Airstream furnace-based pipe heating system is something of a joke. Far more important, and something the Airstream furnace has about as much effect on as spitting into a hurricane, is keeping the rear outer compartment, which I affectionately call the plumbing nerve center of my Airstream (where the water comes in, drain valves located, etc.), habitable for flowing water. This I have accomplished with the aforementioned me-invented pipe-heating system, which cost me a grand total of about $25 to build (including a small thermostatically controlled electric blow heater, a metal cowl and small amount of aluminum heat duct, and about 1/100 of a roll of metallic duct tape).
  • Other than that, by far the most important thing a person can do to winterize an Airstream – well, my Airstream at least – has nothing to do with insulation or, here goes another commonly held myth, skirting (which in my experience, after doing what I thought was a pretty bang-up job of skirting prior to winter #1– see attached photo – complete with 1 ½ inch rigid foam insulation held together with very expensive, radiant barrier flexible foil insulation and more of the handy metallic duct tape, had only minimal effect on the warmth of my trailer). Oh, and please, save your money if you think that a light bulb or two strategically placed underneath the trailer, is going to effect any noticeable climate change. At the risk of overusing a metaphor, spitting into a hurricane comes to mind. Not to mention, it might amount to putting out a “welcome home” sign to any local rodents that somehow missed school on the day they taught hibernation.
  • No no, by far the most important thing a person can do is to go through your trailer, stem to stern, and plug every single air leak you can find. Unfortunately, it is difficult to do this until you have made significant progress on the other winterizing measures, since as purchased, my Airstream essentially had cold air blowing in, seemingly unimpeded, from all directions. But once you make some progress, you can begin to locate and then seal up individual air leaks. Some, in my trailer, were unbelievable – perhaps the biggest offender being the air shooting in from beneath my furnace, which not only turned the kitchen area into a makeshift walk-in cooler, but made the metal heat duct running from the furnace to the rear bath (sometimes referred to by myth believers as the most critical component in the vaunted Airstream pipe-heating system) so cold that it almost negated the effects of the furnace altogether. When the furnace was off, the vent in my bathroom expelled more cold air than my original equipment air-conditioner in summer (which, by the way, still works perfectly after a few minor fix-ups by yours truly).
  • Once I had most of these offending air leaks plugged, that was it. I didn’t even bother with skirting this winter. Not worth the time, trouble or expense. The trailer was so toasty, in fact, that on sunny days, no matter how cold out, I would have to turn off all heat to avoid being slow-cooked.

So, finally, to the reason for this post. Phew!! I was going to title this post “The Hardest Job in the Universe,” but I decided to take a more constructive look at the topic at hand. Hence, “Airstream Karma.” I am speaking, of course, of stripping the infernal vinyl covering off the alclad aluminum panels on the interior of my trailer. I had read, before beginning, that this task – I think one wise observer said – would test the patience of Job. I’m not exactly sure what Job did to earn his reputation for patience, but I ‘m pretty sure it was not stripping the vinyl off the interior walls of an Airstream trailer. Had he tried such a thing, his legend might have been something along the lines of “the man who begged to take JC’s place on the cross” – that being a much less torturous fate.

For starters, and this is just for starters, stripping the vinyl covering off the aluminum panels is the easy part of the job. Simple matter of choosing the right stripping product – I believe the one’s made of nuclear waste work the best (ok, another in a long line of not very funny attempts at humor, my vote goes to – envelope please – Klean-Strip KS-3 Premium Stripper for stripping, as the label says, paint, epoxy and polyurethane from wood, metal and masonry. Frankly, I can’t imagine anything it would not strip off anything). Oh, and not to forget, dressing yourself up like the guys who hosed off Karen Silkwood in the eponymously-named movie, and yes, I had to search the Internet to find that word. It was either that or email Dennis Miller. Klean-Strip, as well as my personal runner-up, Jasco (be sure to get their most powerful stripper) are so toxic that one drip on your bare skin, let alone in some much more vulnerable part, like maybe an eye, will, in about two seconds, send you screaming bloody murder for the sink and lots of rushing cold water. And finally, do not succumb to the temptation of thinking that maybe, just maybe, mother nature knew best when she formulated citric acid and then told God to tell man to make some facsimile of organic paint stripper with it. Do not succumb, unless you are interested in joining a very small club, of which I, sadly, am now a member – The Fraternal Order of People who have been Laughed at by Vinyl.

A quick word on cleaners. Consider this also a preview of things to come. If you are, like me, someone who does a whole lot of Internet searching, you are no doubt going to come across some names like Goof Off, Goo Gone, etc. These amateur-hour cleaning solutions are fine for the very last stages of the process, like rinsing off aluminum grit and dist from the walls in the final stages of sanding and polishing. But as for the earlier stages, like cleaning off scraps of vinyl still stuck to the walls and the glue residue left behind, uh uh. For that, you will need the pro stuff. Always bear in mind, “pro” in this case tends to be synonymous with toxic to your body, both outside and in (lungs especially), so equip yourself accordingly.

The hard part, unless your goal is to have a semi-dull, occasionally glue- or some-other-substance-stained, surface, is to turn that long-hidden alclad into something like a smooth-as-glass, mirror-like surface. Now that is hard, at least it was for me. Before I was done, I had purchased no fewer than about 20 diverse implements of destruction – some hand, some powered – copious quantities of wet-dry sandpaper from about 200 grit up to 2000, several different grades of steel wool (which I did not even previously know existed), up to the finest grade of #0000, and just about every known cleaner, chemical solvent and aluminum de-oxidizer known to man. All to realize, in the end, only required about 10 of those implements and surprising few of the chemicals and cleaners. Oh, and all of the sandpaper and steel wool. Oh, and medium grade rubbing compound, and high-grade aluminum polish (I used Mother’s brand). Oh, and an unbelievable, to me anyway, amount of grease – the kind found in your elbows. My favorite parts of the process would have to be cleaning, sanding, polishing, buffing and doing anything else to the ceiling and other overhead sections. Sort of like that thing they made Demi Moore and her Seal team members do in GI Jane, holding an ocean-liner-sized, heavier-than-all-hell Zodiac overhead while jogging in place and chanting some semi-profane limerick about military life. “Airstream trailers really suck. Buy one and you’re out of luck,” or something like that. Make up your own. Fun.

So, why “Airstream Karma?” This applies to me personally. Whether it would be a fitting description of the task for anyone else I have no idea. In my case, it goes something like this: I seem to have a penchant, in almost everything I do, except possibly sex (some of the time anyway), to look for every shortcut my pea-brain can come up with – anything to make the job go faster, to involve less effort on my part. And I can honestly say, now after 50 some-odd years of living on God’s green earth, that my search for the elusive shortest route between A and B has almost never yielded the expected results. Oh, I have found no end of shortcuts, but in the end, aided and abetted no doubt by my perfectionist streak (which generally prevents me from settling for something less than the best possible outcome), the result for me is typically that I have to go back to point A, the exact point where my latest shortcut departed from the advised route, and start over, doing the job – gulp! – in the manner recommended by those who have successfully gone before me.

As this applies to “the hardest job in the universe,” which stripping the vinyl off interior Airstream walls most certainly is, my long-ingrained, typically useless quest for shortcuts turned a horrendous, effortful task of two weeks or so, into a horrendous effortful task ten times as long – two and a half months of sheer, unadulterated misery. So much so, I am hoping, that this ole dog may have actually learned a new trick – NO MORE SHORTCUTS.

To be continued… with instructions, including numerous “don’t-try-thises” (which of course I tried), and before, during and after photos. When, who knows? But hopefully in less than a year.
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Old 03-22-2010, 11:42 PM   #2
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Forgot the winter pics

A few winter pics. Much as I might complain, there is something about the way my Airstream looks in winter...
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Old 03-23-2010, 11:56 AM   #3
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Holy cow - what a missive! I look forward to further installments as you find the time.

Pat
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Old 03-23-2010, 12:18 PM   #4
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Riggsoc,

Thanks for a great entertaining and informative post,
and all within your first 5 posts.

Impressive


We will all be expecting great posts from you in the future
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Old 04-28-2010, 06:39 AM   #5
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Can you post pictures of the results? Great post! Fun and instructive... but I would greatly appreciate it if you could give us simple "step by step" instructions with the products that actually worked for you :-) -- Did I say, Pictures? Thxs!!
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Old 04-28-2010, 07:10 AM   #6
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What a great post! And such a beautiful place to winter!!! Thanks...I look forward to your next post.
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Old 04-28-2010, 07:58 AM   #7
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I though, "oh no - what a friggin long post". But I had to read. Then it ended all too soon. Thanks for tellin' the story and I am certainly glad you survived your first, no second, winter. It CAN be done! Will look forward to more posts --- maybe this year? Hopefully.
Laura
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Old 04-28-2010, 09:45 AM   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by riggsco View Post
...
I like to think the same impaired Airstream designer on duty on the mid 70’s came up with all of the following items, shortly before he was fired ( I hope): the winter, furnace-based pipe heating thing; the overhead storage sliding doors (or whatever you call them) that either cannot be opened without a hydraulic jack, or else open and close so freely that sticking your hand in to retrieve something amounts to playing Russian roulette with a guillotine, the overhead everything else, designed specifically to connect with the forehead of any occupant over about 5’4” trying to do some outlandish and unforeseeable thing as, oh, washing the dishes; those plastic sliding cabinet door latches, prone to the same sort of all or nothing functionality as the overhead guillotine doors, that I am quite sure have ripped off more than a fingernail or two from persons other than me; and finally, the Airstream design snafu of all time, those plastic drawers nestled behind cabinet doors (in my trailer, located in the supposed bedroom, more on the bedroom in some future post, these cabinet doors, by the way, with the aforementioned fingernail-snagging latches) that cannot be budged one nano-millimeter, if there is such a thing, unless the door is completely, and I mean 100%, not 99.9%, open. Not to be down on Airstreams, cuz I am anything but. I think the fuselage construction is nothing less than a pure work of industrial art. But the interior design, vintage 1970’s, hmmm, how to put this… Well, I’ll let you use your imagination…

Unfortunately, they didn't fire that guy until he had worked on every one of my Airstreams.


Quote:
...The proof is in the pudding – pudding in this case being comfortable, non-pipe-freezing living all winter at 7,000 feet above sea level, 40.66 degrees north latitude (which I venture few of you myth-believers, and even fewer 1970s era Airstream designers, have ever done). ...

Agree completely, since I live at 7,300' (but only 39.3N) and modify my water systems with PEX so I can camp at 10 degrees or so.


Quote:
To be continued… with instructions, including numerous “don’t-try-thises” (which of course I tried), and before, during and after photos. When, who knows? But hopefully in less than a year.
Soon, we all hope. You should write for a living. Howlingly funny, to those of us who have been there. The "don't try thises" reminds me that "Good judgment comes from experience, and often experience comes from bad judgment" or "Experience is what you got by not having it when you need it."

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Old 04-28-2010, 10:14 AM   #9
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Well, that was about another year's worth! But it kept me on the "edge of my seat" so to speak.
I almost froze to death one night after parking at a truck stop in the surrounding pitch blackness. In the morning, I realized I was at the foot of Mt. Shasta! My furnace didn't work, no electric space heater, and I didn't have those propane Heater Buddies. I don't ever want to do that again!
Oil filled electric radiators huh? I'll check them out at Walmart for when I'm plugged in. I just ordered a Heater Buddy MH9BX from Northern Tool for 80 bucks. When all else fails, a backup propane powered space heater may be the ticket.
Great thread!
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Old 04-28-2010, 12:00 PM   #10
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Excellent.

THAT was interesting, informative, humorous and flat out fun to read.

Nice trailer.
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Old 04-28-2010, 02:45 PM   #11
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Those oil filled radiators do work fairly well, except they kept popping the breaker in my trailer. After everything froze up for the fourth time I called it quits and went back to driving that stupid long distance to work. I agree about the air leaks, but having the trailer too tight creates another issue of water condensation [see it's raining inside GRRRR]. Anyhow, I had a good laugh and had to think back to a few of my own WTF was I thinking projects
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Old 04-28-2010, 09:09 PM   #12
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I can't take it! I am still laughing. Save me from myself, and your side splitting self-deprecating humor.
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Old 04-29-2010, 07:11 PM   #13
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This is hilarious!

We need to give this a bump for the people that missed it yesterday!
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Old 09-02-2010, 11:41 PM   #14
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What's all the 'white stuff' around the ASs in those pics?

Ray in San Joaquin Valley, Nor-Calif...
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