Category Archives: Living

Living in an Airstream – successes and mistakes

Airstream A/C Shouldn’t Be This Hard

The Attwood going up

The Attwood going up

The Pursuit of Happiness

I decided to upgrade the Airstream’s OEM Domentic Penguin II 13.5k air conditioner with an Attwood Air Command. The Attwood promised to be:

1) Quiter (this would be easy as a jet engine would be quieter than the Penguin II)
2) More efficient (supposedly the 13.5k operated at an equivalent of a 16.0k)
3) More air volume
4) Cooler (anything blowing air cooler than a jet engine would beat the Penguin II)
5) Able to start with a Honda EU2000i generator – one, not two tangled together

So, the decision was made and everything was ordered. It all arrived except the gasket that went between the A/C and the roof, so we had to stop and wait TWO WEEKS for the gasket to arrive in Nevada from Ohio. It came by horse, or my order wasn’t important to the distributor, not sure which.

My installation crew came back and installed the Attwood. We turned it on. Glorious! It blows so much more air than the Penguin II, it was much cooler, much quieter, and boy was I happy!

And then the bad news came that the Dometic thermostat that runs the air conditioner, heater and heat strip doesn’t communicate with the Attwood, so the new delicious A/C had to run manually.

Well, I didn’t know it at the time, but the Air Command does not shut down when the desired temperature is reached. Nope. It switches to the fan only mode, then back to A/C, then back to fan, then to A/C, forever. It never shuts off until the human intervenes.

That little bit of rather vital information wasn’t really in the sales print, though it was sort of eluded to in a roundabout way, kind of. That’s what Attwood said, anyway. So, now my dream machine had a good a/c, cheap insulation, a thermostat that was useless, no heater, and cost about $800 more after the a/c installation. Oh, and I gave the Penguin II to the repairman as I thought I would have no more need for it.

I was broken hearted yet again. After much stewing, I decided I had to do something for heat before winter set in, and I hated the Attwood staying on all day long in it’s perpetual cycle, so I came to grips with ditching the Attwood and $800.

Oh, and during this whole fiasco, I contacted Attwood. They were very concerned and were going to jump right on engineering a fix, but then they disappeared. No contact. No reply to my emails. No nothing. It wasn’t until later I heard they had been bought by… Dometic – the Penguin II people. I’m thinking it’s part of a vast conspiracy against Airstream owners who try to disconnect from the Mother Ship.

Dometic Brisk Air II

With much more research done, I found I could recover the use of my heater and thermostat if I went back to a Dometic product (conspiracy). I initially refused for moral reasons, then finally capitulated. They promised, like Attwood, that their Brisk Air II unit would be wonderful. I didn’t really believe them now that I knew Attwood and Dometic were in bed together. With much chagrin, I ordered the BA II. However, I ordered a 15.0k unit rather than the 13.5k, with a hard start capacitor, and the heat strip option.

I called the installers again and had them swap the a/c units again. Now, my new air conditioner solution cost $1,600 rather than the $800 I originally thought no one who bought a $70,000 trailer should have to do.

The results? The heater works just fine. The 15.0k BA II is still noisier than the 13.5k Attwood, but not by much. At least it now shuts on and off on its own via the thermostat. The air is not cooler, though the air temperature stays cooler longer (15.0k v 13.5k?). The outside profile is much, much higher than the Penguin II, and a little higher than the Attwood. It kind of looks dorky on the roof, but it works. I have not tried it on the Honda EU2000, so we’ll see how that goes later. The air vents for the BA II are poorly designed for the Airstream. The forward vent emits very little air even with the rear vent closed. A sketchy design from the same folks who brought us the Penguin II.

Sorry for not pulling punches on the equipment manufacturers. When they fall short, I call them on it.

And speaking of falling short, the distributor I bought the Brisk Air II products through ended up being the worst vendor I’ve experienced over the last many years. They actually have zero ways for a customer to speak to a human, they provide nearly nothing in the way of assistance in ordering, and their returns policy requires you stop payment on your credit card before someone will speak with you. Totally grumpy – totally 1970s longshoremen union mentality. The company is I cannot speak loudly enough about my terrible experience with them.

The end of the whole story is the air conditioner to buy is the Dometic Brisk Air II if you have the Dometic Comfort Control Center thermostat in your RV. It works well, though not ideal. An Attwood would be good for a race car trailer or somewhere you want cool, quiet, efficient air blowing 24/7. The OEM Penguin II is horrible, but you already know that.

Atwood vs Dometic

Interior panel and controls

Interior panel and controls for Atwood 13.5k

After spending a rather miserable summer in my 2012 25FB Airstream last year, I decided to shake free of the mothership once more in search of more truth. This time, it’s all about efficient and plentiful cool air.

The Dometic Penguin 13.5k that Airstream made standard on my 25′ Flying Cloud is 1) noisy, 3) cool – not cold, 3) stingy with air volume, and 4) has a low-profile exterior cover (credit where credit is due). Oh, and 5): won’t run on a single Honda EU2000 generator.

My $68,000 aluminum heat magnet needed something much, much better than what was stock,  further convincing me Airstream’s management spends very little time in their product outdoors under varying conditions – probably just an annual spring camping weekend in Kentucky.

My need fits somewhere else besides what comes standard so, logically, I looked somewhere other than where Airstream looks.

Last year, I found an ad for Atwood’s Air Command air conditioner systems in 13.5k and 15.0k. They said their units were 1) quiet, 2) cold, 3) loaded with air volume, and 4) were not as low-profile as the Penguin. Oh, and the 13.5k would start and run on a single 2000 watt generator. This began to sound like lust was just around the corner so I researched more. This is what the Atwood people say:

Atwood Air Command RV air conditioners are designed to withstand the rigors of the harshest elements while delivering the most cool air in its class.  From an incredible air delivery of 360 cubic feet per minute to the standard digital thermostat with remote control, these units provide function and features unlike anything else on the market today.

Flip-down digital thermostat (non-ducted models) or wall-mount digital thermostat (ducted models) plus wireless remote control.

– Digital thermostats and wireless remotes are standard on all models.

– The two(2) motor concept used allows for an efficient fixed condenser fan speed, while the blower has variable speed.  The result is lower amp -draw and quieter operation.

– Ducted and non-ducted units available

AC-135 Specifications

  • 13.5k BTU Rated, performs as if 16k
  • Installed Weight:  84 lb.
  • Digital Thermostat
  • IR Remote Control
  • 2 Year Warranty

As you can see, this seems like a great product which deserves some attention.

Now for the distributor. I shopped around the internet and found RV Supply Warehouse. Their price for the exterior cooling unit, the interior panel and control, and freight to my doorstep in Nevada was $689.00. The next best rate I could find was $693.00 (very close). The reason I went with RV Supply Warehouse was they packaged the whole system and freight into one low price – no misleading unbundled prices – one straight honest (and great) price.
I’ve made contact with a local RV repairman who says he will remove the Dometic and install the Atwood for $125.00. I’m pleased with that rate thus far. We’ll see how his work is and I’ll report.
Right now, it’s 85 degrees outside and the A/C is on. The little (quiet) floor fan is on also. The A/C fan sound is annoying and it’s 82 degrees inside. $68,000 and there’s a noisy 3 degree difference. Let’s see what Atwood brings, huh?


Downhill Braking, Brake Fluid and a Disclaimer

Great Brakes!

These are brakes!

The drive from my home in Minden, Nevada to Convict Lake in California is due south all the way on U.S. 395. The old highway has been the north-south conduit through the eastern Sierra Nevada and Cascade Range since forever and still serves well. I navigated slowly through Gardnerville, Nevada and then on to Topaz Lake at the California border. Continuing south, I went through Coleville, Walker and then Bridgeport where the scenery was beautiful and all went smoothly.

I drove past the road to Bodie then climbed up Conway pass to 8,143’ with a little effort, then did the steep 1,100’ downgrade to Mono Lake which required some attentive use of brakes and transmission. Though this grade is challenging for anyone, there were no problems on this trip. There could have been which is why I’m sending off this article (please read the disclaimer at the bottom).

Going down steep hills with a load (e.g. a trailer) is a skill I acquired while driving semi trucks up and down the Sierra Nevada many years ago. I’ve gone up and down Donner Summit, Echo Summit, Sherwin Summit, and Conway Summit during night time snow storms and during clear days. They’re always dangerous when you are pulling a trailer.

I thought I should share some pointers with those of you who haven’t had the opportunity to be a professional driver of really big and very heavy trailers and  equipment.

#1: The first and main rule is to read the road ahead – well ahead. Look a ½ mile out all the time

#2: The second rule is to brake early, gently and steadily.

#3: Maintain the speed you’re comfortable with while going down the hill. Do not let the 15,000+ pounds of tow vehicle and trailer build up speed, to say 65 MPH, and then try to slow it down to 55 MPH while fighting gravity. That’s how the brakes overheat. First, before heading downhill, get to 55 MPH (if that’s what your comfort speed is for that hill) and stay there.

#4: Use the transmission and engine by selecting a lower gear or maybe two lower gears while going downhill. The brakes are like a credit card – use when needed, but don’t splurge as hitting the limit can be quite dangerous.

#5: Read the yellow diamond signs; this is part of Rule #1. The signs you ignored when you weren’t puling a trailer are the ones you need to read now. When it shows a truck swerving and says 35 MPH, you’d better slow to 35 or less. If a sign says 6% down grade ahead, you absolutely need to prepare to gear down and slow to your comfortable downhill speed – now, not when you’re doing 70 MPH on a 6% downhill grade!

On vacant roads, practice applying your trailer brakes to feel how they work. Reach down and gradually move the trailer brake lever until you begin feeling the trailer brakes work. Repeat this process once every trip to 1) ensure the trailer brakes are working, and 2) to create muscle memory in case your vehicle brakes fail and you have to use the trailer to stop you. Training is your key to safety.

Speaking of brakes, get yours checked more often than usual when you’re doing a lot of towing. Ask the mechanic to flush your brake fluid at least once per year as hydraulic brake fluid gets very, very hot when towing and begins to lose its ability to transfer pressure after repeated heat cycles.

The brake fluid heats up as do all the brake parts when the brake pads are doing their job of generating friction. The heat isn’t bad as long as it’s not excessive or maintained for too long of a time. That’s when the pads begin to stop generating friction and the brake fluid heats up beyond specifications and begins to boil.

The way you can tell if your brake fluid boils is pretty frightening – you push the brake peddle down and it just keeps going down… very scary! In extreme cases, if your brake fluid boils, and it will if you’re not careful about braking with heavy loads, get it flushed out of the tow vehicle’s brake system right away and fill with fresh DOT 4 fluid.

Brake fluid comes on four grades or specifications based on U.S. Department of Transportation minimum boiling point requirements, ergo the “DOT” level assigned.

DOT 3 is the lowest grade permitted and is most common in all cars and trucks built before 2006. It has a minimum dry boiling point (0% water) of 401 degrees Fahrenheit. It has a minimum wet boiling point (3.7% water) of 284 degrees.  Notice how little water needs to be absorbed for the boiling point to drop substantially.

DOT 4 fluid has a higher minimum dry boiling point requirement at 441 degrees as well as a higher wet boiling point of 311 degrees.  Most cars and truck built after 2006 use this type fluid.  It is frequently used as racing brake fluid with boiling points up to 600 degrees and beyond.  Due to its chemical makeup, DOT 4 absorbs water more readily and should be changed more frequently.

DOT 5 fluid is silicone based and is highly resistant to moisture, but its compressibility is lagging well below the DOT 3 and DOT 4 fluids which makes it unsuitable for street use.

DOT 5.1 is the final fluid specification which has a higher minimum dry (500 degrees) and wet boiling point (356 degrees), provides strong system pressure with minimal compression, and is more lubricating which makes this grade excellent for vehicles with ABS. It enjoys success in the racing arena as well so look for higher boiling point temperatures. DOT 5.1 is not compatible with DOT 4 due to their chemical composition, so if you want to use 5.1, have your technician flush the brake system and refill with 5.1 – don’t just top it off over DOT 4 fluid.

Flushing the entire brake hydraulic system is a regular service item and doesn’t cost much. Spending $35 to $50 for fresh ultra high quality DOT 5.1 racing brake fluid is cheap and your braking system will be way more protected against heat degradation than it is now.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer: Thank you for reading this article. Do not take these references, tips or suggestions as fact. They are my opinion which I’m sharing publically. It is your responsibility to drive safely and ensure the vehicle you are using is maintained safely. This article is not to be considered training or guidance. I am not a certified driving instructor nor mechanic and am not responsible for your actions. Sorry, it had to be said.

Being a Baked Potato

Feel like a baked potato?

Feel like a baked potato?

Our Airstreams are beautiful. They are also wrapped in aluminum just like a fine baked Yukon Gold potato would be. Why do chefs wrap potatoes in aluminum foil? I asked.

Aluminum conducts heat quite well. That means it moves heat from one place to another efficiently, such as from the outside of an Airstream to the inside. Be thankful Wally B didn’t use copper to skin his Airstreams as it’s an even better heat conductor than aluminum.

By wrapping a potato in foil, heat is transferred/conducted from the oven into the foil sphere where the potato is and the potato cooks. The foil keeps moisture in, heat in, and it heats more evenly. It also keeps the potato warmer longer after it is removed from the heat source. So, when inside an aluminum trailer, if you sometimes feel like a baked potato it’s for a good reason. You are.

Heated air rises and cooled air sinks. And to support that fact, the cat likes to lay on the floor when it’s hot rather than lay on the top of the lounge pad to gaze out the window. Makes sense. The air conditioner unit, being mounted high, generates refrigerated cool air which naturally sinks to the floor and displaces any warm air because cool air is heavy and dense. Warm air molecules rise (think of a hot air balloon) because they are expanding and lighter than the cooler air molecules around them. This high pressure (cool and dense) and low pressure (warm and light) exchange is something we need to manage inside the trailer to stay comfortable.

The Problem

As the warm air inside the trailer rises to the ceiling where does it go? If you use a pressure cooker  to heat liquid on the stove the liquid’s temperature can increase beyond normal. Why? Because by keeping the pressure up (high pressure = cool), the temperature where boiling occurs goes up and the liquid does not readily boil. Maybe the same holds true for the inside of the hot trailer.

If you turn the A/C on and close all the windows you have kind of created a pressure cooker. Heat from the sun bakes down on the cool trailer and the cool air inside wants to leave. Because the trailer is sealed up tight, the temperature inside rises just like a pressure cooker. The increased temperature will get to a certain level and sort of stay there. From then on, you’re mixing the cool dense air made from the A/C with the naturally occurring heated air from the sun via the aluminum siding and the temperature just creeps up. Sadly, due to the superior heat conductivity of the Airstream, and its lack of an efficient insulation system, the temperature rises rather high and it becomes uncomfortable.

The Answer

If the hot air is something we don’t want, we should figure out a way to get it to go away. If you want to prevent hot air from entering, you create barriers such as insulation to keep the cold and hot separated. If you want heat to go, make some cold air and create a path for hot air to rise. It’s hot air and natural law says it must expand. If it has nowhere to expand to, it creates higher and higher pressure and raises the boiling point. That’s NOT what we want. In an Airstream, during a heat wave, we want cool – not hot. So, what do we do?

Let it go. Let the hot air escape to the outside. The tricky part comes when we want to keep the nice heavy cold air. If we picture the cool air laying along the floor and the hot air moving around up at the ceiling, we might get the idea to let the hot air out one of the vents and let the cold air fill up the Tin Can! Brilliant!

And that’s just what I’ve started to do. I’ve noticed my A/C is doing a better job at keeping the temperatures livable inside my baked potato since leaving small openings in the two Fantastic Fans. The fans have covers made of Reflectix as heat barriers, but there’s enough gap for hot air to escape out the openings I’ve left in the vents.

You mileage may vary, but it is working for me. It’s the little things that count. Happy touring!

A Heat Wave and an Airstream

And the Dometic A/C has been on all day

And the Dometic A/C has been on all day

Like the record low temperatures experienced in January 2013, the high temps of June 2013 are something to learn from during my first year full-timing in an Airstream.

These past couple of days have been unusually warm for northern Nevada. Well, what would you expect for being in the throes of climate change? And isn’t it interesting to be aware of climate change, and to see it unfold? OK, anyway, it’s hot.

It was 100 degrees an hour ago and now it’s 99. The humidity, for your folks east and south of the Rockies, is 16%. Yesterday: 100; tomorrow: 101; Tuesday: 102. You get the idea. It’s hot!

Because I’m not so fortunate as to have a job where I can just work from home, I’m not on my way to the coast. I have an office to show up in tomorrow so here I am, but at least it will have a proper air conditioner and insulation. Not so in an Airstream.

It’s probably much like being a foil-wrapped baked potato, but with electricity and a bathroom. The aluminum walls are classic looking, but boy do they suck in whatever temperature you don’t want outside to the inside.

During the frigid winter, while the air inside was warm due to the heater being on, the walls had frost on them. Well, the summer is worse and it would likely be unbearable with the slightest wisp of humidity.

For the past two days, the Dometic 13.5k A/C has been running non-stop from 8:00AM to 8:00PM. The aluminum walls, when checked with my handy Raytek MT6 laser thermometer came out like this:

  • Next to the door, in shade – Exterior 101.5 — Interior 89.0 degrees
  • Interior ceiling, between the skylight and ceiling fan, no shade – 102.0 degrees
  • Floor – 77.0 degrees
  • A/C duct – 52.5 degrees
  • Next to bedroom window, in shade – Exterior 101.0 — Interior 92.5 degrees.

From these numbers, we see the interior walls are 9 to 12 degrees cooler than the outside temperature with the A/C running all day. Yes, all day. The temperature of the air inside ranges between 85 and 89 degrees when the outside temperature is (still) 99.

The A/C has been on (again, all day) and there’s almost no humidity, but just 10 degrees cooler? I expected better.

I’ve come to find the single biggest problem with Airstreams: a modern insulation system is non-existent. My model is a 2012 25′ Flying Cloud FB. It still has the pink fiberglass insulation which was tossed in Model Year 2013 for some more environmentally friendly insulation. My guess would be it likely performs about the same as any improvement would should have been heralded by Jackson Center.

Starting in January when I moved in, I’ve used to good success 24″ x 10′ sheets of foil-backed bubble wrap branded Reflectix. I use it primarily in the windows and ceiling openings where it really makes a difference.

Interior wall next to the window (in sun)

Interior wall next to the window (in sun)6" to the left behind Reflectix and the curtain

6″ to the left behind Reflectix and curtain

The temperature at the interior wall (12″ from my head) is 98 degrees. With the Dometic 13.5k A/C running since 8:00AM. Yeah, I know.

The sun is low in the sky and it’s 99 degrees according to NOAA. The wall, on the inside where it has been cooled since 8:00AM, and being signed off as insulated by the Airstream factory, is 1 degree cooler. Yikes.

Move the temperature gauge 6″ to the left and it hits the curtain by the panorama window which, like the wall, is in direct sun. The difference is the window has little insulation factor, but there’s a sheet of Reflectix between the window and the curtain. The temperature reading is now 86 degrees. That’s 12 degrees cooler for Russ’ Relectix and only 1 degree for Airstream’s system.

It it wouldn’t look so silly, I’d be tempted to cover the entire inside of the trailer in Reflectix!

I wish I could order a Flying Cloud with that bubble wrap instead of the factory solution. That would be slick.

And I have a plan for the factory Dometic 13.5k A/C that’s only been used for 30 hours…


Before the Beginning

  TinyHouse2 Smaller

The trail began with a friend prodding me to live more efficiently – more economically – maybe in a mobile home.  Well, it really had to do with me complaining about the cost of taking college courses and the solution offered was to live a more frugal life which would include living small, as in a mobile home or trailer.  Initially, that idea kinda stunk.  As time went along, the thought of living in a trailer, not a mobile home, started to gain some traction with me.  My friend’s idea had indeed planted a seed!

At the time, I was renting a nice condominium in Reno, Nevada.  It was less than 30 minutes from work and just a few miles away from the many community events held in Reno and Sparks year-round.  The condo was 15 minutes from beautiful hiking trails, which led anywhere I wanted to go in the forests surrounding Lake Tahoe.  I really had no use for all the living space it offered as it was only me, so paring my life down wasn’t all that bad of an idea.  I wanted a smaller place, cozier, and less sterile.  Oh, and I wanted it to be something I was buying as I’m not crazy about paying for someone else’s long term investment.  A trailer started to make still more sense, but maybe what I needed was a full-blown RV…

RV Research

Using my friend’s suggestion as a springboard, I started looking at RVs as a possibility for becoming my daily living quarters.  A couple I knew had sold all their worldly belongings and ventured off in a motorhome to see the U.S.  At the time of hearing of this, I was surprised and also thought they were nuts.  Of course at the time, the thought of me having a triple-digit percentage loss of value in my home was nuts, too.


The search for a suitable RV began in mid 2011 on the internet.  The more RVs I looked at the more I was convinced buying something like a six or seven-year old diesel pusher coach for somewhere around $150,000 was the ticket to my dream.  Just a few short years ago, these behemoths had sold for up to $400,000 new, and had washers and dryers, microwaves, automatic diesel generators, lots of room and could tow anything.  Compared to a fifth-wheel trailer or a travel trailer, the motor coach had it all.  Not only that, but it was fantastically convenient – no setting up besides pressing a few buttons.  The diesels were that much better than the gasoline models as they would last forever and have decent operating costs.  I was sold on the platform, but then needed to weed through the many manufacturers and used models to settle on my perfect retirement villa.

After exhaustive research, I decided either Country Coach or Alpine were the only brands to go with. There were good features with many of the other brands, but they all seemed to lack the premium touches found in those two premium coaches. Unfortunately, both manufacturers had gone out of business during the recession, leaving a fair concern for availability of OEM parts. Other than that, they were truly the best upper-middle range coaches, especially the Country Coach.

The availability of parts worried me a little, but that was nothing like what I discovered when I called the Nevada DMV and my insurance agent. Ouch! What stopped me cold in my tracks was learning how much the insurance, sales tax and annual license fees would be in Nevada.  It was to the tune of thousands of dollars per year. Yeah, I know how full-timer RVists license their rigs in South Dakota or Florida, but I’m not planning on leaving Nevada for the Great Plains anytime soon.

Nevada has a confiscatory vehicle registration plan which indirectly and rather quietly funnels enormous sums of money through a backdoor into public schools. It is called a Government Services Fee and is added to the minimal $33.00 annual DMV registration fee. The Government Services Fee is formula based using the original MSRP to determine the annual charge. For a 6-year old RV with an MSRP of $400,000, the registration fee is about $2,400 per year. Insurance was about the same through Allstate; all that together was an extra $400 per month for registration and insurance making the motorhome out of the question. Those peripheral recurring costs were just too much for me so a Plan B had to be developed.

Stay tuned, folks!

Airstreamin’ it

Hi travelers and welcome to Tincanz, a place to talk about our passions!

Sunset Bay, Oregon August 2012

Sunset Bay, Oregon
August 2012

After suffering a rocky road during the recession, my life changed and the trail ahead became much more important than ever before. This is that story.

As the days go by and I learn how to make a wonderfully useful and interesting blog site, I hope you’ll come back often. Right now, I’m teaching myself how to build a web site and maintain a blog. I’m up to my neck in SEOs, social media widgets, plugins and mail chimps, and I barely can use an iPhone.  I have some of the best teachers in the world from across the Word Press world and have excellent examples of how to make a fabulous blog from the many Airstream and RV blogs I follow.

Yes, I’m learning to tweet, retweet and direct tweet (or something very close to that), so we’ll be in touch.

Thank you for stopping by ~ Russ