Airstreaming Colorado – What Could Go Wrong (so far)?

Emily


Good morning, peeps!

Other people’s problems can be funny, and I think RV problems are right up there. So I thought I would give you a peek at what we’ve been dealing with on this trip. Not a particularly deep topic I know, but maybe this will help you address issues while on the road or at the least give you a chuckle.

Furnace

Problem

Immediately after arriving in Crested Butte we discovered the furnace was having trouble lighting – again. Our particular model is a propane furnace so the blower would come on, then run for minutes as the furnace tried to light. Even after lighting the furnace would often go out restarting the process all over again.

Fix

Kudos to Airstream of Scottsdale for walking me through the diagnostics process. The culprit was a ridiculous component called a “sail switch”.

Sail Switch Resize

The purpose of this switch is to inform the furnace control circuit that the blower is on before lighting the burner. It’s called a “sail” switch because it’s designed to sense air flow by catching the air like a sail.

The absurdity of this switch is the design – that large protruding piece of aluminum fin has to be bent, prodded and coaxed to barely fit against the furnace squirrel cage to pick up the breeze. It’s vulnerable to hair, obstructions, catching on the blower fins and evidently spontaneous self-deforming.

In diagnosing my switch I found that the switch was not actually defective, but instead the fin simply needed to be re-shaped to catch air better – until I broke the switch in earnest trying to bend the sail. DOHH!

Cost

$30 for a new sail switch shipped from Airstream of Scottsdale, my time and a little duct tape. Yes, duct tape – the new sail switch only had a tiny little fin at the very end and it wasn’t big enough to pick up the blower air. I had to increase the area of the fin with guerrilla tape and then spend an hour finessing the new switch into a shape that would work. This was a new switch. We’ll see how long this fix lasts.

Had I designed this furnace, I would have used an optical solution which has no moving parts, like a Photodarlington. But that would cost $0.000000001 more so that’s probably why they don’t do it.

 

Satellite

Problem

We have a Wineguard DirectTV (now AT&T) satellite system mounted on the Airstream. This system offers a self-locating dish that pops up, spins around and hunts for satellites all automatically. It’s a remarkable product that works with exceptional reliability.

Except.

The LNB (Low Noise Block downconverter), which is the part that actually receives satellite signal, seems to lose SD (standard definition) satellite reception about every 2 years. No idea why – could be a slowly corroding circuit, a split in the unit’s environmental seal – who knows.

The symptoms are the DirectTV (now AT&T) receiver will quite happily show you your HD (high definition) content but it insists on showing you a warning that a channel you aren’t watching is missing.

Fix

The fix for this problem is to replace the LNB.

Satellite Resize

We’re going to wait on this fix until we’re back in Phoenix since this is essentially an annoyance and not an outright failure. Additionally this fix involves ladders and getting on top of the Airstream; something I do not want to do in the field.

Cost

The cost can run in the hundreds.

 

Airstream

Problem

Our Airstream experiences fairly routine rivet pops and this trip popped two of them on the small toggle that holds the front visor down. I actually popped those rivets on the first few weeks we owned the Airstream and I think it’s because the rubber toggles are incredibly tight and literally rip the rivets out over time.

I also noticed some of the casual weather stripping on the front visor was coming loose, almost certainly from storage in the heat.

Fix

I drilled out the rivets and replaced them here in the field.

Rivet Resize

I always bring spare rivets and tools, which we describe in one of our YouTube videos. The weather stripping was easy to push back with a flat-head screwdriver.

Cost

$0 and about 15 minutes of my time.

 

Generator

Problem

Though we have shore power in the Crested Butte RV Resort our next destination in Silverton will be dry camping. I’ve been periodically running the generator to circulate oil and keep the battery charged. On the last generator start I discovered the battery was dead and after some diagnostics found it would no longer charge. Considering the battery is over three years old it’s time to replace it.

Fix

I made a quick trip down to an auto parts store in Gunnison. The part is a standard motorcycle battery called a YTZ14S. It was easily located and replaced with nothing more than a #2 phillips screwdriver.

Generator Battery Resize

Cost

$100 for a new battery and recycling fee and about 15 minutes of my time.

 

Truck

Problem

Our Sierra Denali pickup experienced a failure in the DEF (Diesel Exhaust Fluid) tank temperature sensor two days before departure. I knew this was the DEF tank because I hooked up our ODB scanner which gave me a code I could look up on the internet. If you don’t have an ODB reader get one, they’re cheap and can save your butt on the road!

Also in a separate incident the passenger side spherical mirror popped out. I quickly discovered how critical that mirror had become to towing the Airstream.

Fix

My Phoenix Chevrolet dealer was able to replace the DEF tank in a few hours and incredibly the tank was covered as part of the drive train warranty. I’m also most grateful we were able to fix this before departure.

20190710_162707949_iOS

AS For the mirror we were able to order a replacement at the Chevrolet dealer in Gunnison.

Cost

Because the DEF tank was covered under warranty cost to me was $0 though I did spend several hours at the dealer. No biggie. The mirror, however, was a whopping $150.

 

Internet

Problem

By now you all know my job is software, and to do it I have to remote into my office over the internet. Because of this I have multiple redundant systems to connect to the internet:

  • WiFi Booster

This device amplifies a WiFi (wireless fidelity) signal and presents it in the Airstream as my own strong personal WiFi hotspot.

20190801_192912612_iOS

A WiFi booster is useful when you have WiFi available from your campground but the source is weak or spotty. The down side to the WiFi booster is, honestly, most campground WiFi sucks even when you can get a clear signal. Because of this I rarely use the WiFi booster though the Crested Butte RV Resort WiFi is exceptional so I’ve been using it extensively.

  • Cellular Booster

This device amplifies cellular LTE signals for any cellular device placed next to the booster’s patch antenna. As long as I have one bar of LTE service without the booster I can usually achieve a workable connection with the booster.

Cellular Booster Resize

  • iPhone 8

The iPhone can serve as an excellent personal hotspot. When combined with the cellular booster I can usually work anywhere that has at least one bar of LTE service. The booster gives the iPhone excellent connectivity to the cellular tower and then the iPhone gives me a strong personal WiFi hotspot in the Airstream.

  • Ellipsis Jetpack

The jetpack is a device sold by Verizon that presents a strong personal WiFi hotspot in the Airstream. Just like the iPhone the jetpack is combined with the cellular booster and I can usually work anywhere that has at least one bar of LTE service.

For reasons I can’t begin to explain, though, I have found that even when using the cellular booster the iPhone and jetpack achieve different results. Because of this, I have found that in areas where I am having trouble one of these two devices will usually work.

On this trip I have been experiencing a host of problems connecting to the internet, as I shall explain.

Canyons of Buses

I’m very happy for the owners of the Crested Butte RV Resort. Their resort has taken off and by my eyes they’re averaging near full capacity every day. The down side for us, though, is a new phenomenon I call “canyons of buses”. And by this I mean there seem to be an unusual number of excessively massive RVs here, usually bus-sized monsters that have been parked on either side of us for weeks now.

Because WiFi is a line-of-sight technology, it works best if you can see from the Airstream directly to the campground’s WiFi antenna. However, when these giant buses park next to us our WiFi coverage drops to near zero.

The traditional way to combat this problem is a WiFi booster. You mount up an antenna on a high point of the Airsteam, which usually gives the antenna line of site to the campground transmitter. Only this time, we’ve found that the buses are so massive, even the booster is struggling.

Cell Tower Overload

Given my WiFi trouble as of late I have been relying also on cellular. Sadly, even with the cellular booster I have experienced relatively poor performance from the cellular network. One of the leading causes of this problem is cell tower overload. Simply put, one lonely cell tower simply has too many devices to service.

Fix

The fix for internet access isn’t a catch-all. I haven’t taken any action yet, but here are some ideas I’m noodling.

WiFi

The problems I’ve been experiencing with line-of-sight WiFi seem to be several fold. I spoke to the campground owner and they explained they’d just upgraded their systems but they’d been warned by the vendor they might need another transmitter in the center of the campground. So this might be a one-off.

Barring an actual fix to the campground transmitters, which is a non-starter in general, I’m noodling the idea of an external WiFi booster that I could raise on a mast.

Also I’ve been considering a new WiFi booster that would also have the nice side effect of giving the booster wireless wireless a/c band capability, which is supposed to handle multi-path and obstructions better. The down side is any kind of new booster will likely trigger new wiring and mounting which I can’t tackle in the field. Also an a/c band booster would of course only boost an a/c band transmitter at the campground, and a/c is still relatively new.

Cellular

Cellular boosters don’t address cell tower overload so the only real way around this problem is to use an alternate means of communication. Specifically, some RVers subscribe to multiple cellular providers and often discover that when Verizon is jammed AT&T is just fine or vice versa. I already pay a hefty cost for a non-throttled Verizon service so I’m hesitant to pay for yet more cellular service.

Still, AT&T offers an “unlimited” Airstream Plan, which I may look into. That plan reduces your bandwidth under peak loads (throttling) which could effect my work connection but that may be better than no connection at all. The plan is very affordable though, about $400/year, but AT&T’s coverage isn’t as good as Verizon’s.

Cost

If I decide to buy one, a new WiFi booster runs around $500.

The AT&T Airstream cellular plan costs about $400/year.

Conclusion

So far I’m feeling great about the trip. I’ve been able to solve most of the issues that have come up or make strategic plans for the more complex ones like internet access. I hope this blog also demonstrates that as an RVer you really need to practical know-how to solve problems on the road and a willingness to perform at least basic diagnostics when problems arise.

With that, I’ll continue to blog about our trip and as always keep an eye on our YouTube channel. In fact, we just released a video about an avalanche!

Peace out my friends and we’ll see you soon!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s