Is it safe to tie down your awning?

This one is a bit controversial. We sell a very nice tie-down kit in the Airstream Life Store that is really great for securing almost anything to the ground. Although it’s great for dog leashes, kites, solar shades, and even airplanes, a common use is to tie down the Zip Dee awning so it doesn’t flap as much on a breezy day.

I like to do this when we are camped near a beach or any other place where it tends to be breezy. But fair warning: the moment you propose to tie down your awning, someone will come up to you and proclaim that you should never tie down the awning. Even Zip Dee, the manufacturer of your Airstream’s awning, will tell you they don’t recommend it. So you might feel a bit foolish for having bought a tie-down that you are officially discouraged from using.

Well, I’ll go out on a limb and say that’s overly-precautionary. Tying down an awning won’t hurt it. Leaving it deployed in a heavy wind or storm will.

Zip Dee says your awning will be fine in a light breeze, but they don’t give an official wind speed limit. Instead, they say things like “if you’re comfortable in the breeze, the awning probably is too.” I’ve also heard various numbers tossed around but there seems to be no exact consensus. Somewhere above 20 MPH there’s a point at which a deployed awning arm might bend, but without a wind tunnel or a really good mechanical engineering study I doubt we’ll ever know exactly.

So if there’s a chance of heavy weather (like thunderstorms or high wind gusts), take down your awning as a precaution. And always take it down at night, because if you don’t the wind will magically pick up around 2 a.m. and the rattling of the awning will wake you up.  Take it from me. I’ve taken the awning in many times in the pitch black, wearing pajamas.

Now let’s get real. On a day when there’s a lot of sun and a mild breeze, I’ll be a rebel and tie down the awning. (Yeah, I live on the edge.) I do it because the awning rattles and flaps in the wind and it’s distracting. As long as the wind stays moderate, tying down the awning won’t do any harm.

The theory against using a tie-down seems to stem from the idea that a Zip Dee awning has some flex built into it, which helps it resist damage in the wind. If so, I’m taking some of that flex away by pulling the awning down with my tie-down. I can live with that, in exchange for a bit of quiet. Obviously, if the wind picks up, I’ll disconnect the tie-down and roll up the awning. We’re not talking about complex calculus here.

But if you can’t stand the idea of helpful people coming up to you to explain that you’re not doing it correctly, then I recommend a Solar Shade. This snaps to the underside of the Zip Dee awning and adds some privacy and shade to your outdoor living space. Use “The Claw” to secure the Solar Shade instead. This has the same effect of quieting the awning in a breeze, with the security of knowing that the Solar Shade will disconnect at the snaps if the wind pressure becomes too high.

Improving your cellular connection

I think we were the only ones with cellular Internet at this rally in 2005

These days having Internet while we are traveling is almost as important as water and oxygen, at least for many of us. When I started full-time Airstream travel in 2005 having a cellular Internet “box” was a big deal and fairly rare.  The one I was using cost about $2,500 and was about the size of two VHS tapes (remember those?) and when I went to the WBCCI International Rally in Springfield MO, everybody wanted to borrow it to check their email.

Fortunately it was a loaner, because not long after you could get a tiny hotspot that did the same thing for about $79, and suddenly we all started getting them.  Now almost anyone can use cellular networks for their Internet, just by turning on a hotspot feature on their phone.

Of course, when Internet is free and easy you start to take it for granted, and then when it suddenly isn’t available it feels like a python has taken a grip to your neck.  You know what I mean if you’ve ever pulled into a campground and found their wifi to be completely useless once everyone in the campground starts watching Netflix.  Here’s your python—no more oxygen for you!

I skip the campground wifi because it’s almost always horrible, and use cellular exclusively for my work. Not only is it more reliable, it’s more secure. No unknown persons are able to share my hotspot, and that’s a good thing for security reasons. (This assumes, of course, that you have encryption enabled on your hotspot and use a hard-to-guess password.)

It’s rare when the cellular network runs slowly.  Usually I only find an overcrowded network in Borrego Springs, CA, where every winter hundreds of RVs park in and around the town.  Many of them are part of the current craze of RV “technomads”, people who rely on having good Internet every day, all day, and in the past few seasons they have completely overwhelmed the capacity of the Borrego Springs cell towers.

Far more often the problem is the reverse: instead of being overcrowded, we’re usually in a fringe reception area, competing with no one but struggling to pull a good signal into our Airstream.

Obviously the aluminum shell of an Airstream trailer is not great for reception (nor is the metal of an Interstate or Base Camp) so in the past I’ve been forced to set up my laptop on a picnic table outside.  Let me tell you, the fantasy image of blissfully working outdoors instead of a some cubicle is absolute nonsense.  Either the sun is too bright to see the screen or there’s a threat of rain, often there are bugs flying around and taking nips, the breeze may come up and blow your papers away, or it’s too hot or too cold. There’s a good reason officeworkers work in offices; it’s similar to why we camp in Airstreams instead of tents.

So in the real world we need to have a way to get the signal into the Airstream, and there’s really only one practical way: an external antenna, paired with a signal booster.  WeBoost (formerly Wilson) has cornered the market on signal boosters, and their product is good, so you’ll probably end up with one of those.  But the antenna that comes with most of their kits is, shall we say, “less than optimal”.

First of all it has a magnetic base, because it’s intended for cars and trucks. That’s not going to help on the aluminum roof of an Airstream.  Second, to get the cable out you have to drill a hole in the Airstream roof, or poke it out through a window (a hole in the screen, of course) which looks awful and isn’t a good installation for the long haul. Third, there’s a reason they throw that particular antenna into the kit—it’s a cheap, so-so option.

The best move is to permanently mount a good antenna on the roof. Yes, you’ll have to get over the fact that a hole must be drilled in the Airstream. If you use the right antenna there won’t be any problem making the installation completely leak-proof.

My feeling is that if you are going to drill a hole, do it once and install the best antenna you can find. After evaluating many (including installing several types on the roof of my own Airstream over the past 12 years) I’ve settled on the Laird Phantom antenna.

It’s just as effective as the big antennas (which run 19 to 24 inches tall), but it’s just under three and a half inches tall. It looks like an inverted shot glass, mounted directly to the roof.  Because it’s white and matches the roof color, most people will never see it, which is nice because I don’t like having huge antennas on my roof that virtually announce to the world that I’ve got laptops inside. And, it’s so small it won’t catch on branches during those “tree trimming” exercises we seem to do occasionally.

Another aspect I really like is that the Phantom antenna seals directly to the roof with a tight rubber gasket that prevents leaks. Nothing else is needed, but for a belt & suspenders approach I added a little sealant too. So it’s the last thing on my roof that I worry about leaking.

The other piece of the puzzle, after the WeBoost and antenna, is the cable. Most people seem to use a standard low-attenuation (signal loss) cable that works OK, but I found a better version that has less signal loss. We package the cable together with the antenna and complete instructions, in the Airstream Life Store. (You can buy the WeBoost separately.)

Really, everyone who wants reliable Internet in their Airstream should install one of these, but most people don’t, and I think that’s because they’re horrified by the idea of drilling a hole in their Airstream roof.  I get that. It took me a while to get over it, too. Fairly often we sell one of these kits and it comes back a couple of weeks later with a sheepish email saying, “My [significant other] won’t let me drill a hole in the Airstream.”

That’s why we include a set of step-by-step instructions with the kit. The instructions show how anyone with moderate DIY skills can handle this job. Still, if you’re not comfortable with it you can always have the local Airstream dealer install it for you—or bring it to the factory sometime. It’s really not that hard; basically you just drill two holes and run the cable.

The end result is great. Not only is the antenna nearly unnoticeable, but the cellular performance is greatly improved.  You’ll get faster data speeds and be able to get online easily in places where the system would struggle before. You’ll quickly forget the trauma of drilling a hole, and you’ll enjoy the boost in performance for years.

Tips on full-time use in the winter

Since it’s winter, it seems like a good time to answer questions about storage.  A reader recently asked about keeping his Airstream hooked up all the time, since he uses it all winter in the Pacific Northwest. He commented:

I built an RV pad on my property with 50amp, water and sewer hookups. I use a thermostatically controlled water hose to avoid that freezing. Trailer is always plugged in with full time heat and dehumidifier running. I do not disconnect the battery, and I use the trailer daily, like a full-timer.

“I do not winterize, but I do not store water in the tanks with the exception of the black which includes a 12v heater i keep on sub freezing days.

“Question is, am I doing this wrong? Are my water lines OK being that the trailer is always heated and on city water hook ups with the heated hose? Should I disconnect my battery via the storage kill switch when hooked up all winter?”

No worries, you’re doing everything right—and you’re lucky to be able to keep your Airstream stored at home with hookups!  Since you live in a mild climate and keep the trailer warm, there’s really no risk of the plumbing freezing and there’s no need to winterize.  The heated water hose you are using will prevent that from freezing up, too.

You definitely should not disconnect the battery if you are using the trailer. The battery provides a valuable function in the 12 volt system and the converter/charger is designed to be connected to a battery when the trailer is plugged in, even if you aren’t actually relying on the battery for power.

Turning on the “kill switch” (battery disconnect) won’t help preserve the battery—quite the opposite, actually. Disconnecting the battery means it won’t get any power from the converter and will slowly self-discharge. The disconnect switch is intended for storage situations when shore power isn’t available to keep the battery charged.

Sometimes people are concerned about the electrolyte (acid) in the battery “boiling off” as a result of a single-stage battery charger being plugged in constantly. The simple fix for this concern is to check the level of electrolyte in the battery every month or two and top it up with distilled water as needed. Take care when doing it, as you don’t want to splash acid on anything, including your skin, and always have some baking soda/water mixture on hand to neutralize a spill.

One thing to be cautious about on a freezing day: don’t try to operate the dump valves if they might be frozen.  You can tear the rubber seals, which will cause the valves to leak forever after.  (In this case, you’d need to replace the valves—a slightly unpleasant task.) It’s best to just wait for warmer temperatures before operating the dump valves.  In a pinch, you could use a hair dryer to warm them up.

You’re smart to run a dehumidifier.  In humid climates like the Pacific NW and the Gulf States it’s important to let the humidity out by opening the windows or running a dehumidifier. Long-term, excessive humidity will damage lots of things in the Airstream and leave unsightly stains on the curtains and walls.

Even in the drier northern states humidity can be a problem in the winter because people tend to keep the windows tightly shut to retain the heat.  Unfortunately humidity from people, animals, cooking, and washing builds up, so if you don’t have a dehumidifier it’s a good practice to keep a window and a roof vent cracked slightly.

How to replace your water heater’s drain plug—and why

One of the most overlooked maintenance items on an RV is the drain plug on the water heater. They don’t last forever, and if you ignore it, the result can be super-annoying later.

Typically the plug gets removed once a year, during winterizing, to drain the water heater. It’s made of nylon, because plastic won’t react with the metal in the tank (a metal plug, even a brass one, can result in corrosion).

Because the nylon is soft and easily damaged, it should be replaced with a fresh one every time it is removed. But sometimes people (even technicians who should know better) will re-use the plug. This is a false economy.

First of all, these plugs are cheap. They tend to be overly expensive when sold as “RV water heater plugs”.  Try a local hardware store instead, and ask for a 1/2″ NPT plastic drain plug with 15/16″ head.  You’ll probably find them at about a buck apiece, versus $3-4 each online or at RV shops. Get a few spares while you’re at it.

Second, when the plastic gets old or worn, the plug will be prone to leaking or—far worse—it can get fragile. Then the head of the plug is likely to break off when you eventually try to remove it. If that happens, you’ll have to find a way to extract the remains of the plug without damaging the aluminum threads of the drain hole, and that’s a real hassle.  (Ask me how I know …)

(By the way, this is why we include a spare drain plug in our “Little Things Kit of Essentials“. It’s one of those little things that most of us never remember to have on hand.)

I think people don’t like to deal with the drain plug because it seems hard to get to.  Certainly it’s not conveniently located on RV water heaters, but it’s actually simple to remove and replace when you know how.  So I’ll tell you.

The main thing is not to try to get at the plug with an adjustable wrench. That’s what everyone tries to do because that’s the tool everyone owns.  But an adjustable wrench won’t reach the plug very well, and you’ll probably end up scraping up your hands on the sharp edges of the vent above.

(See picture at left for an example of how not to do it.)

Instead, three simple tools will make this job so easy you’ll want to do it yourself instead of paying a technician $100/hour to do it for you:

  1. a 15/16″ socket
  2. a ratchet wrench with a drive size that fits the 15/16″ socket (usually 1/2″ drive)
  3. an extension of 5-10″ length in the same drive size

If you have the Airstream Life Tire Changing Kit, you already have the extension and a “breaker bar” that will substitute for the ratchet wrench in a pinch. All you need in that case is a 15/16″ socket (1/2″ drive), which you can get at a hardware store.

Assemble the three tools and use those to easily remove a water heater drain plug in seconds. (Remember, righty-tighty, lefty-loosey.)  Be ready for a gush of water as the plug comes out. A bucket on the ground below the water heater is helpful.  Throw away the old plug so you’re not tempted to reuse it someday.

Installing the new replacement plug is just as easy, with one extra step.  Have some plumber’s tape (aka Teflon tape) on hand to wrap tightly around the threads of the new plug before you begin to thread it in.

Put on three or four full turns of tape, and stretch it tight as you do.  This will make your new plug leak-proof.  You can skip this step but there’s a good chance the plug will ooze or drip water when the heater is on and the tank is pressurized, so I always use the tape.

Start threading the plug by hand, to make sure it’s not cross-threaded.  You should be able to give it a turn or two with your fingers.  Once you’re sure it is going in straight you can switch to the tools to finish tightening it.

Be sure to fill the water heater (run the water in the kitchen on full hot until no more air comes out) before lighting it. Check that the plug is not leaking before you light the heater.  If all seems good, let the heater come to full temperature and double-check that the plug is not leaking.

If it leaks, you may have to remove it entirely and use more plumber’s tape on the threads. Don’t over-tighten the plug, because the plastic threads are soft and it could break.

WARNING: Don’t tighten or remove the plug while the water is hot! There is a possibility you could over-tighten it and cause it to break, which would result in you getting scalded by hot water!

Instead, let the water heater cool first.  The fastest way to cool it is to turn off the heater and run the hot water inside until there’s no hot water left.

If you read online RV forums about water heater problems or winterizing you’ll come across plenty of reports from people who struggle and skin their knuckles trying to replace this little plastic plug. Don’t be one of those people.

With a very modest investment in tools and parts this plug can be removed in literally seconds, and replaced just as quickly.  It should be done at least once a year, even if you don’t winterize, to ensure the plug doesn’t age out, and also to drain sediment that may have accumulated in the water tank.

Do you need a water pressure regulator?

No.

Was that too succinct?

OK, let me expand on that.  If you have an Airstream made in the past four decades, and nobody has removed the built-in water pressure regulator, you don’t need one to protect the plumbing.  That protection is already built in.

Honestly, I’m not sure why other manufacturers don’t build in pressure regulators. They’re not that expensive.  I would never buy a new RV from a company that is too cheap to install a simple water pressure regulator.  But apparently many do, because if you Google “RV water pressure regulator” you’ll find endless discussions about why you need one for Brand X, and all the awful things that could happen if you don’t get one.

Sometimes people suggest using a water pressure regulator to protect the typical vinyl “white water” hose, because it’s still potentially exposed to high water pressure at a campground spigot.  I don’t see the logic in spending anywhere from $9 to $30 to protect a $30 hose. Especially since that hose won’t last more than a couple of years in average use anyway!

Instead, I bought a better hose that won’t ever be damaged by high pressure and will last for many years.  In the long run it makes a lot more sense.

Things can be different for a vintage Airstream in which the plumbing has been replaced (as nearly all have). In this case it’s quite possible that the handyman who did the plumbing neglected to install a decent pressure regulator.  Under really rare circumstances, you could have a plumbing problem as the result of excessively high water pressure.

I say “rare” because the common problem in campgrounds is low water pressure. When we find a campground with high pressure I’m always kind of happy about it, because it means great showers.

Really, a leak in the plumbing is far more likely to be the result of improper installation or winterizing than anything else.  Just a little bit of water left in the wrong spot can result in a leak by springtime. (By the way, PEX is pretty good at resisting damage from freezing, which is one of the reasons the RV industry has gone over to it.)

Still, if you find your Airstream has been “done over” by someone, check to see that a pressure regulator was installed.  It should be very close to the city water fill (on the inside of the trailer), or more likely it’s integrated into the city water fill.

If it looks like the one at left (a Shurflo) then it has pressure regulation built-in, and you’re all set.

Bottom line: you probably don’t need another water pressure regulator.