Saturday, May 22, 2010

Bear Creek Lake Park

[EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM - f/2.8, ISO400, 1/4000, hand held, 5/15/2010]

My first overnight stay in Ellie was on May 15th. Mostly it went pretty well (several mundane details covered in the prior post (and some more here...))

Sites are not assigned when you pay (and are not reservable) at Bear Creek Lake Park. You drive around until you find something you like. Because I'm anti-social, I wanted something on the edge - so I took the first spot I saw on the edge that didn't have anyone next to them. It didn't look too hard to back in to either, and after 5 to 10 attempts, I got it close to where one might think I was aiming. Leveling it took 2 level lynks, but since the ground was moist, the level links just sank in. Instead, I used 2x6 and put 1 level link on top. I had a little bit of an issue with the tire pushing the board/link out of the way, so it took a few attempts to get that just right. Leveling fore/aft, lowering the stabilizing jacks, and plugging in the electric supply was easy and didn't take long. Followed by pulling out the awning and dropping the welcome mat, and I was all set up. Time for a beer. Too bad I didn't pack any. :(

My limited use of the systems and living space for the evening met the expectations of this trailer newbie with the exception of two points.

One, with the Bambi layout, there isn't much room to open the door and get into the bathroom with the bed right there. But at night, when some blankets hang over the edge of the bed and bunch up where the door opens, there is even less space. Irritatingly less space when you are half asleep and 'gotta go'. In my sleep stupor, I didn't know why the door opening felt half as wide as it did during the day, with the latch and door handle snagging my shirt and shorts. It happened again in the morning, and this time I figured it out and moved the covers so the door would open further. I just need to remember this at night, so it doesn't feel like the door has come alive and is trying to bite me in half.

Two, I have no idea how cold it got outside, or how cold the interior aluminum skin got, but I do know that the furnace was set to keep the interior at about 62 degrees (plus of minus 2 degrees - confirmed with a thermometer). The issue I had was that the aluminum skin was 'radiating' cold at me, in the same way that sitting too close to a big camp fire radiates too much heat, my arms felt felt the exact same way (except cold, instead of hot). I found this interesting, since you can't really 'radiate' cold. Cold is just the absence of heat, and you can't radiate the absence of something. I suppose it felt that way because the walls were not radiating the normal room temperature, so my normal heat loss on that side of my arm was not being replaced. Also, something I ate didn't entirely agree with me and I get sensitive to minor temperature changes when I don't feel well. We'll see if it is any better on the trip to RMNP at the end of the month.

Speaking of not feeling well... In the early ours of the morning, I had an urgent need to 'use the facilities'. Other than the aforementioned issue of getting into the bathroom, I was happy that it was close by. Although it would not have been an issue to have stayed in a tent and trekked to a public facility - it wasn't that urgent. Still, score a significant fraction of a point for having a handy, private restroom.

So... I used the facilities, therefore I am in for an education on using the dump station. First, I have to figure out what equipment my rig has for dumping. I open up the storage tube that holds the dump tube/hose. I'm confused. It's just a flexible tube about 2 inches in diameter, about 3 feet long and expandable to over twice as long. There is no connector at either end of the tube. How's that supposed to work? The only thing I can see that doing is making a mess. So I look around some more, and I find 2 orange 'Rhino' connectors, and figure out how to put them on the ends of the tube. Expand the ends of the tube, so that the wire in the tube matches the threads on the connectors. Screwing them on is the opposite direction of screwing in a screw. I made sure I snugged it as far as I could reasonably tighten it - I didn't want it popping off while 'stuff' was flowing. The rest was easy - connect to the trailer, and the other end down the dump hole. Open black valve, wait, close black valve, open gray valve, wait, close gray valve. Disconnect, rinse, stow, done.

One thing that I will do differently next time - I was using these thin green dump station gloves (they look the same as the thin food prep gloves, except they are green). When I was done, there were two holes in the gloves - insufficient protection had it been a messy episode. I'll upgrade to a set of dish-washing gloves for future dump station experiences.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Travel Trailer Training

Never having owned/operated a travel trailer, and because we didn't purchase it new, we didn't get a how-to on everything in the trailer. Here is info I learned on the street, and in Ellie's first trial run over nighter in a camp ground. On Sat, May 15th I took her on her maiden (for me) voyage to Bear Creek Lake Park. It had 30 amp elec hookups.

Maybe some other new owner of a used Bambi might find info here of use, because none of it is in the owner's manual.

First things first. Getting in and out of it, and moving around in it made the whole thing bounce around. According to the manual, it has stabilizer jacks. But, where are they? And how do I use them? Are they electric? Airstreams are expensive and more lux than 'other' brands, shouldn't they be automatic? Hey, I did say I have zero experience and zero training...

After much looking around for switches or other controls for a stabilizing jack system, and coming up with nothing, it was time to get my hands dirty and my knees wet (it was raining). I looked under the trailer and found the four jacks (near each corner). I didn't know how to operate them though. Much much later, I found that the jack crank handle was in the rear bumper storage compartment. Once found, it was easy to operate. Just stick the end of the crank on to the threaded rod and turn. A warning to any inexperienced stabilizer jack operator. These are stabilizer jacks. Not leveling jacks. They are meant to stabilize the weight of people moving about inside. They are not meant to take the weight of the trailer itself. Level the trailer before extending the stabilizers.

Leveling the trailer is easy. First level it side to side, but putting a board or other leveling item (ours came with Level Links (or some name like that) on the lower side of the driveway, camp pad, side of the road, etc... And then back the trailer up on to it. I use a level on the kitchen counter. So far I've only needed one or two level links stacked. Once the side to side direction is level, use the hitch jack to level it fore/aft. Once that is done, lower the stabilizer jacks so that they firmly contact the ground, but not to lift the trailer.

Now that it is level, here's a walkaround of where things are for a 2006 19 foot Bambi:

Starting on the outside, facing the door, to the left are two aluminum vented hatch covers. These are for the fridge.

Moving to the left, and lower down is another vented hatch cover. The water heater is behind that.

Moving to the back of the trailer, there are the two storage locations. Bumper (for water hoses and elec hookup cable, etc), and the locking hatch above it, on the right side of the rear of the trailer (I store the tire chocks, level links, bottle jack, tire covers, and misc boards and wood blocks there.

Moving to the rear of the street side should be the cable and phone hookups (have not used 'em), and then the elec hookup. Moving along and down at the bottom of the trailer is the waste dump hookup. In the center is the dump cap (remove to hook up the dump hose). The large valve handle to the right is the black water valve, the smaller one to the left is the grey water valve. While you are down there, look at the bottom of the trailer a ways further down to the left. The dump hose is stored there.

Standing back up and moving towards the front, we should see the city water hookup. This is where a clean water (white) hose can be hooked up to a potable water supply. You do not use your water pump when using this (the water pressure from the supply pressurizes your system). Also, it is recommended to get a pressure regulator to protect your water system from over pressurized camp ground supply lines. Place your regulator at the supply end of your hose to protect your hose as well. A recommendation I got recently (and have not implemented yet) is to get an elbow, so that your white hose does not stick out (tripping hazard) and to keep the hose from crimping where it connects to the trailer.

Near the front of the trailer should be the fresh water tank fill hatch. Unlock and open it to be able to pour fresh water into your white holding tank.

At the front of the trailer are the battery box, propane tanks, and hitch jack.

I'm not at my trailer now, but there are also 2 outdoor 120 volt electric outlets. I think they are near the door.

Appliance testing time...

The furnace was running when we went to look at it, so I was not concerned about that working. But I just needed to know how to operate it. It turned out to be simple. No pilot light. Just turn on the propane and turn the thermostat on (located on the wall next to the bathroom sink). It makes a bit of a roar, but appears to work well.

Water. The fresh water tank was filled before we bought it. To use (cold) water, just turn on the pump (located on the status panel on the wall to the left of the stove), wait for the system to pressurize, then turn on the faucet. Easy peasy.

Water, hot. Is the valve opened to the water heater? Does the water heater have a pilot light? Much searching for the water heater bypass valves finally resulted in locating their presence under the bed mattress. There are two holes cut into the plywood that supports the mattress. One for the water system drain valves, and one for the water heater bypass valves. It was hard to tell which way was on, and which way was off. It looked like the valves were in the correct positions - both hot and cold were open, and the bypass was closed. To verify, I went out to the water heater and, with the water system pressurized, pressed on the pressure relief valve just enough to tell if the system was under pressure. Water streamed/squirted out, indicating that the proper supply valve should be open. OK, so water was in the tank, time to check pilot light. Upon visual inspection, it appeared to have electronic ignition. So I went inside and turned on the water heater (switch is behind the bathroom sink (a red light next to the switch came on). I went outside and could hear the pop pop of the electric ignition attempting to light the flame (remember to turn on the propane). It finally lit and I hear a roar similar to the furnace roar. After about 10 minutes, the roar quit, indicating that the water was up to temp. I then tried running hot water to verify. The faucet coughed and sputtered a bunch of air, indicating that I FORGOT A STEP! Before turning the water heater on, evacuate the air from your pipes! Turn on cold until the air stops sputtering and the water comes out smoothly. Do the same with the hot water side. Do both procedures to both the kitchen and bathroom sink. Flush the toilet for the same purpose. Then turn on the water heater. Turning on a water heater without water in it could damage it.

Time to check the stove top. Visual inspection shows that there was an electric igniter knob. Turning it produced the expected pops. Visually inspect each burner while turning the knob. Verify that a spark is visible at each burner. Now, to light, turn a burner to high/light and continually twist the igniter knob until the burner lights. this can take a while if this is the first use in a while (gas has to reach the burner from the tank). I lit all three burners. Success!

I could not tell if the igniter worked with the oven or not (suspected not). I checked the manual for the oven (Amana) and it had pilot light lighting instructions. Before I followed them, I made sure that as much of the air was gone from the propane supply tubes as possible, by lighting the stove top (once lit I turned them off). I was able to get the pilot lit while I was pushing in the pilot knob. But after 10, 20, and 60 second tries, releasing the pilot button would always extinguish the flame. I suspect a faulty thermocouple. ...So currently the oven does not work.

Moving to the fridge, I found that it works off of either electricity or propane. I turned it on with the button above the door, and it worked. I was not hooked up to power, so it went to gas mode. I could hear the electric ignition popping until it lit, like the water heater. But when this was lit, it did not roar - it was nice and quiet. Later, I plugged in to the 30 amp hookup at the camp site and the fridge switched from gas to elec.

I tried out the awning. It worked nicely. It's best that I don't try to explain it here. There is a nice YouTube video by the president of Zip Dee out there that should be sufficient. Zip Dee. One more item of note about the awning. The first time I used it, I was on my slanted driveway, when I tried rolling it up, gravity pulled it forwards, and the locking knobs no longer matched up with their slots. Don't use the awning if you are not level fore/aft.

Remember to turn you propane on when you start camping (or turn the fridge on), and remember to turn it off when you stop camping. I keep forgetting both.

Next up - dump station...

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Time for a Name

Since one of the reasons I wanted a travel trailer was for greater comfort for an aging dog (Hey, I did say one of the reasons). Unfortunately I was unable to acquire, much less use, the trailer before we lost Koal. We also had a bid pending on a 22 foot trailer in New Jersey the weekend we lost him, so I was thinking that we'd name the trailer Koal. Just to add to remembering him.

We got out bid on that trailer, but I figured I'd still see if the name fit whatever we did end up getting.

A couple weeks later we did get a trailer, but the name Koal didn't seam to fit. It appeared that the trailer wanted a female name. I don't know where the name came from, but Ellie seamed to fit. Nothing better cropped up in the following weeks, so Ellie it is.

Now that you have a travel trailer...

...welcome to the post purchase expenses!

Just documenting a few expenses for repairs and additional equipment:


Before delivering the trailer, the prior owner replaced a damaged stabilizer jack. Cost: Free (to us). Thanks Brook!

The Zip Dee awning had 2 broken parts (a hook and a pin). Cost: $14 (I think)

The plastic latch to keep the door open was broken. Cost: $1.32.

The plastic stop on the end of the curtain track. Cost: $1.50(ish).

The deep cycle batteries failed to take a charge. After reading several blogs/articles about RV/marine deep cycle batteries, we went with a high tech type (AGM?) that costs 2.5 times as much as a regular deep cycle lead acid battery, but has slightly more capacity, is more resilient to not failing when discharged, and has double the life expectancy. Cost: about $300 (for two).

When towing the trailer home, we discovered that the LED tail lights were crap. Roughly half the lights in each of the four units would not light up. We got one replacement Bargman LED unit from Windish RV for $37, and tested that out. We didn't like it. Where the old ones light up dim for running lights, and bright for brake/turn lights, this one just lit up the 7 center lights for running lights, then lit up all 25(ish) for brake lights. It just didn't look right. I then stopped in to Harbor freight for a bottle jack and noticed that they have the same sized LED lights. They had fewer LEDs, but I suspected they we higher intensity. I picked up 2 of them to test out ($30 for both). I tried them out, and they fit MUCH better than the originals and the replacement Bargman. They looked good too - they had the desired low and high intensity. Went back a week later to get 2 more, and they happened to be on sale - $20 for the pair. In replacing the lights, I found that whomever originally installed them or whomever messed with them later did a crap job. Holes were drilled in the aluminum housing where there was no point to having them there (there were no screw holes in the retaining flange in those spots), there were multiple types of screws used, 2 of which were broken off in the housing, and finally, the light units and flanges were installed at an angle, which caused half of the flange screws to completely miss the aluminum housing. I got some replacement screws from Home Depot, realigned, and redrilled the holes. The tail lights look much better now, and no longer droop! Total cost: about $90. Not something I expected to have to do, but since it looks so much better now and didn't cost hundreds of dollars, I'm happy.

Flat tire. The right side tire went low. I filled it back up with air, and it went low again. I detected that the valve stem was leaking, so took the wheel off and went to Discount Tire. They replaced the valve stem for free. Yay! They told me that because it was a trailer tire, they filled it to max PSI. Buzzzzz! That is the correct procedure, but they only filled it to 34 PSI. The rated PSI for this tire is 65. Always double check! Cost: free.

Concerns (possible future repairs):

The fresh water tank, over about 18 days, lost 14 or 15 gallons of water (assuming the measurements were right). [update 10/13/2010] After 4 multi day trips I see no further evidence of a water leak.

The floor near the banquette has an odd bump (I think the floor is sagging and the bump is where the frame is keeping the floor from sagging). Live with it for now, but might mean floor repairs in the future. Same sort of thing in the bathroom.

Additional Equipment:

Most expensive item (to date): Honda 2000 watt inverter generator (small/quiet/expensive): $1000.

Seven blade connector plus brake controller. installed. Cost: about $400.

Hitch and ball to get the trailer home. Cost: about $30.

Bottle jack (hey there was no jack - what is one to do if/when one gets a flat on the road?) A way over capacity 8 ton bottle jack. Cost: $20.

Weight distribution anti-sway Equilizer hitch. The FJ was slightly nose high, and bobbed a bit while going down the road, so I decided on a weight distribution hitch. Mail ordered, with extension arm to lower the hitch point, and a new 10,000 pound rated ball. (no longer use the $30 hitch parts above) Cost: $600.

One and seven eigths inch socket for the hitch. Cost: $26

Four chairs (2 cheap, 2 even cheaper) $70

Sheets (altered). Cost ??

Water presure regulator. Cost: about $5.

Plastic coated wire hangers. Cost: about $5.

Mat for under awning. Cost: ??

Mat for outside, in front of stairs. Cost: ??

Mat for inside door. Cost: ??

Mat for kitchen. Cost: ??

Glow sticks for backing up tow vehicle to trailer to hitch. I don't know what they are really called. They are bright yellow/green and stick up from the hitch and hitch ball with magnets. Cost: ??

Grey/black water tank enzyms/chemicals. Cost $20.

Hitch lock. Cost: ??

Toaster oven. Unit does not have a microwave, so when we are hooked up to elec (generator or plug in hookup), we can toast stuff. Cost: $50.

12 volt elec blanket/throw. It's not very big, but should be usefull for preheating the bed. Cost: ??

Reflective bubble wrap insulation (roll). I'm sure it has a different name, but that's what I call it. Used to create insulative light blockers for the 2 roof vents (night use). Cost: $12 + velcro.

Dishes/pots/pans/etc reuse from tent camping.

Tire chocks. High vis red. Four. $21

Tow mirror (1 to test). Suction cup style. COMPLETE failure. Sometimes it would immediately sag and fall off. When it didn't do that, it would just fall off as soon as I let go. Cost: $20.

Tow mirror (1 to test). Clip to existing mirror style (extra tall 'arms' to handle the tall FJ mirrors). Almost complete failure. Did not clip well due to the contours of the FJ mirror. Did not extend very far (not far enough). Vibrated. Cost: $25.

Tow mirrors. (2, because it had better work) The scratch-your-paint, strap to the side of your door extension mirror with stabilizer arm style. I don't like 'em, but they do work. Cost: $120.

Storage (because we can't keep it at the house). 10 to 15 minutes away. Cost: $35/month.

[update: 10/13/2010] weight distribution + anti sway hitch. Cost: $600(?). Saved $120 by installing it myself.

I'm sure there are several other nickle and dime expenses I can't think of right now.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Silver Tweenkie

On April 21st, we purchased a travel trailer. Sound like a sudden move? I guess it requires a bit of a back story...

Three years ago I went camping for 2 nights at Elevenmile Reservior. I took both dogs, Koal and Amber. All three of us stayed in a tent. I quite enjoyed the trip, except for a couple things. It rained. I like some rain, but lots of rain when you just have a tent is not ideal. I thought it would be good to have an RV or trailer (most of the rest of the group had one or the other) with an awning to provide cover from the rain, and to provide shade when the sun was out. There were also some noises at night from other campers that I thought an RV/trailer (non pop up) would mostly filter out. Mostly I enjoyed the trip, but started my thinking toward improving the adverse weather experience with a small trailer. I already have a tow vehicle, so was thinking down the trailer path rather than RV (motor coach) path. Plus, I would like the ability to drive to different nature photo shoots (or grocery stores, etc) without having to repack an RV to be able to drive it. And, some of the photo shoots might be better getting there in a 4WD rather than an RV.

Two years ago I took the dogs again camping, this time at Stillwater campground on Lake Granby. This time it was way too hot (even at 8000 feet). The sun pounded down, and the breezes were more than a little hot. The camp site I had was treeless due to the bark beetles. Having a trailer with some insulation and an awning would have improved that considerably. Also, here, the camping neighbors were considerably louder at night.

One year ago, I spent another three days with the pups in Rocky Mountain National Park (a couple of blog entries from that are here...). Although my latest sleeping solution (two of the plushest air mats held side by side with a custom made air mattress cozy, and 2 sleeping bags zipped together) was by far the most comfortable to date, it still had the issue of sliding down hill into one side of the tent, and took up 90% of the floor space of the tent. This trip again had many rainy hours - several of which were at meal times. Hard to cook out in the rain. Again I thought of a trailer with a kitchen... And a nice banquette to sit at... And an awning.

I think the dogs, for the most part, enjoyed all of the trips. But the RMNP trip presented a couple of dog issues that had crept up on me. When I wanted to go on a hike and/or photo shoot, the dogs really weren't up for it. Amber was blind from the diabetes, and Koal was getting old enough that medium-short walks would tire him out and likely give him joint pain as well. I would have liked to have been able to leave them at the camp site, but was not comfortable with leaving them in a tent. I would have been ok with a trailer with windows and vents open.

So, after last year's camping trip I was seriously looking for a 'vintage' (cheap) small trailer. I was trying to budget $5k for something that was sound and didn't need a lot of work - I already have one house that needs more work than I've been giving it; I don't need another. I looked for a couple months in the fall (hoping to pick up a deal on a trailer that someone wanted to get rid of rather than put back in storage). I found several things in the price range, but didn't like the condition, looks, etc... And I was not entirely comfortable with running out and getting a trailer due to my lack of ever having pulled a real trailer (plenty of experience with a small trailer on the back of a tractor, but nothing behind a car on public roads). In my browsing, I saw a restored 1967 Airstream online. It was updated in just about the right way aesthetically for me. Being an Airstream, it didn't have a stupid swirly multi colored paint scheme. I'm not really sure *why* I don't like the swirl/swoosh/whatever paint schemes that are found on the majority of trailers, but it just reads 'trailer trash' to me - even though the graphics can be found on million dollar RVs as well. The interior of this Airstream Carvel was redone and didn't have the tacky 1970's finishes. It kept the original floor plan and used quality materials, so it looked very good to me. The asking price, I think, was $12.5k. More than double my original budget, but I fell in love with the concept of a vintage Airstream towed behind my retro-modern FJ. So, I gave it a rest over the winter while I tried to save for a bigger budget.

Come spring, I started looking again. There were not a lot of small Airstreams showing up for sale in the area. There were a few though. One for $3k in Boulder that needed new flooring and lots of TLC. We drove up to look at it. It needed way more than TLC. It needed a complete re-do. I was not interested in a project at this time. We continued looking at dozens of Airstreams online, and discovered that the 1970's 'tacky' interior look that we didn't care for extended from the late 60's to the late 90's and early 2000's. We decided to up our budget in order to get something that was made within the last 10 years - also with the hope of reducing the maintenance budget/headache of a vintage trailer. We put in a few EBay bids on out of state trailers, but we always got out bid, or the auction would be terminated because they sold it locally. Then, in April, a 2006 19 foot Bambi Special Edition showed up on Craigslist in Boulder. It was way way way way over my original budget, but was just about exactly what we were looking for, and we didn't have to drive for days to get it, so we went for it.

We got it. With a little buyer's remorse, but we got it. The remorse was largely due to "Gee wiz! That budget could cover a whole lot of lux hotel rooms and a lot of room service! I sure hope we get our money's worth!", and "We bought nearly new, but after the first day and an inspection, there are already half a dozen fixes that it needs!", and "Now that we have a trailer, we need this $1000 item, and that $500 item, and those 20 $100 items..."

We are deep in the hole expense wise, but we'll have to see how things go and how much we use it... Stay tuned.