A Plumber and an Electrician walk into an Airstream…

…is either the beginning of a very promising joke, or a (brief) summary of the last couple of weeks in Airstream restoration. But seriously folks, it’s sooooo wonderful to be far enough along for systems work, and pleased to be able to hand most of it over to real experts. (Ben’s edit: Huh? What are you saying??) WARNING: This blog post will rank high with Airstream renovation enthusiasts, low with others. But to tide others over (eg my closest friends), here is something pretty – I machine appliqued the sailboat (a yawl like one we used to own) and Airstream onto the napping couch pillows. The reading light is newly installed and you get a good look at the bathroom sink cabinetry in the background.

FullSizeRender (10)

OK, back to the boring stuff. First the plumbing. You may recall in our prevous post that Ben had laid the groundwork for final connections by running all the PEX lines. My parents had scheduled their plumber Jaime to come over and do some maintenance (leaky faucets, a no-no in drought stricken California). They sung his praises, so we arranged to talk to him about doing the Airstream connections. The main requirement is that he be comfortable with PEX tubing, which is becoming more popular in home applications (it’s less labor intensive and thus cheaper to install), but still raises a few eyebrows among old fashioned Jaime-The-Plumber types because it’s, well, not copper.  Turns out Jaime and crew did know how to handle PEX, had all the right high-tech tools, and even signed off on PEX philosophically as perfect for a trailer.  All went great. A real feeling of progress when we hooked up the “city water” supply (i.e. attached the garden hose to the newly-installed inlet in the back of the trailer) and the system was pressurized!  Faucets all worked and everything drained properly!

Jaime the plumber at work

Jaime the plumber at work

Meanwhile, we’d been hunting around for an electrician and found Soren, the electrician who works with Brody Travel Supply in Ojai, CA. Brody is one of our favorite follows on Instagram. Collin, of CFDetailing knew we were looking for an electrician and suggested we call Geoff (“who knows everyone!”) at Brody, who then kindly hooked us up with Soren who works out of their shop about 90 minutes north of Glendale.

So, we prepared to take the trailer out of the driveway for the first time (since we arrived here on May 6th) to head up the road. Woot!

We battened down the hatches, confirmed we were paid up on our insurance, and put some notes on cars parked across the street – asking if they’d move their cars so we’d have all the room possible for leaving the driveway. The hitch scraped a bit when we had backed in and we have since installed our water heater; its exhaust pipe (see pic below) sits lower than the hitch, on the side. If that pipe scrapes, we are doomed. So, Ben built some hefty wood ramps to deploy under the tires if we needed some extra height to avoid scraping, and I positioned myself in the rose bushes to watch carefully as he moved out – alas no scraping, so the hefty wood ramps have been set aside to be used in the zombie apocalypse.


Water heater pipe in foreground, hitch in background. Zombie apocalypse ramp at left.

Airstream, after successful launch fro our driveway, in our

Airstream, after successful launch from our driveway, in our “staging area” a block away on a quiet street adjacent to ours.

We took the easterly route (the 210 to the 5 to the 126, y’all!) to Brody’s in Ojai (avoiding the 101) and had an uneventful drive through mountains and valleys and lush (thanks to irrigation) fruit and vegetable farmlands. It WAS great to be on the road, even for a short time. After arriving, we killed a little time before meeting with Geoff, taking pics of our shiny trailer and tangling with a junkyard dog (not really).

Geoff kindly gave us a tour of the other trailers in his lot – some works in progress, all interesting and made more so by his enthusiast’s perspective and details. He and Ben exchanged some sourcing ideas. We quizzed him about solar, etc. We made plans to return two days later to meet Soren once he began the work,

Though we didn’t have much time to explore Ojai, we did have a delicious outdoors lunch at Boccali’s with an oak grove behind us and farms and mountains in the distance – fresh lemonade, Italian subs, and their signature strawberry shortcake.

Then we headed, sans Airstream, west to Santa Barbara for a couple of days of R&R. We’d been looking for an excuse to get up north to visit my cousin Nancy there (my aunt and uncle also have a vacation place there). We stayed two nights, had two fabulous dinners with Nancy and Peck (that’s him manning their backyard pizza oven below while dog ‘Stache keeps an eye out for scraps), breakfast burritos both mornings (Jeannine’s had the edge on taste, Daily Grind on value) and a very restful and rejuvenating time looking at this view (far right) from Uncle Ron and Aunt Mary Jane’s place.

When we returned to Brody’s to go over everything, we were introduced to Soren, electrician and, naturally, vintage Airstream enthusiast.  Where do all these people come from? Everybody out here loves old trailers! Anyway, Soren knew immediately what we had in mind and he proceeded to do an awesome, super-neat job connecting all the wires Ben ran beneath the walls to the fuse box and new batteries.

So for now, while we await next week’s appointments for propane (Monday), solar (Wed) and floors (Friday), Ben has a ginormous punch list to go through – installing electrical boxes and light fixtures, finishing woodwork, and who knows what else. I get to go shopping – snagged tons of cool stuff for storage/shelving at Ikea yesterday – showcase to come. Later today I’ll be putting on ratty clothes so I can polish up the bad boys below before they begin their lives supplying life blood to our fridge, stove, water heater, and bbq.  Sigh. Only Ben (and polisher Collin, of course) would demand such aesthetic perfection.

Propane tanks about to get clean.

Propane tanks about to get really shiny.

Everything’s going down the drain – hopefully!

So, picture this scenario: I come back to my Airstream after a glorious day of hiking the most gorgeous canyon trails, where it was hot. And dusty. I’m exhausted, and all I want to do is take a real shower in my own home before kicking back for crispy time, to watch the sunset with a snack and a cocktail. Will I settle for a bird bath, maybe a full body wet wipe or the undependable campPlumbing sketchground showers? No!

I asked Ben Barker, amateur Airstream restorer, what he has done to make my dream possible.

Ben – why did you begin your foray into the plumbing systems with the shower drain in particular?
There are three drains in the Airstream – kitchen sink, bathroom sink, and shower. And I knew the shower would be the most involved. I started with its drain line, because, though I’ve never done this before, I understand it’s harder to run water drain lines than it is to run supply lines. Makes sense: drains use hard piping, with glued connections, so by nature they are more permanent and have less room for error!  By contrast, we’ll use PEX tubing for water supply lines – PEX is pretty flexible and much more forgiving as it snakes its way around the trailer.

How did you plan for the work? Were you starting from scratch?
The gray water tanks and the main drain line from the tanks (located in the middle of the trailer, underneath on the axle) to the dump valve in the rear bumper of the trailer, were already installed. This existing main drain line would be like the main artery  – the “drain highway” –  so I planned out from there how and where to lay the shower and the shower drain. We had to work within the constraints of the bathroom size, the curves of the walls, the size of the water heater, how tall both Meg and I are, etc. as we finalized the location and the materials for the shower itself.


Bathroom layout from top: shower, water heater (sink will go on top), toilet

First we put the newly acquired solid surface (Swanstone from Lowe’s) shower pan into position. For some reason, and I’m not sure why, the shower has to drain directly into the drain highway (if the dump valve is closed, the water then diverts to the gray tanks.) For both the kitchen and the bathroom sinks, the water drains into the gray tanks via their separate pipes; when the tanks are emptied, the contents travel down the drain highway on their way to the dump valve near the rear bumper.

Ben underneath the Airstream, checking, installing, adjusting the plumbing.

Ben underneath the Airstream, checking, installing, adjusting the plumbing.

Drilling holes in our fancy new Nyloboard subfloor always makes me a little nervous, but I told Meg there was no turning back, and I summoned the courage and boldness of all the amateur restorers before me and I drilled an exploratory hole in the middle of the shower drain, through the subfloor, hoping and praying the drill bit would emerge somewhere close to the main drain line I was trying to tap into (I had measured of course, but you never know). Then I went underneath the trailer to see how close: with the belly pan removed I could see that yes! the hole was close enough to the main drain line (and thankfully, hadn’t penetrated it!).

So, the rest was easy, right?
Riiiiiiiiiiight…I cut the main pipe to install a T fitting connecting the shower drain to the drain highway. Instead of using the traditional P trap, I used a device from Vintage Trailer Supply called a hepvo which is great for RVs. It’s a self-ventilating one-way valve which essentially keeps water or gases from coming back in once they’ve gone down the drain so to speak.

Then I plugged away at framing out the shower pan, working around and within the constraints for the rest of the bathroom – finessing the water heater placement, wanting to maximize storage, leaving room for the door to open, etc.

So many plumbing parts gathered, but which is the right one?

So many plumbing parts gathered, but which is the right one?

In the meantime, I made multiple trips back and forth to Virgil’s to find a compatible drain to marry up the Hepvo device with the main drain line. Many trips. I ended up cannibalizing a small sink drain I already had and turned that into the main shower line.

So, does the shower drain work? Will Meg’s dream come true?
After hooking everything up, tightening screws, doling out silicone, I did a bunch of leak tests with the garden hose resulting in minimal drama – just a few adjustments here and there.

However, in the final test, the shower backed up and almost overflowed!  We soon realized we had

Oops! On your test, don't put more water down the drain than the tanks can hold!

Oops! On your test, don’t put more water down the drain than the tanks can hold!

Garden hose critical to plumbing tests.

Garden hose critical to plumbing tests.

maxed out and completely filled the 30 gallon water tanks. So we began the process of dumping the water, though of course, carefully.

Twelve 2.5 gallon buckets of water were recycled to give John’s rose bushes an extra drink this week.

Any more to this story? What should we look for next?
The frame out of the bathroom included the installation of the on-demand water heater, a PrecisionTemp RV 550 NSP from Vintage Trailer Supply.  I spent some time on the phone with the manufacturer – the installation directions always seem to have a few blanks to fill in, and I found what turned out to be an extra screw rattling around inside. The heater has an exhaust pipe which required a trip to the auto parts store this time–parts to extend the exhaust pipe.

And, we are still researching/debating shower surround – we’ve considered everything from tile, to solid surface, to stainless steel and now we’re coming back to wood – cedar planks like in a sauna. Some negatives to that, but we’ll try to work around those and figure it out as we go.

Lunch break - Ben loves pictures! And lunch breaks!

Lunch break – Ben loves pictures! And lunch breaks!

And???? And, I’ve promised you [Meg] to install those curtain rods so you can hem the curtains and finish that project.

Right, get on that please! More coming soon on curtains, the refrigerator, oven, kitchen storage, and a trip to Home Depot to buy stuff!