Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Troubleshooting on a Dark and Stormy Night...

It was a dark and stormy night. The sky was growing darker and lightening could be seen flashing in the distance. We were driving back to the campground hoping to beat the storm that was approaching. As we backed into our campsite and got out of the Roadtrek to hook up the electric and the cable for our last night of a five night and six day trip, it seemed like we had enough time to pull out the flag and stand that we put out in our site and get that put away while it was still dry. The forecast for the next day was for fair weather but that all depended on which weather service you looked at. National Weather Service was predicting more rain. Everyone else was going with fair. Get the flag in and then get the electric hooked up seemed like the best thing to do. As we got to pulling the electric cord out of the outside cabinet of the Roadtrek, we both felt a few drops of rain. Work faster. Don't stop to go back inside the Roadtrek and pull out the jackets, scarf, and rain hat. Get the cord out enough to reach the electric box. Plug the Roadtrek's plug into the socket of our power/surge protector, get that into the campsite's electric box and flip the 30 amp circuit breaker to put 120 volts of electricity into the Roadtrek. Always start with the circuit breaker off - what is it that men on death row say... "Its not the volts that will kill you, its the amps." As I was flipping the breaker the sky opened and it began to pour.

We both ran inside with the television cable still in Meryl's hand. That could wait. Not only was it raining but the humidity and remaining heat from the day would make the inside of the van very uncomfortable without the air conditioner. No 120 volts, no air conditioner. We were inside and dripping. If it let up we would go outside again and plug in the cable - if it didn't we had plenty to watch on DVDs and here at this campground we received a number of good channels with just the antenna still down on the roof. We were inside and drying off. I looked out the driver's window to see the lights on the power/surge protector go from red to green indicating all was well with the circuit and the power would be let through. It delays about three minutes and those three minutes were going by very slowly. Outside you hear a click and the lights change - all is well. Inside I kept watch through the window. Red to green. All is well.

Meryl was getting the jackets and rain gear to have if we were going out to plug in the cable. he rain seemed to be letting up and out we went, jackets on, scarf and rain hat on, cable in hand. Once outside, of course, the rain picked up and since we were then soaked we plugged in the cable anyway and headed back inside for the night. At least at that point, I thought it was for the night.

Now the lightening was flashing outside and the thunder was clapping loud. All seemed well inside and Meryl put a plastic sheet over the third seat and put two hooks on the wooden ledge above to hang the dripping jackets. The hat and scarf went into the sink. The jackets dripped down partly on the cover and partly into the door well. More lightening. More thunder. Meryl started to do what she does every night as we settle in for the night. She closed the curtains in the front windows and started to rotate the seats from driving position to lounge position - facing the rear of the van and the television. I put the TV on and the air condition was already on making the steamy inside bearable on this hot July night. There was a huge crack of thunder and the sky lit up, and then Meryl said, "What is that noise?" She was not talking about the thunder.

There was a whining noise. A motor noise coming from the front of the van. Was the van engine off? Of course, the engine was off. Where was the noise coming from. We started searching around. What might make such a noise - and it started with the clap of thunder! Was there a surge on the electric line? If there was the power/surge protector would have shut down all power. I pushed the window curtain out of the way and looked outside - the light on the unit was still green. The air conditioner was still working. The television was still working. And the high pitched noise continued. What else had a motor? I put my ear up to the refrigerator. The noise was not coming from there. The water heater was off. The water pump was on but did not seem to be running. Meryl went down into the cabinet where the water pump is located, which is below the bed, to see if the noise was coming from. No, it was silent. Did it work? Turned on the faucet, water came out, and the pump ran normally and shut off when the faucet was turned off. The whining noise still continued. What was wrong? Where was the noise coming from and we both knew that whatever it was, it was not good. What to do next? I shut off the TV - no change. I shut off the air conditioner. No change. I made sure the ceiling fan was off - it was. I turned on the furnace switch as that has a motor also and the noise was centered right around the inside furnace vent. No change in the noise. I turned the furnace off. The whining continued. We went around the inside of the van again and kept listening at the furnace vent as the location was just too close. Then suddenly it stopped and a second later it started again - higher pitched at first and then whirred on as it had been.

"OK", I said, "I am going outside!" I was going to see if I could find the location of the noise from outside. Meryl insisted on coming and the wet jackets went back on with the hat and the rain scarf. It was pouring. Outside we went all around - listening at all of the outside vents - nothing. We could barely hear the noise outside but it was not coming from the outside furnace vent, the refrigerator vent or the hot water heater vent. An ear up to each wet vent and there was nothing come from any of them. I told Meryl to go inside as there was no reason for both of us to be out in the downpour and I would shut down the electric box and eliminate that from the equation. Rather than pull the plug I clicked off the circuit breaker on the outside pedestal for the outlet we were plugged into. The power/surge protector unit shut down and I headed for the door to find out if the noise was still whining. It was. Could the noise be related to the inverter/converter/charger which hums and buzzes when the power is on as its cooling fan runs? No, the 120 volt power was off and the noise continued. Then with the 120 volts off, I shut off the 12 volt circuits by turning off the battery switch. The noise stopped and we were in the dark. Battery switch back on and the noise started again. Back out and the power was put back on. Inside there was no change and we waited another three minutes for the protector's delay to allow power through.

I was ready to give up. All was working normally except for the noise. Maybe we could just let it go and wait for the morning when we could try calling dealer service to ask and hopefully they would let us come over - we were about an hour and a half away from them. Meryl was reluctant to let it go on, but what were we going to do. This was definitely coming from something that ran on 12 volts but many of the systems and components inside run on 12 volts. I pulled the circuit breaker/fuse panel door off and looked at the fuses and the chart on the back of the door. Meryl said to try pulling the fuse for the furnace since that was were the noise was most located. I read down the labels - furnace - fuse number 7. I put my fingers on the fuse but it would not come out - it needs a fuse puller to get it out and back in again because of the small space the fuses sit in. Now there was a mad dash for the tool bag to find the fuse puller - we each thought it was in a different place and I found the main tool bag and got the fuse puller.

Clipping the fuse puller on the fuse, I pulled it out. The noise continued. So did the thunder outside. I managed to get the fuse out and we decided to go one by one. I clipped the fuse puller on fuse number 1 and pulled. The noise stopped. What was this fuse for? It is a 20 amp fuse - one of the largest. Oh boy - it was for the waste macerator pump! It also was the fuse that the new 12 volt outlet was connected to. Did dealer service cause a problem when they wired that outlet? It did not seem so as we had been out for more than ten days with no problems after the outlet was installed. But the worst thing was that this noise was the macerator running - and running dry which you are never, ever, ever and never supposed to do lest you burn out the motor and have no way to empty the black - or for those of you non-RVers - "doody" tank and after six days it was full. What was causing this pump to run? My hands were now shaking and it took me a bit to get the fuse back in somehow I hoped that something would have reset and the noise would be gone - but, of course, the noise started right up again. In a way this was a good sign as the motor had not burned out - yet.

The switch for the macerator pump is a push button switch - push and hold and it is on, take your finger off the switch and it stops. Could the switch have blown out? Could the switch be stuck? The switch is on a metal frame on the side of the driver's seat next to the door. I started to move the seat around and the seat would not move. There is a small folding table that is stored behind the seat but the seat cannot swivel with the table there so the table is moved out of the way. I pulled the table and the noise stopped. I looked at Meryl. The noise stopped. The table had caught between the driver's door and the seat in such a way that it pushed in the macerator pump's button.

Well, the mystery was solved and the noise was gone, but what damage had been done? We would not know for sure until the next morning. I had to know if the pump still worked and, of course, I reached around and pushed the button and let go right away - the noise started and stopped as soon as I let go and that seemed to indicate that we might be OK. The rest of the night was an anxious one, waiting for the next morning when we went out to empty the tank.

The next morning it was overcast, but dry. We went out to dump the waste tanks and I held my breath as I pushed the macerator button to empty the tanks. The motor whirred and whined and what needed to come out pumped out - normally - and the tanks emptied. We both breathed a sigh of relief - but had future problems been initiated?  Hopefully, not. 

A number of owners of Roadtreks have problems with the macerator. Some claim it is because they let the pump run dry when they were at the end of dumping a tank and let the macerator run on to take out the last few spurts. I am not sure how long it ran dry that night - maybe twenty minutes, maybe a half hour - it seemed like a lot longer. Maybe it was. I had visions of the compartment that the hose sits in having spewed its slop all over the inside of the compartment while it was running but the tank valves were closed and nothing should come out. The macerator is a good idea but it is a bad idea if it is the only way to empty the tanks other than a clean out port that when opened will drop the contents of the tank under the van with no way to direct it where to go. I had thoughts of where one could (would) even do such a thing? Where can you drop ten gallons of human waste just down onto the ground? Not in the campground. Not at home. Who would think of designing such a thing without a way to connect a hose to it? Most RVs have gravity dump waste systems. A hose is attached to a port to the tank and the other end of the hose is connected to the sewer hole at the campsite. The valve is opened and gravity does the rest. After that the tank can be flushed out with a garden hose attached to the end of the hose. This is a relatively fool proof system as long as you have gravity on your side. With the permanently attached macerator, if it does not work, you've got problems. And many have had those problems. So far we have been lucky. The unit's specs actually say that it can be run dry, but everyone using one says no. I certainly would not intentionally run it dry, but sh_t happens - and in this case that is more literal than when generally said.It has not happened for four years - until now - and now we know it is possible. I am thinking of creating a box-like cover for the button, perhaps held in place with magnets as there is metal all around the button. When I come up with something I will share it. Until then we are going to be very careful where that table gets placed when the driver's seat is turned.

What is gained from this experience that I wish we had never had was what to do when troubleshooting a problem - 'cause there is no instruction manual that tells you what to do when you hear a strange noise. There is no guide that says "Don't Panic!" on the cover - though sometimes one sure would come in handy. Some our our readers have complimented us on this website being just that for them - and if others can benefit from our experiences and problems, that is good. Though I would really like less problems to have to share and more dry days and nights. Keep in mind that "May you live in interesting times!" is an Oriental curse. Perhaps another RV Lifestyle verses Endurance Challenge moment... Anyway - So the next time you hear a strange noise, don't panic (as I was that night) and start troubleshooting - check for the location of the noise, turn things off, turn things on, and start pulling fuses or throwing circuit breakers. Sooner or later - if you are lucky - as we were - you will find the source and hopefully be able to deal with it simply by moving a folding table and hopefully not have had damage done in the interim. And should it be a dark and stormy night, always remember to have your towel...


Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Andersen Levelers at the Campground

Back in October 2014 I wrote about a better way to level a Roadtrek or any RV or Travel Trailer that does not have a leveling system built in. That is with Andersen Levelers. At the time of the article I only had tried them out on the driveway. Happily we did not need them after that until this past trip. We learned some lessons on using Andersen Levelers during this trip and I will share them with you here.

We arrived at the campsite and tried to find a level spot. Usually with enough moving around the site with the small Roadtrek you can find a spot - even if it means being on a diagonal in the space. This time the Roadtrek was perfectly level side to side but front to back it was too high in the front. This, as shown on my front to back level bubble that is permanently mounted to the passenger door. I don't need to level for our refrigerator. We do not have the usual propane three way fridge. We have an RV condenser AC/DC electric fridge. These do not need to be level to operate properly. I need to level for comfort and a feeling of being off balance if the van is off. I can tolerate it more if the van is lower in the front and higher in the back as I am not sleeping with my head lower than my feet, but as this site was high in the front, it was time to pull out the Andersen Levelers and give them their first trial by fire.

I will go step by step now in what to do with them and will share what we learned or perhaps realized as we went along.

One curved leveling ramp must be placed under each of the tires that are low - with a front to back problem and the back is too low, the Andersens will go under the rear tires. Put the low point of the ramp under the edge of the front of the tire. CENTER it under the wheel. There is a mold line in the center of the ramp that runs along the full length (you can even see this in the dark with a flashlight). There are five threads on the tire. Line up the center of the third thread with the center of the ramp. Make sure that the ramp is pointing in the same direction as the tire or you will drive off the edge of the ramp. This takes some adjusting. We had to make sure of this each time we put one under a tire and we did this five times each of the two tires during this trip - and each time needs some adjustment before proceeding. A tip - at night put your flashlight on the center thread of the tire (third thread) and point it straight down along the thread to the front of the ramp -see teh center line on the ramp - you are good for that adjustment but you still may need to make sure the ramp is straight. DO THIS FOR BOTH TIRES.

Now - look at the front wheels and make sure they are straight (and they must stay that way before you move onto the ramps. If not when you get in, straighten the front wheels and have your spotter (partner) tell you they are straight. There is a LOT of communication that should be going back and forth for safety doing this - we realized that this is a MUST during this trip. Open the window and make sure each can hear the other.

NOW, tell the spotter to stand clear away from the van but to keep watching the tire on their side of the van that is going up the ramp. Put start the engine, release the parking brake, and put the the van in FIRST GEAR. Slowly put your foot on the gas while holding the steering wheel absolutely straight. Start to move S L O W L Y up the ramp and as soon as you see the level bubble go to the center STOP! The spotter needs to tell you to stop if you don't stop before going off the end of the ramp - there is nothing to stop you from doing this.

NEXT - The spotter is NOT to move from their safe spot. The driver must put the parking break on and put the van in PARK. Stop the engine. Be ABSOLUTELY SURE that when you take your foot off the brake the van is not rolling back! Now - yell out to the spotter "ALL CLEAR". They can now move from their safe spot.

I got out of the van - I could have stayed in but I wanted to be sure that Meryl was safe for the next step. The safety wedges are now inserted under the BACK of the leveling ramp - the part that is now sticking up off the ground because the tire has rolled forward and rolled the ramp up in the rear. This is really one of two dangerous parts of using these ramps. Your hand is under the back of that tire and if the tire should slip it will be on your hand if you don't do this safely. Just put the wedge in place and give it a slight push under the end of the ramp. Do the same on the other side of the van.

Now - here is something that I found out about the third day of using the ramps. Once the ramps are in place, go into the driver's seat and have the spotter stand away - back to a safe spot. Put the key in the van, take it out of Park and into Neutral and and release the emergency brake. The van will slightly roll back on the ramp and the wedge - it really moves very little and should remain level. Put the van in Park and step down on the emergency brake to set it. That is it. The van is now level.

Why did I decide to do this last step? One morning on the hottest day of the trip when we removed the leveling ramps the next morning there were black tire marks on each ramp. Heavy black marks. Our first thought was that we had driven through tar but there was no tar on the front tires and no tar on the rear tires where they had not been on the ramp. What I did see on the rear tires was a smooth area on the face of the tire corresponding to the length of the marks on the ramps. What I believe happened - as I had not been letting the emergency brake off as in the last step before this - was that the tires (perhaps due to the heat) had slipped down the ramp to rest where they should have been in the middle of the ramp during the night or that morning. I had been setting the brake where I stopped and that was it - it had apparently held the tire up the ramp until then - but this time the tires could not hold and slipped. So this extra step seems to take care of that.

Here you see the Andersen Leveler in place under the passenger side rear tire. You see the wedge at the back and the leveling ramp at the front and middle. You will notice that the tire rests right in the middle of the curve - as it should and as this curved leveling ramp is designed. The tire should always be cradled this way no matter how high or low the ramp raises the tire. Both tires - one on each time are raised the same, at least as much as the ground will allow.

At this point you leave them and go inside the van or whatever you are going to do at the campground. When you are ready to leave for the day or for whatever, you are going to remove the ramps which is another process with again, with a need to stay alert to safety. I emphasize this because the Roadtrek weighs three tons and there were a few moments that I was not sure that all hands and feet were well enough away while putting the levelers in and taking them away. It was then that we made some rules - the most important of which is never move until you hear "All Clear".

So now to take them out. Your spotter goes to a safe spot and you go into the driver's seat. Open the window and make sure each can hear and understand the other clearly. Put your foot on the brake, start the engine. Release the emergency brake (some call it the parking brake). Put the van into LOW. Don't move! Your spotter should be watching one of the Andersen's under a tire. You will now S L O W L Y move about an inch up the ramp - don't put your foot down on the gas, just five a little to start to move. Your spotter should see the ramp move up off the wedge and tell you to STOP! Put the emergency brake on and put the van in PARK - stop the engine.

LESSON LEARNED THE HARD WAY: DO NOT DRIVE  OFF THE FRONT OF THE RAMP as I had in the first article to get off the ramp and as Andersen shows in their video. I did this and BANG the RV crashed off the ramp and the ramp went flying back. BAD IDEA! When I did this on the driveway the Roadtrek was not loaded, there was no water in any tank, and it was somewhat lighter. On a trip in real life there is a lot of weight added to the already three tons and you come CRASHING off that ramp if you drive off the front!

SO - next step - your spotter or you is going to reach behind the wedge and pull it out. This is the second danger point in the process. The wedge has nothing to grab onto on the side. It has to be grabbed from the back on both sides to get it out. The only thing holding the van from rolling back on your hand is the emergency brake, the tire threads, and the parking gear. As I am writing this I am thinking that since the wedge is now free to move easily, something might be rigged to push it out without your hands being under the tire. The wedge is solid and there is no way to attach a rope. If I come up with something for this, I will share it when I do.

So for now, get both wedges out from both of the Andersens and get them out from under the van. You need them clear of the rear of the ramp for the next step.

Again - spotter in a safe spot looking at one of the Andersen ramps. Go into the driver's seat, start the engine and put the van in REVERSE and release the emergency brake. Very little gas is applied and you roll slowly back and off the ramp. As soon as you are off the ramp the spotter needs to tell you to stop.  Put the van in park, put on the emergency brake and shut off the engine. Get out to help put the Andersen levelers away.

Other than the obvious hazards described here, the Andersen Levelers worked very well. It was easy to get level. The process does not take long but for safety must not be rushed. At one point I saw Meryl moving to the tire before I had the emergency brake on and the van in park. No! And when tired things can get confused and confusing. We set up our signals and all was well.

I used to be concerned about going to a new campground or getting a site in a campground that we knew that was not one that we have had before. For 95% of the unlevel sites we have refused at  campgrounds these will take the concern away about not getting level.  Those big RVs and trailers have systems built in to do this - nice to be able to push a button. We can't push a button but these make it a lot easier than using the big Lego blocks or trying to carry boards that just won't fit in a Roadtrek or Class B.

I have nothing to do with the Andersen company. I bought my two Andersen levelers for full price on Amazon. I do not get paid in any way to tell you about these levelers. If it works, or it doesn't work - I share that information with my readers (for free).