Photo taken near Monument Valley, Utah

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Sprucing up Phannie, Meeting new Friends and a Return to Branson

At Treasure Lake RV Park, Branson, Missouri...

While we were waiting at Bay Diesel in Red Bay for some troubleshooting to our car (see the previous post), a pleasant man engaged me in conversation while I was standing near Phannie. He pointed to one of the maintenance bays where another 2006 Phaeton was getting serviced, identifying it as his. As he hadn't owned his rig for long, he was asking about certain modifications we had had done to Phannie over the years, information I happily supplied. He was soon joined by his wife and introduced themselves as Larry and Kay from Kentucky. After a few minutes, my attention was needed by the mechanic, so we continued our visit at the customer lounge, where Sandy joined us for a four-way conversation.

Kay and Larry were a very likable couple with whom we had a great deal in common, and our conversation with them lasted long after Bay Diesel was finished with their coach. As often happens, we found them to be people we would like to know better, so we exchanged contact information and expressed our hope we would run into them again. I meant to take a photo but, in my approaching dementia, I forgot to do so. Now having a photo of our friends, especially new ones, is important, so I asked them to send me one of theirs, so we could have their visages saved for posterity. 

Kay and Larry
It never ceases to amaze me how many wonderful folks we meet during our travels. We may just have to drop in on Kay and Larry sometime in Kentucky, who knows?

After our unexpected return to Red Bay for the topper problem, we had an uneventful journey back to Searcy, Arkansas and on to Branson. We stopped in Searcy to visit with some more newish friends, Larry and Carolyn, and enjoyed seeing their hometown for the first time. We've made tentative plans with them for some more meetups later on in the year.

Since we had a good deal of downtime in Red Bay, we took the opportunity to do a little modification to Phannie that we had been wanting to do for a long time, and that was to replace the dated mirrored backsplash in the kitchen. Sandy has hated that mirrored surface for years, as it is almost impossible to keep clean from the inevitable splash and spatter marks that happen in that area. So, we pushed the limits of our very sparse abilities and pried off the old backsplash, replacing it with some stick-on faux tile pieces. It wasn't all that difficult, thankfully, and we like the look a lot better. Here's the before and after:

Here in Branson, we're awaiting the arrival of Texas friends Steve and Jackie, who will be visiting here for the first time. We're delighted to be able to show them around one of our favorite places. After that, we'll be heading back to Texas and another rally, visiting friends and relatives along the way. We've really enjoyed our time at Treasure Lake RV Resort here in Branson where, because of our Thousand Trails membership, we pay only $19 a night.

Thank you, Lord, for this wonderful life; 
please forgive me if I fail to appreciate it as I should each day.

You don't stop playing when you get old; you get old when you stop playing.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Unexpected Incidents Reveal Why We Come to Red Bay for Service

At Downtown Red Bay RV Park, Red Bay, Alabama...

With Phannie's emergence from Bay Diesel's annual checkup and service with no issues noted on their comprehensive checklist (an option we always choose wherein the experienced mechanics look at every possible wear point and replace or lubricate as needed), we had concluded our service agenda for this visit to Red Bay. Because we have had our annual service done here for several years, Bay Diesel has a record of when required items were accomplished--whether they be annual, biennial or triennial, so I really don't have to keep up with it too closely (although I keep a complete file of everything done to Phannie in case there's a question).

Phannie, all finished at Bay Diesel with a good report.

The next day, we headed out for Searcy, Arkansas and an overnight stop to visit friends Larry and Carolyn, whom we recently met in Branson. Having bumped our way through Memphis (they really need to do something about their deteriorating roadways), we turned onto highway 64, a very busy two-lane road with lots of construction and non-stop eighteen-wheelers going both directions. 

A cold front was approaching the area, preceded by thunderstorms and a tornado watch, and we were hoping to get to Searcy before having to contend with that. As often happens ahead of a strong cold front, a very gusty south wind was blowing where we were on highway 64, blasting against Phannie's huge left side and causing her to lurch to the right with each heavy gust. To make driving even more difficult, the big trucks heading toward us in the opposite direction amplified the wind gusts with their passing a few feet away on the two-lane road. At a closing speed of perhaps more than 120 mph, each truck we met was like a concussion blast of sorts.

It was during one of the heaviest wind gusts that a speeding 18-wheeler met us with the heaviest concussion we had felt. At the same time, we heard a loud snap followed by a fluttering sound on Phannie's left side. I found a place to pull off the road and walked around to the driver's side, where it was obvious that the forward slide topper roller was loose, causing the new slide topper material to loosen around the roller, which was the source of the flapping noise.

Since we had just had the slide toppers replaced at MS RV Solutions in Red Bay, I leaped to the conclusion that their installation had somehow been faulty. With this in mind, I turned Phannie around and headed back to Red Bay, giving Carl, one of the owners of MS RV Solutions, a call to tell him what had happened. This was on a Friday afternoon, and he asked me to come directly to the shop, and he would take a look at it. I told him it would be around six o'clock, and he said it didn't matter what time I got there; he and his partner, Daniel, would meet us.  

Since we were now traveling the opposite direction back toward Memphis, the south wind was now on our right side, and there were no trucks on that shoulder side of the road, so the loose topper seemed stable enough to continue back to Red Bay, and off we went. Sure enough, Carl and Daniel were standing in the shop's driveway, looking down the road, awaiting Phannie's appearance. They motioned us directly into one of the bays and began to survey the topper.

MS RV Solutions in Golden, Mississippi
What was immediately evident was that a part of the roller support mechanism had broken and the roller brake had torn away and was missing. This means that the massive gust of wind, exacerbated by the simultaneous blast of the passing truck, had blown the rolled-up topper upward at a force beyond the support's design strength, causing it to fail. It was most certainly not due to any error by Carl or Daniel, but a coincidence that the failure occurred immediately after their installation of the topper.

New roller support and brake that replaced the one that failed in wind gust

After this discovery, the guys immediately began to repair the topper support bracket. They didn't have a new brake mechanism in stock but, after a short absence by Daniel, he appeared back at the shop with one in hand, shaking his head as to how hard it was to locate one at this hour. I didn't ask where he got it; I didn't want to know. 

After about an hour, all was good as new, and I pulled out my wallet to pay for the work. Carl shook his head and waved away my gesture, saying that there would be no charge, even though the failure of the topper support was clearly not due to any error on his part. When I began to insist, he said, 

     "I can't accept your money because we touched this topper just before this happened to you. I'm sure we had nothing to do with the bracket failure, as we handled only the topper material; but I cannot afford for our reputation to be even slightly questioned." 

I don't think I've ever been more impressed.

Unfortunately, our bad luck was not quite over. As we were preparing for departure from Red Bay the next day, I hooked up Mae behind Phannie and tested the operation of the car's brake and turn signals. The left signal was not working! Thinking the problem may be the power cord that runs between the coach and the car, I switched to a new one that I keep on hand. Same problem! I knew  the bulbs were okay, as they are LEDs, two bulbs on each side, and they worked okay when illuminated with the taillights.

Well, this would not do, as it would not only be illegal to drive this way, but I always want my signals evident to anyone following our little wagon train. Not knowing what to do, I drove Phannie out to Bay Diesel, followed by Sandy in Mae, and talked to Chris, the owner to get some ideas. Now bear in mind that Bay Diesel is a very busy shop that doesn't usually perform work on automobiles and never without an appointment. I suppose Chris could sense my exasperation, so he said, "Why don't you hang around, Mike, and I'll see if we can work you in." I thanked him profusely, of course, and Sandy and I went to the customer lounge. 

After a wait of a couple of hours, a mechanic began working on Mae, dismantling the taillight fixture and inspecting the wiring all the way to the front of the car. Finding no problems with the fixture or wiring, he took apart the receptacle into which the power cord is plugged when towing. As soon as he removed it, a splash of rust-colored water poured out on the ground. The receptacle housing had filled with water that had blown back from Phannie when we had driven on a rainy highway. Well, I knew that water and electricity don't mix, and it was clear that one of the contacts had shorted out. The receptacle anterior and the wires it contained were wet, rusted and corroded, so it had to be replaced and, to my astonishment, Chris had one in stock! He added silicone sealer to ensure it would stay dry in the future.

New receptacle is ready to go!
I had to marvel at the attention given to me, even though I showed up out of the blue, with no appointment, asking for help with a problem that Bay Diesel doesn't normally deal with. I don't know how Chris was able to pull a mechanic off the line to help me with my penny-ante broken light, but he obviously knew that I was a repeat customer, and I suppose my business must be important to him. I would say it was a very good way to ensure my doing business with him for life.

Perhaps this gives you an illustration of why we find ourselves returning year after year to the backwater little town of Red Bay to get service for Phannie. It is a place that time has forgotten--where its citizens all seem somehow to have kept intact the values of honesty, integrity, fairness, helpfulness and hard work that were exemplified to us by our parents back in the fifties when we were growing up. I've never seen anything like it.

Thank you, Lord, for this wonderful life; 
please forgive me if I don't appreciate it as I should each day.

You don't stop playing when you get old; you get old when you stop playing.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

A Visit to Red Bay and Caring for an Aging Motorhome

At Downtown RV Park, Red Bay, Alabama...

We knew that our early visit to Branson in mid-March would make us a little vulnerable here in the latter part of winter weather, and we were right. Old Man Winter did not let go of his grip on the area and still has not loosened it as I'm writing this post here in northern Alabama in mid-April. It will be freezing here this weekend, and I'm not sure we will again be venturing this far northward in the early spring next year. The cold, rainy weather has not diminished our enjoyment of the trip, however; we haven't regretted it for even a moment. 

Adding to the annoyance of the bad weather is the fact that we are currently in the midst of suffering our annual cold virus episodes. Until now, I have been holding my breath, sanitizing my hands and thinking we may be spared winter colds this year but, alas, it was not to be. Subjecting ourselves to the crowds at the concert and shows seems to have done the trick. So, we have been snorting and sniffling for several days, wondering why it is that the common cold has defied a cure or a vaccine since time began?  Oh, well, at least it's not the flu and, for that, we are very grateful.

Since the trip from Branson to Red Bay was nearly 500 miles, I planned an overnight stop at Craighead Forest Park in Jonesboro, Arkansas. This is a large municipal park not far from downtown that is extremely well kept with all paved roads and RV sites. At 15 bucks a night, it is a real bargain, although there are no sewer hookups at the sites; a dump station is available, however. The park is very heavily wooded, so satellite reception is difficult.

Trees still bare at Craighead Forest Park in Jonesboro, Arkansas
The next day, we had an uneventful trip and parked in the driveway of MS RV Solutions, a highly recommended shop just outside Red Bay. We would spend the next two nights there, as we had a two-day appointment for Phannie. Although we were not having any obvious problems with leaks, I knew that it was time to have her roof resealed. After 12 years, the caulking around the multitude of roof-penetrating devices had become brittle, and it was only a matter of time before a leak would surely develop. 

Carl and Daniel, the owners of MS Solutions, have built a solid reputation for excellence in RV repairs due to their small-town southern upbringing that inculcated within them the values of honest hard work done with fairness and quality. For example, while many outfits doing a roof recondition would simply apply new caulk over the old, these guys remove all the old material before recaulking. In all, this job required 30 tubes of caulk, so I'm pretty sure we're good for the next ten years or so.

With the roof reconditioned, it was time to repair one of Phannie's interior ceiling panels that had been subjected to a condensation leak from one of the roof air conditioners. This caused the panel to wrinkle and pull away from its seams and, since this was the only blemish on the coach's interior appearance, we wanted to get it repaired, which Carl and Daniel did, expertly. 

New overhead panel looks like new.
It was also time to replace the slide toppers--vinyl sheeting atop the four slides that unrolls and rolls as they are deployed, covering the slides and aiding in repelling rain and tree leaves. The old toppers had decomposed to the extent they had small holes appearing in them, so Carl and Daniel installed a much better quality of canvas to replace the old ones:

I also had them add an extra 110V plug in the kitchen area that would be wired into its own circuit that would add to our capability to use multiple high-draw appliances at the same time.

For now, we're parked at the Red Bay Downtown RV Park, which stays full most of the time during spring and fall when the snowbirds drop in for Tiffin factory maintenance during their north and southbound migrations. This is actually one of four local reliever parks for the factory campground, whose 100 spaces are almost always full.

Next week, we will take Phannie for her annual engine and chassis service at Bay Diesel here in Red Bay. Based here in the same town as the Tiffin factory, Bay Diesel has serviced thousands of Tiffin motorhomes over the years, and they have a solid reputation for quality work, much like most of the outside vendors here. I'll have a report on that later.

For those who deliberate on the pros and cons of keeping a motorhome for a long time versus trading for a newer one every few years, the money to be saved by keeping your rig and maintaining it well is rather lopsided in favor of hanging on to it. Of course, for those lucky folks for whom cost is not an issue, by all means, they should take advantage of all the luxuries that a new coach has to offer. For the rest of us, being diligent in taking care of the rig we have will make it last and look good for a long time. 

In that regard, a motorhome is much like an airplane. It has a very high initial cost and, if carefully cared for and maintained properly, it will last for a very long time. There are plenty of airplanes flying today that have been around for more than 50 years, and RVs more than 25 years old are quite common. As a pilot and former FAA inspector, I am quite mindful of the rules that force all aircraft operators to perform periodic inspections and maintenance, sometimes replacing critical parts at certain time intervals rather than waiting until they fail. Using the same philosophy, I insist that  Phannie is regularly inspected and that fluids and filters and things like thermostats and belts are changed on Phannie at or before the intervals  recommended by Freightliner and Caterpillar. The same was true for the roof sealing job and the replacement of the slide toppers just finished. Neither of these had failed, but getting repairs done after a failure could be much more expensive and inconvenient than having their repair planned in advance of failure. 

I'm glad that Phannie has the highly-reliable Caterpillar C7 engine, one of more than 1.6 million over-the-road engines built by the legendary company over the years. It is expected to accumulate 450-500,000 miles before an anticipated failure--even better than the also-legendary Cummins diesels, whose expected failure threshold is 350,000 miles. These mileage levels will probably not ever be seen by most RVs, so I'm not terribly worried about having to replace Phannie's engine while we have her, as we average only around 7,000 miles per year. And there's the DEF thing--the need to add diesel exhaust fluid, at extra cost, to the fuel of newer diesel engines due to EPA regulations--Phannie doesn't have to bother with that, thankfully.

Over the seven years we've owned Phannie, her average yearly cost for maintenance--of all systems, including the "house" part of the rig--has averaged about $2,400 per year. That does not include new tires and the cost of some optional upgrades we've done. Considering that the cost of trading "up" to a newer used coach could be at least $100,000 or more, it's easy to see which is more cost-effective. Of course, the price tag on a new Phaeton is around $400,000, so that would, of course, be for those who don't care about cost-effectiveness, as it simply flies out the window.

Stay tuned for Phannie's "well-woman" check report from Bay Diesel. I know you can't wait to find out! 

Thank you, Lord, for this wonderful life; 
please forgive me if I don't appreciate it as I should each day.

I had rather own little and see the world than to own the whole world and see little of it.  
--Alexander Sattler