Q: I bought an older Airstream. It has a clear water tank, and a black water tank. Now I understand I must add a gray water tank or I am in violation of the federal law. Is this correct?
A: No. Not exactly, but lets straighten out all those colors first:
Clear – This is drinking water, also called potable water.
Gray water – This is bath water or sink drain water. You wouldn’t drink this, yet it isn’t exactly poisonous either. Certain states, Wisconsin for example, require that it be put into a sewer. You can catch this water in a portable tank and dump it in a sewer later. This is legal and not a big hassle. The trick is to get a small tank and dump it daily. In many situations it is acceptable to drain it on the ground.
Black water, also called waste water – It’s pretty obvious that this water comes from the toilet. You must collect it carefully in a holding tank and dispose of it in a sanitary sewer. There are strict federal laws about this. Don’t use a dump station which is sluggish or overflowing. A portable tank is legal for black water also.
Q: When did Gray Water tanks appear?
A: 1973 on Excella 500’s, all models in 1974.
Q: If the Airstream didn’t have a Gray Water Tank, where does it go? There is only one outlet on my trailer.
A: The drain lines from the shower and sinks are routed to just below the Black Water tank dump valve but before the sewer hose fitting. This allows you many options to handle both Gray and Black Water:
- When traveling down the road, you have usually have the cap on the dump fitting outlet. You cannot run any water in the trailer in this condition, because the only Gray Water storage you have is the 1 1/2″ drain piping from the dump fitting to the shower. The first indication that you’ve done wrong will be water in the shower, bubbling up through the drain.
- In camp with sewer hookups, your dump valve is closed, trapping waste in the black tank, and the outside dump fitting has a hose going to the sewer connection in place of the cap. Gray water drains down into the sewer as you use water in the trailer. When the black tank is almost full, you add some more water and open the dump valve. After it’s all drained, add a couple or 3 more gallons of water down the toilet to finish the job.
- In camp with no sewer connection, you usually can’t let the Gray Water run on the ground. Use your Blue Tank connected to the dump fitting with a short piece of garden hose with a female connection on each end. They sell these hoses, they’re sometimes included with a new Blue Bomber, or you can one. If your dump fitting is low to the ground you can drain directly into the opening of the Blue Tank. You’ll need to dump the Blue tank every few days, depending on its size and your water usage habits. Black Water is kept in the closed Black Water tank until you break camp and empty it at a Dump Station.
- If you don’t have a Blue Tank, but can’t drain into the ground, install a cap on your dump fitting and open the dump valve. The Gray Water will ‘back up’ into the Black Tank, which will now serve dual purpose (and fill MUCH faster!). You must close the dump valve before removing the cap to attach the sewer hose to drain the contents. You’ll get a quart or 2 of (mostly) Gray water as the end of the lines drain out. If you forget to close the dump valve, you’re gonna have a helluva mess (brown trout, too) all over the place.
- Lastly, in camp in a rustic setting where it is allowed, the dump valve is closed and the Gray Water runs onto the ground. The usual connection is a piece of garden hose that’s several feet long, connected to an adapter on your dump fitting; this makes it clear to anyone walking by that you’re not dumping black water. Some folks use a bucket under the outlet, usually with a hole in the bottom (Leaky Bucket”. You must go to a dump station to empty the Black Tank, or use a Blue Tank to transport the contents to the dump station periodically.
Q: What should I do to sterilize my Potable (Clear) water system?
A: Once each year, fill the water tank half-way, then add a premix of 1-cup of household bleach & 1 gallon of water. Finish filing the tank. Run water at all faucets until you can smell the chlorine, don’t forget to allow the water heater to fill completely. Let it sit for a few hours or overnight, then drain everything. You can help eliminate the chlorine smell/taste by mixing 1/2-cup of baking soda with a gallon of water, dumping it into the tank, then filling the tank completely. Again, run water at all the faucets until you’re sure that the new solution has circulated through the system. Drain again and fill with fresh water. There are some commercial products that work in the same manner, 3R Purogene (800-773-7116) being one of them, and since it doesn’t affect taste, can also be used in between sterilizing treatments. Also, keep your tank filled in between trips to prevent exposed walls in your tank.
Q: The potable water tank under our front sofa has started to leak from a damaged fitting. Is there a replacement available?
A: Inca Plastics Molding Co., Inc. in Ontario, CA. (909) 923-3235 still makes these tanks first introduced in the early 1960’s right after use of the pressurized galvanized tanks was stopped. The 53x24x6 has the correct molded in fittings. Inca is the OEM maker of the tanks on the Airstream.
Q: Does anyone still use the old late ’50’s early ’60’s water filter? It looks a lot like a stainless coffee pot percolator guts or a flying saucer.
A: That is an Ogden Model A filter system. Replacement filters can be purchased from General Ecology as pn RS-50G, current price is $44 + shipping, and can only be ordered by phone, 1-800-441-8166. The original Ogden designer/owner later went to work for General Ecology when the they bought out his Los Angeles company.
Q: My water pump keeps cycling off and on briefly. What’s the cause?
A: Most likely a leak in the plumbing or pump. During the first pressurization of the system per the year, you’ll want to check for system leaks. Let the pump run until it has the system pressurized and shuts itself off. It should STAY off, if it cycles periodically or refuses to shut off at all, you probably have a leak. Some trailers have a bypass valve/line that’s mainly used for filling the on-board tank from the city water connection. If this is left open, the pump will never build up any pressure, nor will you have any pressure when the water hose is connected to the city water hookup – everything’s going back to the tank. Look for this and close it if your trailer has one. A cycling pump can also indicate worn seals inside the pump.
Q: How can I tell how full my water tank is? We always seem to run out at the inopportune time
A: On the front mounted water tanks pre “Control Center”, there is usually a clear vinyl tube (sight glass) in the forward curbside corner to the side of the sofa or under the dinette seat. It runs between the overflow fitting on the top and a drain fitting on the bottom of tank. There are all sorts of owner added level marks, from Felt Tip marker to Dymo-Labels to computer made decals. If for some reason yours is missing, it’s a good weekend project, as all parts are hardware store items. 2 brass 1/2” IPT to 1/2” slip elbows and a piece of acrylic tube are all you need.
Q: The copper pipes in my trailer seem to be of non-standard size. Regular fittings won’t fit over the tubing. What did Airstream use?
A: The larger sizes are usually standard tubing sizes, it’s just that some time in the past your pipes have frozen and expanded the pipe, but not to the point of splitting. A solution is to use a flaring tool and clamp down on the ends, reforming the copper pipe back to a size where the fittings will slide over. Some older 1940-1950’s Airstreams used refrigeration & air-conditioning (ACR) fittings and pipe, which are designated by actual outside diameter as opposed to plumbing pipe (ASTM) pipe, where the actual outside diameter is 1/8-inch larger than the standard size designation.
Q: Where can I get parts for my 1960 era Peters and Russell water pump??
A: These marine water pumps were the first water pumps used by Airstream after the compressed air water systems of the late 1950’s – early 1960’s. They are still being made by Jabsco, and are called PAR Classic pumps. Marine (boat) stores and many RV stores carry repair parts and seal kits. One such company is DEPCO Pump. You can even get the whole pump for new installations. On these demand type systems it is recommended that you use an accumulator to prevent the pump from coming on every time you open the tap.
Q: Can black water tanks and potable water tanks be repaired?
A: Not successfully. Epoxy and adhesive repairs may appear to work initially, but the flexing will soon pop them off. Solvent and welding may work better, but often the tank will crack again where the tank was made thinner by the repair.
Q: My Black Water tank is cracked, where do I get a replacement?
A: There are many companies that make custom plastic tanks. They are able to put fittings and cutouts per your measurements and instructions. Three such companies that are Airstream friendly are:
Ronco Plastics, Tustin. CA
Inca Plastics Molding, Ontario, CA
Q: Can the old brass body Thetford Dump Valves be repaired once they leak?
A: There are no overhaul kits, but you can try and replace the 3 gaskets in the valve. One is a standard O-Ring, and the other two round and rectangular flat gaskets can be cut from a sheet of gasket material. If you need to replace the valve itself, here is a restoration topic on how to do it.
Q: How about the newer (1960’s) plastic body Thetford Dump Valves?
A: Parts are still available for these from RV dealers. #09872 is a kit with all the seals needed for rebuilding the valves, and the handle and shaft are available separately.
Q: What’s with the older Thetford Plastic sewer fittings? Modern sewer hose fittings wont fit.
A:1964 and older trailers have an older style of Thetford fittings than the later trailers. In 1965, Thetford changed the design, increasing the diameter of the lugs and sealing surface by an additional 3/8″ in diameter. These more modern fittings were still Thetford. Modern cheap plastic sewer hose fittings will not fit any of these older fittings without an adapter (1965 and newer only). The older brass valves with “Frying Pan” covers need to be replaced completely if you do not have the matching sewer hose fittings.
Q: We’ve lost our old sewer hose and elbow – what do we do know?
A: Only recourse is the adapt the existing “Y” tailpiece that comes out of the bottom of the trailer. Get a new type CAMCO lug ring adapter and epoxy it onto the old Thetford valve “Y” tail piece. That “Y” tail piece is no longer available either, so proceed carefully, other wise you are going to have to re-plumb your entire waste water system.
Saw or grind off the lugs of the old tail piece (the “Y” tail piece with the undersized lugs). Then epoxy the new lugged ring onto the old tail piece. Do not shorten the old tail piece, just saw the lugs off the outside so the ring slips over them. You do not have to cut them down to the surface of the tail piece, the inside of the lug ring adapter will be about 1/8″ larger than the outside diameter of the old tail piece.
Use a slow curing semi-thick epoxy to fill the void to fill the space between the old tail piece and the new ring, such as Scotchweld 2216BA epoxy (gray). Let it setup for 24 hrs preferably in a warm (between 60 and 105 deg F) location.
With the new CAMCO lug ring installed, you can use the newer fittings.
Q: Are “chemicals” required in the Black and Gray Water tanks?
A: Yes, they control the smell and help break down the solids. The best are those that chlorine dioxide based (i.e. 3R OdorCon), and don’t require smelly perfumes to mask odors. Follow the manufacturers instructions. It usually requires a small amount of the chemical after each dumping.
Another tip to prolong the dump interval when using your tank is to use the spray nozzle for flushing. A few short bursts suffice. The tank flush is only for use with hookups. Also, minimize TP usage! Even the RV stuff will swell with moisture.
Q: My Thetford toilet won’t hold water in the bowl (or, “it leaks from the base of the toilet”). What can I do?
A: Thetford has a seal repair package. This kit contains all the seals used in most model toilets. The seal package cost about $35 and is available from RV Dealers.
Q: How do you replace the toilet that sits under the fiberglass bench in the bathroom? Nothing seems to fit?
A: Best bet is to repair the existing toilet, but if someone else has thrown it out already, here is what is you can do. You lose the china bowl, but it beats using a tree.
Use a Thetford Aqua Magic IV low profile with foot flush (part#24810 or 20810) and a riser (part#24967). Remove the seat from the toilet and it will fit perfectly below the fiberglass shelf.
If the original bench toilet seat is damaged, attach a regular household toilet seat to the shelf (before you install the toilet). You also have to first modify the front of the fiberglass surround so you can access the recessed Thetford foot pedal. Use fiberglass resin and gel-coat to get a finished look (http://www.fgci.com)
Q: My fiberglass shower & tub have some chips and hairline cracks. What can I do to repair them?
A: The Almond and White Porcelain repair liquid can be worked into the cracks and wiped flush with toluene or lacquer thinner. For large area damage, or for all over repairs, the area can be repaired using fiberglass resin and mat, and then sprayed with colored gelcoats. One source of these materials is Fiberglass Coatings, Inc. (http://www.fgci.com/), or have it done commercially (Yellow Pages) by a a fiberglass shower stall shop.
Another alternative is the use of colored epoxy paints designed for this purpose. West System has a nice set of instructions on fiberglass tub and bathroom repair: Fiberglass_tub_repair You can also use tw0-part epoxy or Acrylic Urethane paints and plastic primer (DPX801) designed for automotive use (PPG), available at automotive paint stores.
Q: What can you use to protect the fiberglass surface of the shower, tub & sink?
A: A spray can product called “Gel-Gloss”, available in the cleaning sections of stores, will give the surfaces a clean looking luster and a smooth feel. Available at most Hardware, Wal-Mart’s and Home Centers.
Q: Where can I get replacement faucet parts? My bath faucet is all corroded and the kitchen faucet needs a new washer?
A: Airstream used standard brand-name utility fixtures over the years – Moen, Harcraft, etc. Parts are still available at hardware & plumbing stores. Many appropriate era replacements can be found in a manufacturers all-chrome utility line of products or used cast-offs at garage sales and house demolition salvage yards.
Q: Our toilet has been replaced by a cheap plastic porta-potty. Where can I get a replacement that looks correct and is of good quality?
A: Sealand Marine makes an almost exact duplicate of the original porcelain toilets called the “Traveler 500”.
Q: How do I prepare the water systems for winter (in areas of freezing)?
- Drain your potable water tank and lines using the small valves or plugs found in and under your trailer, depending on the configuration and model year. Open the tank and faucets to allow the air to enter the lines. Make sure the water drains from the hot water tank and lines too.
- Run the pump to purge it of water, look for low points, and tilt the trailer as high and low as possible using the tongue jack.
- Close all drain valves but one and close all faucets but one. Using compressed air and a “Hansen Valve” (air-gun), blow air back through one of the drain valves, and have someone open and close all the faucets one by one. Try this from multiple valves on the longer trailers. Open the toilet valve and shower heads too. Make sure at least one faucet is open at all times to prevent damage to system.
- Actuate the toilet flush valve and drain the water from the toilet supply tank.
- Leave the faucets open to allow evaporation of any remaining moisture. RV anti-freezes are not recommended, as they can leave a funny taste in the water that takes a long time to dissipate, plus some can encourage algae growth by providing nutrients (glycol). Many newer tanks don’t draw from the bottom of the tank, requiring many flushes to clear the remaining residue the next spring.
- Make sure your Black and Gray Water tanks are empty. Tilting with the tongue jack will help insure this.
- The RV anti-freezes are recommended though, for use in sink and shower traps that don’t have drain plugs. Pour a little in each. This will protect the drain until the water evaporates.
Q: Our shower head is missing. Are replacements available?
A: They are still made by Alsons, both the 1950’s/1960’s version with the chrome body (406K Classic), and the 1970’s molded plastic style (462). Any plumbing supply can get them, including online sources.