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Zapped! Final repairs

September 30, 2010—I'd picked Elk Creek because Mike & Lisa Sylvester have a summer place of their own nearby, so it was very convenient for them to come and work on Skylark. I had a list of things that needed fixing in the wake of last month's lightning incident; some were items I could replace myself (such as the Wilson cell phone amplifier and the ScanGauge II display), but others needed a professional's skills and equipment:

Mike replacing the relay
  • transfer relay
  • furnace
  • cracked solar panel
  • propane tank sending unit
  • SurgeGuard
  • trailer lighting system relay module

Because Elk Creek had no electric hookups, I was dependent upon my solar panels for power... and with one panel cracked and my spiffy new 27" iMac drawing even more power than the old one, I was running out of juice on cloudy days. The generator started and ran just fine, but the damaged transfer relay wouldn't let its power get through... so fixing that was the first order of business.

When Mike pulled out the converter and opened up the transfer relay on its back, we discovered that a small but apparently crucial component had been literally blown apart by the lightning. A new relay module cured that problem, and I was once again able to use my generator on cloudy days—what a relief!

The furnace turned out to have a damaged controller board, which Mike replaced. I was very glad to have it working again, because even in early September, the 8,500' high Elk Creek campground was already turning chilly, with overnight temperatures dropping down to the upper thirties F. With no hookups to power my two electric heaters, I had to use the catalytic heater to take the chill off... and with its 3,000 BTU output, it's not really able to heat the whole coach. Fortunately, the afternoons were warmer.... but just the same, I breathed a sigh of relief when Mike got that furnace working again!

The Surge Guard was next. Because the company no longer makes the exact model I had (with remote display panel), Mike installed a Progressive Industries HW30C surge protector instead. This model has several advantages over my old SurgeGuard. Where the SurgeGuard had only a few blinking LEDs to show what was going on, the PI unit has a digital display that reads out the incoming line voltage, frequency, amperage, and any of a number of error codes in case of bad power or an improperly wired power source. (And of course, it will protect me from over- and under-voltages and miswired outlets by refusing to connect to them.)

Cheap MOVs

When Mike got the SurgeGuard out and I opened it up to see what the guts looked like, I found another reason to be glad I was replacing it: it didn't seem to be too well constructed. For example, surge suppression was provided by three small-capacity MOVs (metal oxide varistors) that were literally dangling loose at the end of a bundle of small-gauge wire. MOVs aren't the best way to suppress surges—they degrade with time, and can explode or catch fire when near the end of their lifespan—and these were too small for the job, as was the connecting wire. And letting them flap around loosely inside the enclosure was just plain wrong.

Now to be fair, the old SurgeGuard did its job: it protected my 120VAC circuits from damage, although it was fried in the process. But that brings us to one other thing about the SurgeGuard: it's a sealed enclosure, so when it fails (and with MOVs that's inevitable) you're looking at several hundred bucks to replace the whole thing. The Progressive Industries surge protector, by contrast, is modular and isn't glued shut, so it can serviced when necessary. It too uses MOVs, but at least they're hefty ones and are mounted securely to a high-quality circuit board, not left dangling. I felt better knowing that I now had a really high-quality unit protecting my rig.

Mike & Lisa at work

As always, Mike & Lisa were a pleasure to work with. Mike does everything to the highest standards and never cuts corners, while Lisa is a cheerful assistant who, liked an operating room nurse, always has the needed tools at hand. She also runs the business end of the enterprise, and does it very well. Their estimates and invoices are models of detail and clarity.

Working down the list, Mike & Lisa spent the better part of two days fixing or replacing damaged items. When they were done, I had only four items left on my agenda:

  • rear-view video system
  • escape hatch cover
  • dashboard radio
  • FM and CB antennas and wiring

I replaced the rear-view video system the next day with a model 56-CHNV camera/monitor setup from RV Cams, a widely respected seller of backup cameras. I was lucky: it turned out that while my old camera and monitor were both fried, the wiring was still good, so I didn't have to pull new cable across the roof, down the refrigerator vent and into the cab. That saved me a lot of time and effort.

The camera is aimed so that Skylark's rear bumper is just visible at the bottom of the screen. That way I can see exactly how close I am to an obstacle when backing up. Don't think of a rear-view camera as an electronic rear-view mirror. Instead, it's something much more useful: a rangefinder that tells you exactly how close you are to backing into a fence or a tree. (Or your toad, when preparing to hook up.)

Camera mount

Notice one small but important detail in the photo above: I didn't bring the cable straight down off the roof into the camera. Instead, I left a "drip loop" below the camera bracket, then brought it back up to the housing. I learned the hard way that if you don't do that, no matter how well sealed the cable's entrance into the camera is, water will run down the cable and eventually infiltrate the camera housing. Here's what an earlier rear-view camera of mine looked like after a few years. The drip loop prevents this. It's a little thing, but very important! These cameras aren't cheap.

The 5.6" LCD monitor mounted to the center of my cab ceiling in the same location as the old monitor, above the inside rear-view mirror. That location suits me perfectly. The color image is bright and crisp... and after dark, the camera's 12 infrared LEDs automatically come on, allowing me to literally see in the dark.

Cab monitor

A pleasant interlude

I correspond with a lot of RVers—folks who know me from this website, from Eureka, and from the 4,000+ member Yahoo Lazy Daze group that I moderate. I had been reading Lazy Daze owner Bob Giddings's Catch Me if You Can blog for awhile and enjoying it immensely; it's witty, literate, and just plain entertaining. Truth is, I wish I could write as well as Bob! When I heard that he was passing through southern Colorado, I invited him to stop in at Elk Creek for a few days. We hit it off right away, and became "instant friends" in the magical way that sometimes happens with RVers.

Bob Giddings

Bob has much more extensive RVing experience than I, but most of his traveling was done in a trailer—his 1994 Lazy Daze, a more recent version of my own Gertie, is his first motorhome. He's still getting used to the pluses and minuses, and I can tell that even though he has his big motorcycle with him, he misses his pickup truck. Still, he's gradually adapting and seems to be having a good time. While he was here we did several home improvement projects, and talked about still more enhancements to our rigs. (If you've seen the "Improving Gertie" section of this website, you know I love to come up with improvements!) I gave Bob a few spare items I'd been carrying around, and he made good use of them. (Bob tells the story in his entertaining style on the "Mr. Wizard" page of his blog.)

One of the projects we tackled was installing an adjustable thermostat (Atwood part #A93105, $34.95) on my water heater. The standard thermostat, if left to its own devices, brings the water to a scalding 135F. I deal with that by using a remote-reading aquarium thermometer to tell me when the water heater has reached optimum temperature (about 95in my case) and shut it off then. I was hoping that the adjustable thermostat would let me crank down the temperature so it would automatically warm up to "just right" for my morning shower.

Thermostat

Installation was easy enough. But I was disappointed by the results: even with the thermostat turned to its lowest setting, the water was still ten degrees too hot for comfort. Bob, who's a devotee of hot spa baths, says I'm a sissy. Maybe so, but the water's too hot for me, so I still have to use my aquarium thermometer and shut off the water heater when it hits the ideal-for-me temperature. Too bad.

After Bob headed west to Pagosa Springs, it was time for me to do a load of laundry. When staying at either Heron Lake or El Vado Lake state parks in northern New Mexico, I'm used to driving into Chama—it's the closest town with a laundromat and a decent grocery store. It turned out that when staying at Elk Creek in southern Colorado, the situation was much the same. Although there's a small supermarket in Antonito, 25 miles east of Elk Creek, that town has no laundromat. It was about 25 miles southwest to Chama, so the choice was easy.

The Speed Queen laundromat (take Rt. 64/84/17 north through Chama, turn left on 1st Street, turn right on Pine St., and drive 0.4 mile to the laundromat on your right) is clean and well cared for. I filled a washer, retired to my car, and read a book on my iPod Touch until its timer reminded me to go and move the clothes to the dryer... then read some more while the dryer did its job. A few minutes to fold everything, and I was done.

Alix panting

Best cheese steak in the Rockies

I don't often eat out, but I thought I'd try the take-out place on the outskirts of Chama, "Home Run Pizza." Since they advertised Italian subs, I asked whether they could make a Philly cheese steak sub—an indulgence I haven't enjoyed in years. They could and did. With just a touch of chili adding zest but not too much heat, it was the best cheese steak I've ever had—and I've had 'em in Philadelphia.

Before heading back to Elk Creek, I stopped at the Lowe's supermarket in town to pick up some groceries. Perhaps because Chama caters heavily to tourists, the supermarket carries a surprising variety of items not normally found in a rural New Mexican village. For example, I was able to pick up packets of Jaipur vegetables and palak panir (spinach with soft cheese cubes) to satisfy my occasional craving for Indian food. There are limits, though. When I asked for matzoh, I got only blank looks. Oy, veh! Reckon there ain't too many Jewish cattle ranchers in these here parts. (By the way, the store also has a very well-stocked hardware section, including a good assortment of RVing-related items.)

On the way back from Chama, I was lucky enough to photograph the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic railroad train on its way across the La Manga pass.

Cumbres & Toltec

Billed as the longest and highest narrow-gauge* railroad in the US, this line runs 64 miles from Chama to Antonito. That's locomotive Number 488, a K-36 class Baldwin, chuffing away. Notice that the front end of that loco bears a snowplow rather than a cowcatcher? The C&T line climbs from 7,875 feet at Chama to 10,015 feet at the high point of the La Manga pass, then descends to 7,888 feet at Antonito. Locals told me that in wintertime, the temperature can drop as low as forty to fifty degrees below zero, and there's no shortage of snow.

Not that the train carries passengers in the winter—their season ends in mid-October and doesn't begin again until mid-May. It's a ride I'd love to take, but their least expensive one-way ticket costs $75, with prices going as high as $150 for a ride in the parlor car with continental breakfast and lunch included. That's a lot of money for a 64-mile trip. And come to think of it, I've already driven the route in my car several times—highway 17 parallels the tracks for most of its length. It's lovely scenery, but you don't have to take the train to see it.

Just the same, if I had a little more money, I would. (Postscript: three years later, I did. What a great ride! )

* "narrow gauge" in this case is three feet. Standard gauge for railroads in the US and most of the rest of the world is four feet, eight and one half inches. Why such an odd number? Well, according to historians, it was standardized back in the late Bronze Age, when Greeks and Romans built paved roadways (such as the Corinthian "Diolkos") with artificial wheel-ruts set that far apart—arguably the first railways.

Anyway, here's the view from highway 17, with the C&T tracks running right across the landscape. You can't tell in this reduced image, but there's a railroad crossing right where the road takes an S-curve. (If you click on the image below, you'll see a larger version of this panorama.)

La Manga Pass

Praise for Progressive

Insurance companies don't normally evoke warm, fuzzy feelings. Certainly my last insurer, National Interstate (via the Poliseek agency) wasn't fun to deal with. When I bought the Honda Fit a year and a half ago, I switched to Progressive for both car and motorhome, on the advice of a friend who had worked for one of their competitors. Doing so saved me $800 a year in premiums, but more to the point, Progressive performed very well the first time I had to call on them.

I will say that the customer rep I dealt with had some communication problems (mainly, he was quick to answer phone calls but very slow to answer emails—and I was out of phone range for much of the time). This resulted in a two-week wait before an adjuster was able to come and inspect the damage. But once that happened, Progressive moved fast. The adjuster didn't quibble over anything, or try to tell me that my three-year-old dashboard radio was only worth fifty bucks because of depreciation. Although Skylark itself is only insured for current market value, every item that was damaged by lightning was paid for at replacement cost. That was a pleasant surprise.

A bigger surprise was when the adjuster asked for estimates of the time it took me to install the items that I planned to replace myself: the Wilson cell phone booster, the rear view video system, the dashboard radio, the escape hatch cover, the FM and CB antennas, and the ScanGauge II display. Progressive ended up paying me $110/hour labor for that work! I was flabbergasted. They also paid for the $478.14 tow from El Vado Lake, my motel room in Alamosa, and of course the Ford dealer's bill for getting the engine going.

I submitted my final invoices and estimates for remaining work by email on the 14th, and Progressive mailed a check less than 24 hours later. The amount was actually more than I had requested, thanks to the payments for my labor, which I hadn't expected. Yes, I know my premiums will probably go up next year... but right now, I'm feeling pretty good about the way Progressive handled this claim.

Back to normal... almost

If you're observant, you will have noticed that I didn't mention fixing the escape hatch or the antennas. Well, I haven't... yet. UPS won't deliver to Heron Lake state park (or so I've been told), so I'm waiting until I get to a more populous area before I have the Lazy Daze factory ship the replacement to me.

I did install a new dashboard radio a couple of days ago, although some surgery was involved. I've documented that on a separate web page, because I suspect I'm not the only person driving a Ford-based class C motorhome who's fed up with the tiny buttons and confusing panel layouts of today's standard radios. The one I ordered is a JVC model with large, simple controls.

The FM and CB antennas... well, I'll get around to them, but they're not a top priority. The truth is, I don't listen to FM, since I have XM satellite radio; I very rarely use the CB; and I don't spend more than three or four hours a month in the cab anyway. I just don't drive that much... there's no need, when I can stay in a state park for three or three weeks. This may sound strange if you're still in "vacationing mode," but for a full-time RVer there's rarely any reason to move every day, or even every week. Besides, thanks to my relaxed lifestyle, I don't spend much on gas. How much can you use up in four hours a month?

Being struck by lightning has certainly been educational. Mind you, it's a lesson I could have done without... but in the end, things turned out all right. And now Skylark and I are more or less back to normal, heading down the road to warmer climes.

Traveling on

Postscript

December 26, 2010—I had expected my insurance rate to rise substantially the year after the lightning incident. After all, we all know how insurance companies work: they'll pay out $2,000 on a claim, then boost your rate by $1,000 a year for the next three years. But to my considerable surprise and delight, my insurance bill for 2011 was actually a few dollars less than it was for 2010. Score another point for Progressive.

(To be fair, Progressive does have a significant drawback from my point of view: like most insurers, they judge an RV's value "by the book"—generally NADA—and not by its actual resale value, much less its replacement cost. Since NADA and similar guides tend to undervalue RVs, especially uncommon makes such as my Lazy Daze, that could mean being underpaid if the rig were totaled. If this is a concern, look for a company that will insure your rig for an agreed value or for its replacement cost... but be prepared for higher premiums.)

Meanwhile, a few months after the incident I had occasion to crawl down to the foot of my overcab bed—a dark and seldom-accessed area—and discovered a large smoke smudge on the ceiling in a corner not far from where the lightning struck. The smudge was centered on a 1/4" steel reinforcement plate that's part of the front roll bar. It confirmed my theory that the current from the lightning bolt traveled down the coach's steel frame to reach the ground.

Looking at all that smoke on my ceiling was pretty scary. It was just another reminder of how lucky I was that my rig didn't burn down... that I wasn't asleep when it happened... that the damage wasn't a lot worse than it was.

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