When you travel, things go wrong.
They always go wrong.
In fact, when I am counseling a person who is getting ready to undertake their first major voyage abroad for an extended period of time, one of the things I am always sure to point out is that they should expect the worst to happen. That sounds kind-of bad and pessimistic, but my advice doesn’t stop there.
I try to explain that if you set your eyes on a particular goal while traveling and you don’t make it, you are sure to be upset that you didn’t get to do it and you will be anxious the whole time when everything is going to hell and you are trying against all odds to do whatever it is that you wanted to do. Alternatively, I explain, you could just be there for whatever comes your way and enjoy the people that you meet and the odds and ends of the things that happen as a result of your temporary setback.
I came about this realization while traveling in Africa in the mid 1990’s. It was part of learning about “Africa Time.” For those of you not familiar with the phrase, which also sometimes goes by the moniker “Island Time,” the concept works a little like this:
Me to a Local Person: “When does the bus come?”
Local Person: “Today. Maybe, tomorrow.”
Being a Westerner, this took some adjustment. My first reaction was, “You don’t even know if the bus is coming today? How do you people ever get anywhere or get anything done?” Naturally, I was not so stupid as to utter these words out loud, but they certainly went through my mind.
Adjusting to “African Time” meant that I had to learn to experience life in a different manner. In the West, we tend to base things chronologically, meaning, according to what time they happen during the day and on what day of the week, month, and year. In many places in Africa, life is based more on events as they occur. Time is not always so important.
After quite a bit of traveling, I realized that things almost never happen the way you expect them to, which means that if you try to stick to a plan you will likely be disappointed at best, and completely distraught at the worst. Among the many things that can go wrong are when really important things break – like your tent or your stove when you are camping. These things are more than just a little inconvenient.
I learned that instead of wasting my time worrying about having things work out 100% as planned, to just make the best of the situation and know that a resolution will come in time. Anxiety and worry about these problems does not solve them. It only serves to make you anxious and unhappy. So, why be upset when you really don’t need to be?
Knowing this, I’m a pretty confident traveler. I’m not smug, but I don’t tend to get very bent out of shape when bad things happen. The first couple of weeks as a full-time RV’er definitely put this relaxed attitude to the test, as I would find out, when it comes to RV’s, some times you don’t have the luxury of time on your side.
Maiden Voyage to Michigan
My first destination was Michigan. I was headed to the Upper Peninsula, but detoured to visit some friends outside of Ann Arbor for what I thought would be a couple of days. They live in a rural area and had plenty of room for Eddie which I was told I could park down at the bottom of their driveway on a level spot on their property. Sounded good.
I decided after spending the night just outside of Louisville, Kentucky that Ann Arbor was within reach by evening. It would be a nearly 6 hour drive to their place, but I was getting a little more used to driving Eddie and the roads had improved significantly.
Refueling Near Toledo
All was going pretty well, and somewhere south of Toledo, Ohio I noticed that it was time to refuel. After a bit of searching, I managed to locate a filling station where I could pull my rig through and get out in one piece. This is easier said than done since backing up is an impossibility when you have a tow dolly that pivots not only at the ball on the hitch, but also between the wheels on the tow dolly. Straight forward is your only option, and your turning radius is huge.
Finding a pump that was accessible, I pulled up, swiped my card, and inserted the nozzle. Since it takes a few minutes to fill a 55 gallon tank, I busied myself with cleaning the windshield and side mirrors. As I was doing so, a gentleman at the pump next to me yelled over to me that there was something spilling out from under my vehicle.
I immediately dropped what I was doing and ran to see what was wrong. Sure enough, there was fluid gushing out of the bottom of Eddie. It didn’t take much to figure out that the fluid was gasoline. Fantastic.
I stopped the gas pump and did my best to assess the situation. The fluid was no longer pouring out. Instead, there were just drops dripping from the source. Climbing up under Eddie for a closer look wasn’t exactly feasible because there was gasoline all over the ground.
Unsure what to do next, I waited a few minutes to see if the problem would recur or if it had stopped. I crawled around on the ground as best I could and tried to get a better view, but it was extremely bright outside and the sunlight hitting the white concrete around me kept my eyes from being able to focus on the dark underbelly of Eddie. One thing that I Could tell was that there was no more leaking.
I realized that I had a leak in one of two places. Either the leak was in the filler hose that runs from the port on the side of the RV where you insert the nozzle to the gas tank, or it was in the gas tank itself, but very high up. I knew from the number of gallons I had filled that the tank was about 3/4 of the way full. Since there was no more leaking, if the hole was in the fuel tank itself, it would have to be in the top. My best guess was that a hole in the fuel tank was unlikely, but there was no way to confirm this theory.
My options were to either call a mechanic out in the middle of nowhere, for there were fields of some agricultural crop all around me and not a building of more than 2 stories to be seen for miles and miles, or, I could take my chances and see if the 3/4 of a tank would be sufficient to reach my friends’ house outside of Ann Arbor and deal with it then.
I knew that liquid gasoline was not explosive – that only the fumes would do that and that starting my engine would not pose much risk because that ignition was internal and I was not in an enclosed area, so there was plenty of room for the fumes to disperse. Besides, the filling station was getting pretty crowded and people who had no idea what was happening were waiting for my pump and starting throw nasty glances in my direction. So, I decided to shove off and see what happened.
I drove about 10 minutes to the next possible pull-off area and then got out and checked the gas tank. Without a big puddle of gas underneath Eddie, I was able to crawl up under her with a flashlight and get a good look this time. No evidence of drips or spills, but the really strong odor of gas wasn’t exactly gone. I decided to proceed. A few hours later, I was parked on my friends’ property and all was right with the world. The next day I would call to find a mechanic where I could take Eddie in for some TLC.
The Initial Search for a Mechanic
The next morning I began calling around for the mechanic. What I found was that your run-of-the-mill garages did not have sufficient room for the RV, their lifts were too small, or they didn’t work on RV’s. The last of these reasons was just an excuse, as my RV is built on a Ford Super Duty van chassis, and the parts that needed examining were no different than any other van, but what do I know being a girl and all?
Not having any luck with this variety of garage, I decided to call around to see if I could locate a commercial vehicle garage that would take me. They all referred me to the Ford dealership (they wouldn’t take me – see excuse #3 in the paragraph above) or to local RV dealerships. RV dealerships are great if you need the house part of your vehicle serviced. They are where you go if you need help with your stove, your fridge, your propane tank, or your shower. They generally do very little in terms of the chassis and the mechanical work associated with automobiles.
So, there I was stuck between a rock and a hard place. No one would help and this wasn’t exactly a problem that I could ignore. Without any other options, I threw down a tarp, put on my headlamp, and tried to figure out for myself what exactly was wrong.
I knew from talking to about every mechanic in the greater Ann Arbor area that I was going to have to drop my fuel tank to do an inspection. I had done a pretty good job at estimating the gas needed to make it to my friend’s house, as there wasn’t a great deal of gas left in it – maybe about 5-7 gallons, which is about 40-50 lbs.
I examined the mechanisms holding the fuel tank in place, and realized that it was only a handful of bolts that I needed to get loose and then ease the 50 lbs worth of fuel and tank down on the ground. One mechanic I had spoken to said this should be fairly simple. I had inquired about the length of the fuel lines leading from the tank, and he said that it would be no problem and there would be enough slack. It didn’t seem like a terribly difficult task, assuming that I didn’t crush myself with the fuel tank or yank out the fuel lines which were pretty much inaccessible unless the RV were on a lift, which it wasn’t.
I got out my two stack jacks and spare unmounted scissor jack along with a number of blocks I used for leveling the wheels and placed these things all very strategically so as to prevent the fuel tank from falling from the frame and crushing me. Having had been in the aquarium business for well over a decade, I was familiar with the nature of liquids in containers that were dropped on one end and tried to ensure that the sudden rush of all of the gasoline to one end of the fuel tank when it came down would be supported adequately.
Next, I took off the hose clamps for the filler hose and exhaust hose that connect the filling port to the fuel tank. Then, ever so carefully, I wrenched the hoses loose and secured them by tying them to areas of the frame. This was to keep them as elevated as possible so fuel wouldn’t run out everywhere. This worked pretty well.
As I was removing the hoses, I realized in what very poor shape they were in. The hoses were made of rubber that had experienced dry rot. I was pretty sure at this point that the problem was with the hoses and not with the fuel tank itself. So, I tried my best to reach the area where they connected to the fuel tank to see if there was any way to remove them without having to drop the fuel tank. No such luck. The space was so tight that I couldn’t even shine a light up to the area, let alone get my arms up in there. The fuel tank had to come down.
I don’t know if you have ever worked on loosening bolts on the underside of a 17 year old vehicle, but it isn’t an easy task. There is every manner of gunk imaginable from rust to dirt that has become cemented on over the years. I dug around in my carefully chosen toolkit and located a small wire brush that I used to clean them as best I could. After a tremendous amount of effort, I finally got them off and the fuel tank was free.
Fortunately, I had planned my supports well and they allowed me to very slowly bring down the fuel tank so that I was able to access (somewhat) the top side of it where the filler hose joined it. This would have been much, much simpler if the fuel lines were not so damned short. The forward part of the tank had to remain rather elevated because it was causing a great deal of tension on the fuel lines, but there was really no other way of doing things.
Where the Problems Really Started
Once everything was stable, I examined the filler hose where it joined the fuel tank and, sure enough, there was a huge gash in it. There was no doubt that this was the problem.
There was an issue, though. My tiny little hands were not strong enough to grasp the hose and twist it off in the very small space that I had to access it. Even though the fuel tank was mostly lowered, the placement of the join to the fuel tank was still mostly inaccessible. There was no way on earth that I was going to be able to get a wrench in that to help remove it. Even if I could get a wrench in there to remove it, I would still require the very strong hands of, most likely a man (a little feminist piece of me dies admitting this), to get the new hose back on without causing it damage.
I called it quits for this day since I was exhausted and all of this effort had literally taken the whole day. I capped off the ends of the hose with rubber gloves and rubber bands to keep the fumes at bay and waited for my friends to come home so we could share a bottle of wine and watch the sunset over their field in the back of their house.
The next day I resumed where I left off. I was back to square one – well, actually, a little worse off, because now my vehicle was not drivable. I would have to find a mobile mechanic – and they don’t come cheaply. After hours of calling around again, I finally found a guy who would come out to help – but I still didn’t have the replacement part. The guy said that he would be in my area and so I asked him if he would stop by to have a look to make sure he could do the work and double-check to make sure he would bring the right parts. I decided to go ahead and replace the fuel vent hose as well since it was in nearly the same condition as the filler hose.
When he arrived and saw my setup, he laughed and asked if I had done all of this myself. I told him that I had, head somewhat down, since I was ashamed that I could not complete the very simple job of swapping a hose by myself. This was simple plumbing and I’d been doing plumbing for over a decade in the aquarium world. It wasn’t a monumental feat to swap two hoses and put on four hose clamps. My hands just weren’t strong enough for the job.
He left, still chuckling to himself at my situation, telling me he’d locate the parts and get back to me in a day or two. I told him there was no rush since I didn’t have to leave anytime soon.
The next day the mobile mechanic called me and told me that he was having difficultly locating the parts needed. From some research I had already done locally, I knew that it would be challenging and I had told him so. Filler hoses are usually cut to about 3’ before being sold to auto parts stores. This is because they are very, very tough rubber and have wire running through them for extra support.
The mechanic told me that he didn’t think he could get the filler hose anytime soon, but that he had located a vent hose. The length we needed was such an odd measurement that no one seemed to have access to it quickly. I told him I thought I had a source locally who could order the filler hose in the 5.5’ length we required. Sure enough, I was able to source the hose, but it couldn’t get there for about 4-5 days because of the Memorial Day holiday.
Waiting on the Hoses to Arrive
I informed my friends about the dilemma, and they were very accommodating, saying that I was welcome to stay as long as I needed. I felt bad and like I was imposing, but they assured me that I was no imposition because I brought my own quarters with me and they barely noticed that I was there.
When I visit people I try to be as low-impact as possible on their lives, so I was using my own facilities most of the time unless I happened to be up visiting with them in the evening after they returned home from work. I had arrived on May 16th, and Memorial Day wasn’t until the 25th. My hoses weren’t expected until the 26th, which meant that I would soon be facing a problem.
On an RV there are generally two holding tanks (some models have a third). One tank holds “gray water” which comes from your shower and your sinks. The other tank holds “black water” which is only supplied by your toilet. They contain a finite amount of space, and even with very conservative usage, about 7 days is really pushing it for the gray water tank if you are solo. Depending on your bathroom habits, you might make it 10 days on your blackwater tank.
Since the earliest that my hoses were expected was 13 full days from my arrival, PLUS the two nights I’d been underway since I left home, I was looking at a 15 day period before my vehicle could move to a dumping location – about 15 miles away. Fortunately, gray water is generally not particularly nasty as it’s just bath and sink water with a few small food particles.
As a general rule, you shouldn’t dump any waste from your RV on the ground, but in an emergency, it’s not a horrible thing if you absolutely must dump your gray water. It’s stinky for a couple of minutes from the hydrogen sulfide, but it quickly dissipates and is gone. Also, if you use environmentally friendly products like I do, it doesn’t really pose any hazards. The blackwater tank is another matter, and as soon as I realized my rig wouldn’t be fixed for a while, I started using their toilet.
With my friends’ permission, I planned one night to dump my gray water tank next to my rig. Although they were in a rural area, there was a house next to theirs and the waste valves were located on the side facing their neighbors’ house. Technically, it was on my friends’ property and it would not affect the neighbors in any way, but it is just not good form to make a big show of something like that.
Dumping the Gray Water Tank
So, one night after bedtime, headlamp on my head and rubber gloves on my hands, I went outside and prepared to dump my gray water. I felt like I had definitely picked the correct name for my RV, “Eddie.” She was named after the character of Cousin Eddie from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, specifically for the scene in which Eddie is outside of the Griswolds’ house dumping his waste into the storm drains and yells to the snotty neighbors “Merry Christmas! Shitter’s full!” How terribly prophetic.
The two tanks are completely separate, but their plumbing is in a “Y” shape and comes together a single point where you attach a hose and dump. This would be at the bottom of the “Y.” There are valves for each tank, so you are able to dump the tanks separately. I had tested the tanks before leaving home and was sure which tank was my black tank and which was my gray tank, since they were not labeled).
I readied the hose to connect to the RV, and removed the cap that covers the port where you connect the hose. About a half of a gallon of very stinky fluid gushed out all over my gloved hands and went all over the floor of the compartment that houses the connections, then proceeded to drip all over the tarp underneath that I had used to keep myself from getting damp from the ground while lowering the fuel tank. As luck would have it, the waste area was located exactly where one had to climb under the RV to access the fuel tank.
That Sure Didn’t Smell Like Gray Water
Having worked in the aquarium trade for over a decade, I am very familiar with the smell of hydrogen sulfide which is produced when biological elements decompose in environments lacking oxygen. It has a very distinct smell of rotten eggs. The fluid that had been emitted when I opened the cap did not have this smell. This was the smell of black water. Read: fecal matter.
I gagged, recovered, and then gagged again. I had no idea why this water was there. I double-checked to make sure that the valves were both closed, and they were. In an ideal world, there should not be any water coming out when you pull off the cap. Something was wrong.
Regardless, I still had to dump the gray water tank, lest it back up and overflow into my shower. I hooked up the hose, ran it out as far as I could from the RV, and pulled the valve for the gray water tank. Water gushed through it and out onto the grass, gave off the expected hydrogen sulfide smell, and dissipated as expected. I disconnected the hose and walked it out, making sure that no water was left in it and set it aside, being careful to place it on the far side of my rig out of sight from the neighbors.
When I returned to the other side of Eddie to replace the cap, there was still stuff dripping out, which should not happen – and it was awful. There wasn’t anything I could do about it other than replace the cap and try to wash down the area as best I could, so I did and went to bed.
Not-Quite-So-Fresh Morning Air
Early the next morning when I took the dogs for their morning walk, I was greeted with the stench of poop. I walked first over to where I had dumped the gray water the night before and inspected the ground. There was no trace that it had been done, nor was there any odor. It was as it should be.
When I came back to the rig and checked the area where the leak had occurred the previous night, I found the source of the smell. Brown fluid was standing on top of the tarp and there was no doubt from the smell as to what it was.
When I had walked the dogs and put them up, I returned to the scene gloved and ready to try and do a better job of cleaning up the mess that had been left the previous night. My thought was that since it was dark, I must have just not have done a thorough enough job in my clean-up efforts. So, with a hose, I proceeded to rinse off the tarp as best I could. Since it was under all of the jacks and blocks and fuel tank, there was no way to pull it out to clean it, nor was there any way to ensure that it was cleaned off 100%, but I did my best. All I could think about was that the mechanic was going to have to get under there to put the hose on and get the gas tank back in place. The thought horrified me, but what could I do?
Making sure to be thorough, I opened the hatch that provided access to the compartment where the black and gray water tank drain was located. Inside I found a cess pool of human waste. It became clear at this point that my problem was not just limited to the blackwater tank valve, but that the cap at the bottom of the “Y” was also not sealing. As a result, liquid waste was dripping out and there was no way to stop it.
Since the black water tank held about 30-40 gallons of waste, this was something that would not be over in a short period of time. The only thing I could think to do was to catch the waste in a tupperware container under the leaking cap and dump it every few hours, which seemed to keep things less nasty.
Once I could move the vehicle and get to a dump station, I would be able to replace the valves and cap easily. Until the tanks were empty, however, I was just going to have to suck it up. That poor, poor mechanic. He would certainly earn his day’s wage when he came back.
Over the next few days, I religiously monitored and emptied the tupperware container collecting the dripping waste and hosed off the tarp a few more times. On the Tuesday after Memorial Day, the auto parts store called to confirm the arrival of the part, so I notified the mechanic who said he would be out that afternoon. While in town getting the hoses, I stopped at an RV parts store down the street and got new valves for both the black and gray water tanks (might as well replace both) as well as a new see-thru cap, so that I would not be caught off-guard by leaking valves again.
Replacing the Hoses
When the mechanic arrived later that afternoon, he had a friend along with him. The friend was not an auto-mechanic, and stood by chain smoking (I swear) as the mechanic removed the gas-filled hoses and replaced them. Once they were fitted, he got out a floor jack to hoist the tank back into place and secured the bolts. The whole process took all of about 45 minutes. For his services, I got a bill of $373, only $38 of which was for the vent hose he brought. That’s just the cost of a mobile mechanic. They aren’t cheap, but they are worth their weight in gold when you need them.
It wasn’t a difficult job – except that it was being done on top of hopefully very diluted poo, so I guess it was worth the cost for that part alone. I still feel guilty about that – and, no, I didn’t have the heart to tell him. I just hoped I did a good job of cleaning and he had on some mighty filthy overalls to begin with that were so soaked in oil and grease, I was pretty sure nothing would penetrate them.
As soon as they left, I headed for the wastewater treatment facility in the neighboring town that had an RV dump and did my very best to clean out my blackwater tank. Of course, nothing is 100% when it comes to that kind of thing, but I was determined to deal with as little poo as possible.
The next day I removed the old valves and installed the new ones. The gaskets proved to be a bit trickier than anticipated, but it wasn’t too hard. I installed my new see-thru cap and then ran clear water down the toilet. I went outside to check, and there was no drip to be found. Yay!
Within a few days, I said goodbye to my friends and headed off with my fancy new filler hoses, valves, and cap toward the Upper Peninsula of Michigan – hoping that my RV problems would all be behind me.