When I bought my all-original 1989 Bigfoot
B17G Deluxe I wasn't able to check everything out thoroughly. Bigfoots are pretty rare here in Alaska and when this one came up for sale
last year there was a line of buyers waiting to start a bidding war on it.
I had a pressing need for a trailer to live in at my away-from-home work assignments so against my better judgement I rolled the dice and bought it without being able to give it more than a thorough visual inspection and grilling the original owner with every question I could think of. Here's my registry page on it.
I was cautiously optimistic that it was all the PO said it was. From the beginning I knew I had some minor fixes to execute, which I did right away. But on my first shakedown run, as soon as I pressurized the water system, a host of leaks
made their presence known. I tried to take it in stride, Maglite in hand, searching in every crevice for drips and leaks
. My heart sank every time I found one, and I found several.
I carried on with the shakedown process, removing the city water connection and filling the fresh water tank enough to test the pump. That too revealed a problem with the pump. It wouldn't prime and every so often it would just cut out completely. After several attempts, it finally primed but it clearly had some issues.
I identified leaks
at the hot and cold bathroom faucet connections. Tightening the threaded fittings didn't help. I also found a small drip from somewhere under the kitchen faucet (I never figured out which exact connection it was), a couple drips off the water heater connections, a broken and leaking toilet valve, a leaking drain valve on the water heater, and a ruptured water heater tank. What a mess. Clearly this was freeze damage, which the PO was either unaware of or concealed from me. Oh well.
The trailer had the original gray "QEST" polybutylene plumbing in it and after some research and careful consideration I decided to just replace all of it instead of trying to band-aid it back into service. After all, this is just a 17-foot trailer. I figured even in the worst case scenario, the project couldn't be that hard or costly. There just isn't that much plumbing in the thing.
It's clear, however, that the plumbing in these trailers is installed during initial construction before all the cabinets and appliances are installed. As I looked through all the access hatches and behind cabinets and drawers, I immediately determined that there was no way in hell I would be able to even reach some of the plumbing, let alone get a crimp tool in there to cinch down any mechanical crimps or clamps. I'm a "big and tall" guy. My arms are as big around as some people's legs. It was obvious that getting my paws into the requisite spots to plumb this thing was going to be the biggest challenge. But at this point, I figured that repairing the QEST plumbing would be just as challenging, and in the end I wouldn't have "upgraded" anything and it would probably leak again at some inconvenient time. So I set out to do a full plumbing system upgrade.
I went to a number of retailers looking at plumbing options. I did a lot of research online. Through all of this I developed a set of parameters to help me decide on which materials, technique, and fittings would work best for me. The purpose of this post is to share my experience for others who might be faced with the same task. Some of the information I gleaned from this experience I could not find online and obtained through trial and error. I hope it helps someone else down the road.
The basic parameters I came up with were as follows;
1. Remove as much of the polybutylene plumbing as practical so it wouldn't give me problems in the future.
2. Use materials commonly available such as those at the big box home improvement stores. Nothing too exotic, costly, or difficult to obtain in the future should repairs, especially on-the-road repairs, be necessary.
3. Materials and fittings relatively user-friendly requiring minimal special tools and no special solvents or adhesives.
4. Materials as light
as practical to keep the dry weight
of the system as low as possible and also keep the weight
of spares to a minimum.
5. Fittings requiring no crimping or clamping tools, which would be impossible to use in many of the tight spaces hidden in the bowels of the trailer.
6. Maintain the same basic size of the plumbing so it continues to work as designed with no flow or volume issues. In other words, the original QEST stuff was 1/2-inch, so I wanted the new plumbing to remain at that size.
7. Material that could mate with the QEST tubing should I run into the need to leave something as-is.
8. Fittings certified for in-wall use.
9. Complete the entire job from start to finish in a couple of afternoons if possible.
I put the trailer in storage and headed for California for the winter, which gave me plenty of time to mull this over and devise a plan. In the mean time I ordered a new 6-gallon Atwood water heater to take with me in the spring plus some new tires
and a few other things that were easier and cheaper to get in the "lower 48" than in Alaska. We have three Home Depot and three Lowes locations here in Anchorage so I figured I'd buy the rest of the parts locally.
When I got here this spring I had everything I needed to jump on this. All I had to do was wait for the spring melt so I could get the Bigfoot
out of storage and get to work on it. That took longer than expected, we had a late spring. But as soon as it warmed up, I got to work.
I ended up using 1/2-inch cross-linked polyethylene (PEX) tubing and Apollo Lockfit™ push fittings.
PEX was an easy choice. It's prolific. It's reliable. It's pretty easy to work with. There are a lot of fitting options. It can expand a little under freeze conditions without rupturing. Best of all, I could get the SharkBite brand in 10-foot sections in both blue (cold) and red (hot) from Home Depot for less than 3 bucks per piece. No need to buy a 50 or 100-foot roll.
I decided on the Apollo Lockfit™ push fittings after a fair amount of apprehension and hand wringing. Once I decided that crimp/clamp fittings were out, I focused on push-fit style fittings. I read everything I could about them online, including in various RV and home improvement forums. What I came away with after all that reading was that for every posted opinion extolling the virtues of any given brand of fitting, I could find another post deriding the same exact fitting for its installation difficulty, reliability, cost, or some other undesirable attribute. This was the case for every brand I looked at including SharkBite, GatorBite, Apollo, John Guest Twist & Lock, Watts, SeaTech, NIBCO Push ‘N Go®, Probite, etc. After reading endless contradictory opinions, I came to the very unscientific conclusion that most of the complainers must have not used or installed the fittings correctly and that should serve as a warning to me to take my time, pay attention to detail, and heed all of the tips I had read on making these things work.
So that left me with the next phase in the selection process, which was to decide which of the choices best fit my list of parameters above. Because of number 4 above, I decided to try to eliminate all of the brass fittings from the list. This included the SharkBite, GatorBite, and Probite fittings. Not only are these fittings incredibly expensive, but I was also concerned that the weight of the fittings, especially while bouncing down the road, would put some strain on the system and eventually promote leaks. Because access to the piping is so limited for me, I figured I wouldn't be able to install pipe supports or hangers every 12 to 16 inches and much of the plumbing would be unsuspended and the weight of the fittings would increase harmonics and vibration in the system. Maybe it's much ado about nothing, maybe not. I didn't want to put all of this together to find out my fears were valid some time down the road. I plan to drag this thing between Alaska and California now and then so I need to make sure it doesn't rattle apart on these rather long trips.
So I decided to go with lightweight plastic fittings, which left Apollo, John Guest Twist & Lock, Watts, SeaTech, and NIBCO Push ‘N Go® fittings to choose from. It seems that some of these are rebranded versions of others. For instance, the SeaTech and Watts Quick-Connect fittings seem to be identical. But at this point it was easy to eliminate some of these in order to comply with parameter number 2 above. The Home Depot locations I visited had none of these. Lowes carries the Watts and Apollo lines.
And that is where things got weird. For no apparent reason I immediately expressed a preference for the Watts Quick-Connect fittings at Lowes. Maybe it's because they look just like plastic SharkBites. Who knows. But upon further inspection, I discovered that their "1/2 inch" fittings do not fit 1/2 inch PEX. If you buy a SharkBite, GatorBite, Apollo, or Probite 1/2 inch PEX fitting, it fits 1/2 inch PEX tubing. But a 1/2 inch Watts fitting fits 3/8 inch PEX tubing, not 1/2 inch.
I have not been able to find a solid explanation for this but I suspect that it may have something to do with the way tubing is measured. I've read over and over that PEX is generally expressed in OD even though 1/2 inch PEX is neither 1/2 OD or 1/2 inch ID. It actually has an outside diameter of 5/8 (.625) inch and an inside diameter of 19/40 (.475) inch. .475 inch is about as close to 1/2 inch as you can be without it being exactly 1/2 inch. So I can only assume that the measurement of PEX and PEX-compatible fittings are actually expressed in ID, regardless of what I've read over and over. Perhaps it is expressed in CTS, or "copper tubing size", which is the "nominal inside pipe diameter". I'm still not clear on this.
Anyway, for whatever reason, even though they are listed as PEX compatible fittings, Watts uses OD and "1/2 inch" is the biggest fitting they make, even though they only fit 3/8 inch PEX (which is 3/8-inch ID and 1/2-inch OD). On top of that, Lowes doesn't have a very big selection of the Watts fittings so I had to eliminate it from the list, leaving the Apollo Lockfit™ push fittings as my only choice. Lowes has a great selection of these and they are relatively inexpensive.
For reference, here are some of the plastic push-fit fitting manufacturer sites:
Apollo Lockfit™ Push Fittings: http://www.apollopex.com/products/8
John Guest Twist & Lock: http://www.speedfit.co.uk/Home/Produ...-Fittings.aspx
SeaTech Quick-Connect fittings: http://www.seatechinc.com/
Watts Quick-Connect fittings: http://www.watts.com/pages/_products...=71&parCat=138
NIBCO Push ‘N Go® fittings: http://www.nibco.com/PEX/PEX-Fitting...N-Go-Fittings/
Having reached this conclusion through my "process of elimination" I further studied the Apollo fittings. I went and bought a few of them along with some short pieces of PEX tubing, got used to them and played with them and did a lot more reading on them. I really liked the part push-fit, and part compression fit aspect of them. What you do is slip the PEX tubing into the fitting, then twist down the threaded lock ring until it's tight. It's like a SharkBite with a twist-down lock ring. You can loosen, remove, and reuse the fittings and they seemed to be easy to use and didn't require any special tools other than a good tubing cutter and end trimmer, which I would need for any PEX-based solution anyway.
But again, doubt crept into my head after reading other people's experiences with them. "They leak", "they're junk", and on and on. One poster said he used them to re-plumb his entire house and "every single one leaked". For every positive "review" I could find, I could also find a horror story. But after playing with them and studying them a bit, I decided that they deserved a shot at the task. It's not like I had a lot of options at this point if I was to stick with my aforementioned parameters.
So with all the PEX tubing and Apollo fittings in-hand, plus a new toilet valve for the Thetford AquaMagic IV, and a new water heater, one fine spring afternoon here a couple of weeks ago I dug the trailer out of storage and started the project. I began by removing the old water heater, snipping off the QEST plumbing coming off the back of it, and installing the new water heater. Then I removed the louvered exterior panel behind the fridge
, and the furnace
so I could get to as much of the plumbing as possible.
After installing the water heater, I built the pipe and valve system off the back of it. This is where the plumbing is the most accessible so I figured it was a good place to start so I could get used to the PEX material and the Apollo fittings a little more. So in went the three valves (cold inlet, hot outlet, and bypass) plus all the associated elbows, tees, and 1/2 MIP thread adapters. After that was built I slowly worked my way toward the kitchen and then the bathroom, removing only small sections of the polybutylene at a time, and building the PEX replacement in logical sections.
To compensate for the inability to access certain spots, I built as much of a section on the floor as I could, then installed it as a sub-assembly to the fittings I could easily reach. It was still tight, but it worked. One thing I immediately noticed is that PEX is not very flexible at all. Much less than the gray stuff. I suppose in a house it's easier to work with. But in the confined spaces of a small trailer, the stiffness of it made things challenging. In the one radius coming off the water heater and going into the wall I ended up heating the two tubes with a heat gun to make the radius a little smoother and so it would hold its shape there to relieve some of the pressure on the fittings on the water heater side. The heat gun worked great but you have to take your time and not overdo it.
Once I got to the kitchen, I replaced the old faucet with a new all-brass bar type faucet with 4-inch centers. Perfect fit. Even though I decided I would eventually fasten as much of the PEX down as possible to minimize stress on the fittings to prevent leaks, I knew there would be movement so I wanted to use flexible feed lines to the faucets. I ended up using regular reinforced PVC faucet feed lines with 1/2 FIP connections on each end. This is where I wish Apollo made a tee with 1/2 inch push to 1/2 inch MIP to 1/2 inch push connections (in other words a 1/2 in push fit run with a 1/2 in MIP bull). But they don't so I had to put a short section of PEX off the center (bull) of each tee and run that into a push fit pipe thread adapter to connect the flex lines. Kind of ghetto but it works and it came out cleaner than I thought it would.
Once I finished the kitchen, I removed the toilet so I could replace the leaking valve. The valve cannot be serviced without removing the toilet but it was pretty easy to remove it. After that I stopped for the day but resumed the following day just long enough to repair the toilet. First I totally sanitized it inside and out. Then I removed the original valve and replaced it with the new one. Perfect fit, no issues. The toilet was ready to go back in.
A few days later I resumed the project with the ambitious intention of completing it that day. First I installed the toilet. Then I ran the plumbing from the kitchen to the bathroom area. This is where I took one shortcut, which I was only able to do because of parameter number 7 specified above. The polybutylene plumbing from the pump to the main system was in good shape with no leaks and it looked like a PITA to replace. So I decided to snip it below the tee and install a SharkBite polybutylene to PEX coupling. This is the only SharkBite fitting I used and it will be fastened to the wall so it can't move around. It worked great. I can replace this section of QEST tubing later if I want. For now it didn't seem too critical.
After that I ran the plumbing to the bathroom faucet in much the same way I did the kitchen sink (with the flexible feed lines), and also ran a PEX feed to the toilet. Most of this was accessed through the left-rear exterior storage compartment door and also by removing the drawer below the range and opening the cabinet door below that.
Once all the actual plumbing was done I focused my attention on the ShurFlo 200 series pump. Aside from the water heater and tires
, all of the parts and accessories I've purchased for this project have come from my local RV dealer here, Anchorage Mobile Trailer Supply. Everything costs more in Alaska, and RV parts are no exception. But these folks keep things reasonable and they have an enormous selection. There's hardly anything I've needed that I couldn't find there and they are always very helpful.
So in preparation for dealing with this pump issue I figured I'd just go down there and get a "reseal kit", or a whole pump if servicing it didn't work. But when I told one of the guys there about my project he suggested I try cleaning the pump first before spending any money on it. The pump is original equipment, about 24 years old, and he said it's probably just got some debris in it so he gave me brief instructions on how to disassemble it and clean it and sent me on my way. Well, sure enough, as soon as I got it apart I found a it was full of debris. What it was though was shocking. It was a ball of curled up plastic trimmings. At first I couldn't figure out where it came from. It was kind of a milky-white colored plastic and the shavings were super fine. But then I figured out it came from the fresh water tank. It's the only thing made out of that color plastic that is upstream of the pump.
So I'm thinking that the original owner must not have hardly, if ever, used the water pump because that ball of plastic was in there since the trailer was built. If you connect the trailer to city water and you don't use the tank and pump, you might never know there was a problem with the pump. So based on the debris from the tank, the fact that I could tell the pump had been removed and remounted once before, I'm assuming that the previous owner knew there was a problem early on and maybe tried to fix it but couldn't so they just never camped anywhere without a water connection.
Anyway, I got the pump cleaned and reassembled but I still had that intermittent problem with the motor where it would run sometimes and other times...nothing. So I took it apart again and started testing components. The motor itself was fine but the hot side of the wiring goes into this pressure valve housing and I discovered a broken terminal on the micro switch in there. The wire was held in place by the plastic outer housing so it would make contact sometimes, but not others. This explained why sometimes when I turned the pump on there was nothing and other times it worked. I thought it had to do with the pressure in the system, or lack of it. But it turns out the broken terminal on this micro switch deep inside of the pump was the problem.
I knew the chances of finding the exact same size micro switch was slim here in Anchorage. It had to be exactly the same too because the housing it fits inside is molded to fit it exactly and to line the wires up with the terminals on the switch exactly. But at $170+ for a new pump, I figured it was worth trying so I found this electrical
supply place in midtown Anchorage and went over there. The place is huge and has tons of electrical
components. I was amazed but still skeptical that I would be able to find this exact switch from a 24-year old pump.
Well, they had a DPDT one that looked like it would work in place of the SPST original if I snipped off one extra terminal. At $4.19 for the switch, it was worth trying so I bought it and took it home and snipped that terminal off. It fit perfectly in the housing so I put it all back together and, voila, the pump worked great.
Anyway, I've got to give Anchorage Mobile Trailer Supply props for encouraging me to fix the pump at the cost of a few hours and a few bucks when they could have easily sold me a new one off their shelf. They know I have and will continue to spend plenty of money there so I guess it's no skin off their nose, but they didn't have to point me in that direction if they really wanted to sell me a new pump. Here's their web site for anyone who wants to look them up.
Once the pump was in and the wiring restored and the furnace
was back in place and hooked up I decided it was the moment of truth and time to pressure test the new system. So I dragged the hose down to the trailer, hooked it up, opened all the cabinets and access hatches so I could see every single fitting I installed, and turned on the water with my fingers crossed.
Then I tried all the faucets, then the shower and the toilet, then I opened all the valves to the new water heater and, once again, no drips! I can't believe it! Not a single leak, not even a little drip!
Next disconnected the city water and put some water in the fresh water tank and flipped the switch and the pump came to life and primed immediately. Success!
Finally, I tested the gas lines with some leak detector. I had to remove the gas from the water heater and furnace
so those connections had to be tested. But again, no leaks!
So in spite of a fair amount of doom and gloom I had read about these fittings, not only did I not have a few little drips to address on the new installation, but I didn't have a single leak or drip at all. I'd have to say I attribute this to a few things;
1. Planning is key. Don't try to make it up as you go. Try to figure out and "what if" as much of it as possible in advance. There are going to be unforeseen problems. But if you've thought things through, the issues that crop up will be manageable.
2. I took my time, didn't rush, and didn't take shortcuts with the installation of the fittings. There were a few times when I wasn't sure if I had pressed the PEX tubing into a fitting far enough, especially in some of those hard to reach spots where I was doing everything by braille. But when in doubt, disassemble and start over. Also, a little soapy water on the end of the tubing helped with this process on the difficult ones.
3. I made sure I didn't forget any of the tubing inserts that came with the fittings. I made sure every fitting package I opened had the correct number of them and I made sure I had none left over after each section of the plumbing system was completed.
4. I bought a good quality PEX cutter and made sure my cuts were as square as possible. If I messed one up, I did it again.
5. I used a SharkBite Safe Seal tool to deburr each cut to give the tubing a super smooth end.
6. The Apollo fittings rely on a smooth exterior of the tubing to seal against. If I found a gouged, scratched, or deformed end on any piece of tubing, the defects were simply trimmed away with a clean cut. I also made sure to cut the pieces I was running through walls and such a little long in order to give myself enough material to trim off should the end of the PEX get damaged in any way as it was slid into place.
7. When possible, I built sections of the system on the floor and installed those as sub-assemblies into place where I could reach the fitting better.
I still have to fasten the system to the trailer but I'm going to take the Bigfoot
out a few times and pressurize the system to make sure no leaks appear before I fasten everything down. Now that this is behind me I can say that in hindsight I'm glad I decided to do this right rather than try to repair the QEST system. It wasn't as difficult or time consuming as I projected and my concerns with these Apollo fittings were completely unfounded. I hope what I learned and have shared here helps other take the plunge.
I've attached a number of images for illustration purposes.
1. Back of the new water heater.
2. PEX passing through the wall behind the fridge
. Since I had the panel off I decided to strip the decals off where the go under the panel so I don't have to take it off again later when I finish removing the graphics. I used a 3M Stripe Off wheel, which you can read more about here: 15 minutes with a 3M™ Stripe Off Wheel - Bigfoot
3. Kitchen and city-water connections.
4. SharkBite polybutylene to PEX coupling.
5. Bathroom sink and toilet connections.
6. New kitchen faucet.