Wednesday, January 16, 2013
An unpleasant job
Posted by Sean
We are at the Walmart in Brookhaven, Mississippi (map), the second Walmart in as many days. Actually, the second in as many hours, as yesterday morning found us at the Walmart in Natchez, Mississippi (map), just over an hour west of here. While we've been doing a planned four hours of driving each day, we are ahead of schedule, so yesterday's meager progress is not a problem, and there was a very good reason for it.
We are now undeniably in "the east," having crossed the Mississippi at the tail end of Monday's drive. Along with the other differences between the east and the west, which I attempted to describe in Sunday's post, one of the things that happens as we move further east is that free, pleasant places to park become much more scarce. While we've spent many of our nights thus far this trip in remote roadside picnic areas and turnouts, that sort of parking is impossible in the east, and we tend to spend most traveling nights in the parking lots of Walmarts, truck stops, and other businesses.
Immediately after crossing the river into Natchez there is a visitor center on the north side of the highway, and we stopped there to use their free dump station and fill our water tank. We've spent the night there more than once in the past, but we wanted something flatter on this pass, as our air compressor works extra hard in freezing weather, so we tend to shut it off overnight. Rather than overtax the levelers, we moved along to the Walmart on the other side of town.
It was there that we noticed some wetness on the floor around the toilet. We had just completely cleaned it, as we always do, at the dump station, and the complicated air/water sequence system in the back of the unit sometimes "burps" some fresh water out of its anti-siphon valve, so this was not too unusual, but I had the disturbing feeling that this was sewage, not fresh water. Since we were right there at Walmart, I ran into the store for a bottle of red food coloring, an invaluable diagnostic tool where such matters are concerned.
Within a half hour or so we had a result, which was that water was somehow leaking from the bowl. At least it was not coming from the discharge line, downstream of the hopper. Fortunately, Walmart's bathrooms were a short walk away, and as long as the bowl was clean, the very slow drip was mostly harmless. Good thing, because I was not about to start such a major repair project at the very end of the day. We disinfected everything and sacrificed a rag to the cause, since emptying the bowl of water is not an option with this model.
Now, we have many redundant systems on Odyssey, and so there are very few failures that require immediate attention, but the toilet is a single point of failure. (The boat will have two of these, fortunately.) I knew I'd be spending most of my Tuesday trying to fix this problem, and that, depending on what was wrong, it might take all day or even longer. We did not want to end up in the same Walmart lot two nights in a row, and I thought I might need to make a hardware store run for sealant or fasteners, so in the morning we moved along to this spot just an hour down the road.
It's a 24-hour store, so we knew that if anything went off the rails during the project, we'd still have bathrooms nearby. And there is a Home Depot just the other side of the freeway, a long walk or a short scooter ride away. We arrived here just after noon, after having spent the morning researching stopping options, repair strategies, and backup plans. Louise went into the store to buy me a box of disposable nitrile gloves while I organized the tools.
I will spare you all the gory details of this unpleasant job, other than to say that the problem was ultimately nothing more serious than that the two nuts holding the hopper to the bowl, via a pair of J-bolts, had worked loose over nearly nine years of travel and vibration. I was able to remove them just with my fingers and a hex socket, and they are supposed to be torqued to 4-6 foot-pounds. Having gone to all the effort to remove the toilet and flip it over for access, though, it made sense to finish the disassembly and make sure there was not also a problem with the seals.
As it turned out, the seals had calcium buildup, a problem we've dealt with constantly in the fresh water system over nearly nine years of taking on all manner of hard water around the country. We ended up soaking the seals in vinegar and reconditioning them for re-use, as, oddly, the hopper seals are not included in the master rebuild kit I carry. I also took the opportunity to open the hopper (yuck) and adjust the flapper seal that had come partly unseated a few weeks ago, as well as adjust and lubricate the air mechanism.
In the end, we put no new parts in the unit, other than reconditioning the seals. Once I had it back together, with all exterior parts and surfaces cleaned and disinfected and bolts properly torqued, it is working as new with no leaks. As complicated and expensive as these things are, they are pretty bullet-proof, and in nine years the only thing I've had to replace/rebuild was the anti-siphon valve. I think that's better luck than most; lots of folks in the Wanderlodge community, where these toilets were factory equipment, seem to have had to rebuild them at about the seven-year mark.
Whoever buys Odyssey won't have to worry about this now for another few years, and the mostly-unused master rebuild kit stays with the unit. And many thanks to Microphor for publishing all their repair and service information on line -- if we had had to go find a service center to do this, it would have cost us at least two days and probably a couple hundred miles. In a few minutes, we will be back under way and headed for Alabama, with a stop in Laurel, MS to fill up with the cheapest diesel we will see from here to the east coast.
Photo by andy in nyc, used under a Creative Commons license.