State of the Intrepid – Options & Standards
Options are always an individual thing, and some equipment has been made standard since I ordered my Grandby. The standard two-burner gas cooking range works well, and its diminutive size does not compromise cookware that can be used on it. Only if you use two huge pots at a time or need more than 10K BTUs per burner will you need to go a’campin’ with an outside stove.
The deep stainless steel sink is a mix of blessing and curse. To the good, it’s stainless, and cleans up easily. Its Whale faucet has good controls as well as a spout which can be twisted side-to-side and adjusted from spray to steady stream. This adjustability to task decreases water usage quite a bit – nearly halving it, in fact. And the water pump supplying it has quite a wallop, if you need it. The water pump in my unit was DOA on delivery, but my dealer promptly replaced it on request. Since I did not order the propane hot water heater, the “hot” faucet valve is dead, doing nothing but standing by as a source for eventually replacing the cold water gasket, I suppose. On the nitpicking side, the faucet stem does not extend far enough out from its base (it’s too short), and a little more height wouldn’t hurt, either. The sink bowl’s bottom doesn’t have much incline to it, and is obviously made for residential use. That means that the vehicle is best parked either perfectly level, or inclined toward the driver’s side so that cruddy rinse water does not pool in the aisle-side of the sink. I openly admit that all of these issues are pretty nitpicking. A flush-mount, glass-topped stove is an option.
The propane furnace is both quiet and effective, which surprised me a little. It’s remarkably quiet for something that blows as firmly as it does, and will not awaken one in the middle of the night. On the plus side, it will do whatever you ask it to, despite the heat loss caused by the thin fabric sections of upper walls. And, it doesn’t use up propane at much of a clip, either. Actually, when all you do is turn it on to break the morning cold, you’ll probably find that after the initial run, it isn’t needed any more. Parked broadside to the rising sun, the heat gain through the fabric walls can take over and keep interior temps comfortable. If you rise later and are patient, the furnace isn’t needed at all. I use the furnace mainly to prevent nightly temps from dropping below an official 55, which can mean as low as 45 up on the bed platform.
The “problem” with the furnace is that the air openings on the digital thermostat are small enough to delay responsiveness to rapidly changing air temperatures. That keeps the furnace’s blast from shutting it down too early, but it also allows the furnace to markedly overshoot the desired temperature whenever a significant rise is needed, like first thing in the morning. Holding a steady temperature is not much of a problem. But, this quirk can be worked around and, in light of the general heat losses caused by cold air cascading off of the tenting material, it must be acknowledged that this is camping, after all, not a residence. A pop-up truck camper with fabric walls and a single-vent furnace is going to present some trade-offs in temperature control throughout the camper’s interior. Physics always wins.
The 12V Dometic 65-liter refrigerator/freezer is claustrophobic, but suitable for one person who’s heavily into a diet of fresh produce. Its thermostat is generally accurate, which has not been the story with the Defiant TT’s propane fridge. You set it and forget it, which is not the case with propane that often needs a setting change depending on ambient conditions. Propane fridges don’t have a thermostat in the true sense of the word. The Intrepid’s sink keeps me parking on relatively level ground – usually – but I do appreciate this unit’s ability to shrug off concerns about tilt, exposing the outer wall to direct sun, and religiously following ambient temperatures as the day goes by. Freedom! – albeit a small one.
Actually, the Dometic draws 3.3A-3.75 amps when running, which is on a rough par with high-end portable Engel and ARP top-lid coolers. The big drawback is that the conventional front-opening construction of the cabinet-mount Dometic is not as efficient as a top-lid type (since gaskets are not very good insulators), and any time you open the door, all of that cold air cascades out. That cripples what the unit can do in hot weather. When ambient temperatures reach the high 80s, you may find the unit running all the time, which will compromise any marginal solar system – such as mine. (I have ample battery capacity, but not the solar power needed to restore it under all conditions.) It tends to sabotage the initial battery recharge and greatly slow the whole process. Once temps cross much over 90, opening the door to retrieve something is likely to create a temperature drop that the unit will not recover from until sometime late that night. Until it does, it’s churning away, full-time. This can be tough on batteries, the moral being to use a solar panel array which is markedly larger in wattage than whatever battery capacity (in amp-hours) is backing it up. This way, the extra capacity of the solar panels is put to use at a time when the most power is needed. FWC offers this panel option, preferably adding a ground panel to the single large roof panel to charge dual small batteries. Getting a full daily recharge is critical to battery life.
Two side effects of choosing the Dometic are that, when the smallest capacity unit is used, the cabinet above allows a broad and fairly deep storage compartment under the hinged cabinet lid. Very handy. Another similar compartment is next to it, over some front-opening cabinets. An oddity is that a wind on that side of the camper blows air through one of the two “vents” under the fridge. I can’t tell if that airflow is necessary to the fridge’s function, or if it’s a flaw/feature in the surrounding cabinetry. It’s not of much concern even in cold weather, however, and I prefer some slight airflow even when the camper is closed up against weather.
A third small plus of the Dometic is that it is not damaged by low voltage. I once asked an Engel engineer what the safe low voltage limit for their compressor was, and he replied 12.0 volts – just below the safe 50% discharge limit of deep cycle batteries. He made it a point that he was not referring to resting voltage of the battery, but the actual line voltage that the fridge sees during a power draw, voltage drop and all. That’s significant. Most voltage cutoffs go well below that, and from what I can tell, ARB’s unit can go well below that too. The Dometic’s tolerance is such that your batteries will be trashed long before its low-voltage cutoff is engaged or the compressor is damaged. That is of course questionably good news, but even several decent AGM batteries cost less than a replacement DC compressor fridge. Voltage drop under high draw is certainly not the same as resting voltage, but you get the point.
Taken as a whole, I have my reservations about the Dometic fridge/freezer, but the now-standard propane equivalent likely has similar hot-weather performance issues. The latter’s advantage is that it does not require a hearty solar setup to run it, but just poops along, sipping propane and wandering over the temperature map. It’s worth considering, as is finding space for a conventional ARB or Engel 12V cooler.
A small touch that earns my respect in my FWC is the dual-outlet 12V plate that has switches controlling each power outlet. 12V cigar-plug outlets (as well as device plugs) tend to be pretty miserable in quality, and whenever the physical connection is not too good, amperage ramps up to where the plug melts, sometimes taking the outlet with it. It helps to avoid the initial spark of plugging a live device in, and the FWC’s switches allow plugging in and then turning on. It’s a small thing that makes a big difference, and the sockets themselves visually appear to be unusually robust as well. A dedicated fuse handles both outlets, so when a device goes rogue (as mine occasionally do), nothing else in the camper is affected while you address the issue.
I have two roof vents, one of them being fan-assisted and reversible. This turned out to be a worthy option, if a costly one. Dual fans would have been even better if I could have accepted the expense. The natural layering of warmer air near the roof is discernible, although this can be cut quite a bit by opening all of the gigantic window openings in the flexible sidewall material. On a single overnight when I’m too lazy to pull fabric windows open, the two roof vents and one of the glass side windows below allow for decent ventilation if temps are not oppressive. The unit supplied has three speeds, is reversible, and is separately fused. It is very economical in its use of power, too.
It’s likely that the “fabric” sidewalls will last a very long time. The long-term problem I see is the Velcro surrounding its window openings wearing out in daily use. Velcro doesn’t last forever, and these windows rely on it for sealing against water and wind, as well as for pulling the sidewalls in properly when the roof is being lowered. Fortunately, they don’t require an excellent or even a good hold for that, because of the square inches involved. The thing is, I’ve never come across any complaints about the Velcro strip functionality in Four Wheel products, so only time will tell. It’ll be a good long while, but daily use should eventually bring it out.
The fabric wall material itself appears durable, and I’ve come across an 8-year-old example in full-time use that was difficult to distinguish from new. When asked point blank, the factory was hard-pressed to come up with an “average” service life when used full-time, mainly since few buyers use their campers that way, and durability is dependent on care of the flexible material. 10 years was guessed to be the absolute minimum, with at least double that as a more likely outcome. They don’t see many units roll in for replacement much newer than the original 1970s models, but those tend to spend considerable time in storage, so it’s hard to judge. However, they do have specific advice on extending service life which applies to constant use.
The first tip is to use care in lowering the roof, so that the fabric is not pinched in the outer rim. Their manual advises that the main fold be pulled in at the corners from the inside of the camper to avoid this, but that’s very difficult at the front over the raised bed platform, and not possible when the Arctic Pack is there, too. The corner folds are accessible from the outside by lifting one roof corner at a time, but the weight of my added solar panels requires that I use a ratchet-handled truck bed cargo divider to temporarily jack up and hold the rear of the roof from the inside, which takes very little effort. The main goal is to get the corner folds reasonably flat. Mantra number two is to periodically clean the the fabric wall so that dirt can’t act as an abrasive on the material, or work into it to resemble a stain. This applies to the clear vinyl window sections as well. Mantra three is to then apply Aerospace 303 Protectant to the fabric to help protect against UV deterioration. That is considered to last a month, so active travel, short stays and weather conditions tend to work against timely reapplication. The only thing to positively avoid is lowering the roof wet, trapping the moisture, then leaving it that way for prolonged periods. Cleaning and treating the fabric regularly is an issue for me, while leaving it stowed wet is definitely not – except when I visit the Upper Midwest.
The so-called Arctic Pack is an add-on layer of fabric Velcroed inside the main fabric along top and bottom edges. It consists of two pieces that wrap along the sides from one lift board to the other. The theory is to add a layer of trapped air behind the fabric walls of the camper. This only works when the Pack’s window opening flaps are closed of course, but even then, the lack of Velcro along the borders of the front and rear walls makes trying to trap the air relatively ineffective. But, that’s theoretical. In practice, the thing is far from a magic cure for cold air cascading down off the walls, but it does help.
Its biggest contribution to comfort is in hot weather. The fabric walls radiate the sun’s heat like, well, a hot water radiator. It’s directional, and you can feel it. The Arctic Pack noticeably trims that back. When I was unhappy with how much heat was coming through the combo one day, I removed the Arctic Pack, assuming that it didn’t work, and immediately repented. It’s a precision-made piece, the two halves are not interchangeable, and I’m unlikely to ever bother removing it again. The lesser reason is that I have yet to figure out how to properly fold and stuff both pieces into the large carry sleeve supplied. Loose, they are difficult to deal with en situ. A long table surface is needed, really. With or without the Arctic Pack, I do not consider the Four Wheel product to be a true cold weather camper – it just isn’t suited for it. It will easily handle cold overnights in the desert, but sooner or later, prolonged serious cold will leverage the fabric walls, minimal insulation, and aluminum framing to produce plenty of interior condensation.
On the underside of the roof, the standard three LED ceiling lights each offer two lighting levels, and distribute light well. They have proven problematic on my 2015, though. The switches are too delicate and the bulbs occasionally dim when the faucet is running, or they vary in brightness for no particular reason. FWC laments ever using them and will send out replacements at the drop of a hat. I would think a spot of dielectric grease on each bulb’s contacts would help and I intend to try that, but FWC advises replacement. The units are redrilled for new screw locations to suit at the factory’s production line, and replacements have not been modified yet, so that’s up to you and care is needed to reuse existing screw holes in the ceiling. FWC has since moved current 2016 production on to better LED light strips before they will soon transition to bulletproof ones that also distribute light better. I could do that too, but thin wood trim strips on the ceiling have been especially cut to accept these 2015 lights, and I’ll need to see a late 2016 production model to be able to tell how the final 2016 lights might be able to be grafted in. For all the hokey jury-rigging I’ve done on this camper, ceiling lights shouldn’t look like one of them.
Also standard is a Propane gas/CO2 detector in a cabinet near the floor, which is pretty much out of sight and out of mind. So too the smoke detector mounted to a ceiling lift bar near the cooking range. It stays out of mind until it goes off when I light my pipe while the camper is nearly closed up in cold weather, or even with windows wide open in still air. Fortunately, it is easily twisted off its mount and stowed in a cabinet. An LED lamp under one side of the cabinetry can be left on overnight to light the floor area. Since its switch is near the door, it’s also handy as an entry light when climbing in after dark.
That the exterior has been modified with add-ons is plain for all to see, though you need to get up high to notice the solar panels. There’s the solar ground panel rack in front of course, the large-diameter tube on the left side that holds my fishing rods, my wire basket that serves as a temporary holder for trash, and if you count them as part of the camper, the cargo box and front bike carrier. The Intrepid’s interior is another story. Without popping bins open to look, there are no signs that the Grandby has been modified in any way, apart from a few towel holders adhered to its cabinetry here and there, and a towel rack on the inside of the rear screen door. The thing is perfectly usable as-is, so there’s just one improvement besides its mattress that I needed to come up with.
That’s a clamp on the dining table stalk. The front dinette’s big dining table is suspended on a thick L-shaped tube, and can swivel and rotate around however you wish to position it. The tube is held in one tensioning clamp mounted to a front bulkhead, while the table is held to the top end of the tube with another. Both permit height adjustments. The only flaw in this pretty and functional system is that as you push the table away to get out or pull it into the position you want, the side-to-side movement and resulting rotation of the tube in its mount will cause the tube to slowly creep downward in its clamp. So, each movement lowers the table a fraction of an inch. This occurs during travel as well, as the heavy tabletop swings from side to side. That can be lessened by cranking the tensioning knob tight, but then you have to loosen it again before you can get into that area to raise the roof or just sit down.
I got tired of frequently loosening the knob to lift the table, mainly since it’s a lot tougher to raise back up when the table is loaded and in use. It didn’t take much cleverness to set the table to the height I like and then apply a hose or worm clamp to it. But the table clamp features a thin lip of plastic collar protruding out above its aluminum base. I didn’t want that plastic lip to get chewed up, since the screw housing part of the hose clamp bears right against that plastic lip and will eat away at it when the tube is rotated by table movement. So, I headed for the hardware store and discovered a motley collection of plumbing gaskets, a couple of which had the needed 1-1/2″ inside diameter. The theory is to use the gaskets as spacers to try to keep the hose clamp up above the plastic collar, out of contact. In practice, the hose clamp housing (only) rests upon the stacked gaskets, which in turn rest upon the top surface of the tensioning clamp, not the plastic lip. They slip down around the outside of the collar. Voila! Except that the tensioning clamp’s upper surface is curved, making the actual contact points of the gaskets become one high-pressure point where the worm clamp housing is. A flat rubber gasket is pretty much required below the hose clamp, to try to deal with its housing. A flat steel washer would be even better, as long as its fit on the tube was almost snug – but finding such a washer is an issue. I initially added another flat gasket below, but that couldn’t take the stress and split after a few weeks of use. I’ve since replaced it with an O-ring, and that has squirmed around and distorted, but is still working acceptably. The table height stays up, and it can be removed as an assembly with no added complications. I leave the main tensioning clamp quite loose, to allow the tube to rise and fall if it needs to during rotation. I’ll probably need to replace the lower gasket periodically, but they are cheap, readily available, and very quick to exchange.
The only mystery is whether the gaskets will settle a little too much and allow some type of damage to the plastic lip, in which case another gasket may need to be added. The selection of gaskets varies by what store you’re at, and this is one of those things where periodically checking what happens with what you’ve got is more important than theories. In any event, the protruding plastic collar on the mount appears to be aesthetic, not functional, so screwing it up will be an aesthetic issue, not functional. In the meantime, the table is now presenting no issues.
Seemingly a minor point, FWC’s positive-locking cabinet latches are simply perfect, easily opened and yet impossible to force open. This detail is actually almost critical in a camper which will see rough off-road travel. I’ve ended Interstate trips in the Defiant travel trailer and had to brace myself before opening the door to survey the wreckage at the end of the day. In the Grandby, whatever is strewn along the floor did not come from the inside of any cabinets, guaranteed. Inside those cabinets, it helps to pack things in fairly tightly to prevent things from tipping and spilling during rough transit. Personally, I’ve added deep trays and small fabric baskets in some to aid this trait without having to stuff them full, and it makes removing what you need to get at easier, too. It works. The only thing that irks me whenever I admire how nuisance-free and effective it all is, is realizing at the same time that your average woman remotely near my age would have worked out the same thing in a quarter of the time it took me to agonize it all out…and would have considered it to be fun. And, she would have then fine-tuned it for frequent access items later, on the road, and gotten a buzz out of it. Ewww!
Everything concerning cabinetry, benches and appointments lines up perfectly without the use of any mechanical alignment aids, and there isn’t a raw edge to be found in the entire camper. No screws are backing out, and nothing is loosening up. No trim pieces or gaskets are working loose at one end. The workmanship borders on stunning, inside and out of cabinets. But I’m starting to get giddy, so I’ll stop. Give me a moment to breathe into a bag…
Okay. Certain other interior features are better handled in other related posts, so this one doesn’t reflect absolutely all there is about the Grandby front dinette.
Be careful about using the guts of the hot side as spares for the cold on your faucet. I think you’ll find that even thought the hot side has been capped off the innards of the faucet still allow water under pressure to cross over to the hot side. As long as the washers/guts are still in place, no big deal, but if they aren’t, leaks.
Oh, that’s a good kernel of trivia to be aware of! Relocating leaks instead of eliminating them. Thanks, Greg. BTW, I’ve just added your blog to my recommended sites and subscribed to it, so stop goofing off here and get cracking! 😉
Thanks for the recommend and follow Doug. With my readership numbers I can use all the help I can get!!
Thanks Doug, just the sort of information and analysis I was hoping for. Great for all of us dreamers!
Feed the craving, Rod! Actually, I suspect I read like the nitpickiest camper out there, but having been involved in generic product design for so long, I’m sometimes simply seeing the next step to be taken in the development process. I can love the product, yet be comfortable with what remains to be done to improve it. FWC’s own choices for equipment to offer are often quite limited, but what they do control directly is top-notch. I’m just happy that they never “lock in” production and stay static.
Interesting information on the fridge. Your comment on temp control being more problematic with propane coolers is new to me. While I would like to think of my future RV travel to be within temperate climate zones, I’m sure I’ll find myself in situations with days of 90 degree plus temps. Just how temperamental has your propane fridge been, in your experience?
I am both astonished and dismayed at prices for these miniature refrigerators, along with their equally dismal warranties. This seems to be the most costly component of an RV’s interior.
Thanks also for sharing your experience with the soft sidewall of the camper. It gives me some good insights as to what to expect if I decide on one.
As always, thanks for sharing.
PS: Please let Greg know that I have started to read his blog. Google’s Blogspot is not commenter friendly, so I’m not able to tell him directly, but it’s good reading.
My experience is with a large Dometic in my TT. It needed a new control board a few years ago, but as far as I can tell it’s the original from 1994 and it’s still running decently. That’s significant right there. These units are very dependent on proper air venting in back to avoid heat buildup, so it’s up to the RV mfr to decide how much they care, and up to you to clean deposits off the burner area once a year or two. Some people install fans in the chimneys and in the fridge interior to aid efficiency. The FWC is wall-vented for propane, and how it handles any chimney, I don’t know. Basically, you get a refrigerator thermometer and keep tabs on it to see where you are, the goal being about 34-41 degrees. In my experience, days in the high 80s, especially with the sun on the vent side, will force the fridge temps to edge above this range. Likewise, cool days will risk freezing food. Temps are easily adjusted with external buttons, though crossing over 90 may make this not enough. Once the day’s temp crisis is over, you need to be quick to throttle down the control or your food will freeze overnight. Its a workable system that doesn’t use much propane or electricity, as long as you monitor the thermometer you added. Initial cool-down speed is abysmal, taking over a full day to get into range, and adding lots of groceries at once can trash temps for maybe 12 hours.
The Intrepid’s compressor Dometic is faster by half, more or less, but in hot weather it will be running almost constantly. Opening the door to get food can impose a heat load that it can take half the night to recover from. However, its true thermostat does not need or benefit from readjusting it. My gut feel on the compressor Dometic is to carry 200Ah of battery minimum, and 300W of panel to support it, if possible. You can get away with less battery if you add more panel power to compensate, but this increases the risk of not making it through cloudy days, and battery service life will decrease from the deeper discharges. ARB and Engel top-lid coolers can struggle too, but cool down faster and recover faster, from the little I’ve seen. The penalties for them are having to dig for food, and the reduction in floor space.
Evil as compressor fridges are for cost, they are about the only realistic option compared to cheaper 12V “coolers” that can only assure an average decrease over ambient temperatures, and use much more power just to do that. Keep in mind that all of this represents my impressions from the setups I’ve used/seen, not hard “facts” that can’t be disputed.