Over the years, I've occasionally thought about various possibilities that could lead to my demise: car accident, insane co-worker, being shot full of penicillin by someone who ignored my "but I'm allergic" protests, . . . it's a lengthy list, and one that tends to grow even longer as one ages. After all, one rarely contemplates the possibility of a myocardial infarction or a cerebral hemorrhage in one's teens, but when you hit your golden years and old school chums start dropping from "cardiac events," your outlook changes.
One thing, however, never crossed my mind. Death by asphyxiation from breathing in the fumes of burning piss. What's that you say? Urine doesn't burn? Well, it does if an exhaust pipe shifts position and melts the bottom of the black water holding tank on a motorhome. To say it's a rather acrid aroma would be putting it mildly.
We were bouncing along merrily in the Guppy, a mere 5 or 6 miles from the truck stop where we planned to stop and refuel both the vehicle and ourselves. This was supposed to be the Last Night on the Road; we were going to live adventurously and boondock (aka dry camp). Our goal, more or less, was a Walmart parking lot near Plover, Wisconsin.
I could almost taste the country-fried steak at the Iron Skillet in the Petro truck stop when two things happened, more or less simultaneously. I thought I smelled something burning and the smoke alarm in the Guppy went off. We pulled on to the shoulder, I turned off the smoke alarm, and we started trying to figure out what was burning. By the time, we rolled to a stop and the engine was off, the Guppy was thoroughly full of smoke with fumes so thick I worried about the cat getting asphyxiated.
It is, incidentally, a rather strange experience to be cruising down the highway and have a smoke alarm start shrieking in your ear.
Anyway, we stopped, opened a bunch of windows, and started trying to figure out where the smoke was coming from. No clue. The S.O. popped the hood -- everything looked perfectly normal in the engine compartment, at least the part he could see. Didn't seem to be a wiring problem on the RV side -- we had a DC-powered cooler plugged in; it was okay. All the lights functioned, too, and the RV battery wasn't hot. So we decided to see if we could make it to the truck stop. We start off, everything is fine. . . for maybe half a mile. The S.O. keeps driving; I go back and turn off the smoke detector and sit on the floor for the remaining mile or so to the parking lot. That's when I see smoke seeping out from under the engine cowling.
We decide to pull into the Day's Inn parking lot rather than the gas station. At this point I'm thinking we're going to be sleeping in a motel room instead of the Guppy. It was after 7, there wasn't much daylight left in which to solve the problem, and we were tired and hungry. After we're parked, the S.O. decided to pull the cowling off to see if we can figure out just what's going on. There is absolutely no sign of any problem with the engine itself, but we discover various snacks mice and squirrels have stashed on it: pine cones, spruce cones, chokecherry pits. So maybe the problem was that the engine got hot enough that some of that crap started smoldering? It's hard to see, the light is getting dim enough that we're not sure if anything looks scorched or not. I get us checked into the motel; the S.O. clears as much rodent food off the engine as he can find. We convince ourselves that was the problem: rodent leftovers trying to catch fire on the engine. After all, it doesn't take much material to create a lot of smoke, especially in an enclosed space.
Morning comes, we resume our travels. We're maybe five miles down the road when the smoke alarm goes off again. This time I move fast enough that I see a thick plume of smoke coming out from under the refrigerator. Brief moment of total panic -- that's where the furnace lives. No problem visible in the furnace compartment so obviously the problem is under the Guppy.
Mystery solved: approximately 3,000 miles of travel that included bouncing over some truly rough pavement led to the exhaust system loosening up and twisting. Instead of being directed away from the Guppy, hot exhaust was aimed right at the bottom of the black water tank. There's no way of knowing just when the twisting first happened, but by Monday evening after a full day of travel there was plastic dripping on to a hot exhaust pipe, followed by leakage from the tank. End result? Burning piss and some truly nasty fumes.
The good news, such as it was, is that there was nothing mechanically wrong with the Guppy. The S.O. was able to do a temporary repair with safety wire and sometime this summer will rehang the exhaust system, making sure all the hangers are solid and the tailpipe is aimed in the right direction. We were lucky in that there wasn't much in the holding tank -- we'd avoided using the Guppy's toilet after using the dump station at Fort Richardson. The bad news, of course, is that we have to replace that tank. I guess when we're complaining about the cost (approximately $300, depending on the size and dealer) we'll have to remind ourselves it could have been a lot worse.
Now to invest in massive amounts of Febreze and see if it's possible to get that odor out of the Guppy before the next time we go camping.