Get ready for summer travel!

If your Airstream is just coming out of winter storage, or if it’s new to you, you should give it a thorough inspection and take a few simple steps to prep it for travel. It’s easy, and you’ll learn more about your Airstream in the process, which will make you a more confident and prepared traveler. You can do all the inspections on this list in about an hour, with almost no tools.

For much more information about these procedures, or what to do if you find a problem, refer to Airstream Life’s (Nearly) Complete Guide to Airstream Maintenance. Page numbers refer to this book.

Wally Byam was always ready to go!

Let’s start outside the Airstream, at the front.

Batteries

Many Airstreams come with Absorbed Glass Matt (AGM) or Lithium batteries that don’t need any maintenance. But if your Airstream has “wet cell” batteries with removable plastic caps on the top, then you need to pop off the caps to check the water level inside. You’ll want to add distilled water to top them up as needed.(See page 178 for details.) Be careful—it’s acid in there, so don’t splash. If the batteries are not already fully charged, plug in the Airstream overnight to allow them to charge fully.

Hitch

Lube the hitch ball and coupler (page 114), as well as the weight distributing hitch as recommended by the manufacturer.

Test the breakaway switch by pulling the pin out briefly (page 117). The trailer brakes should come on full.

Slide under the back of your tow vehicle and inspect its hitch receiver with a flashlight. Look for any cracks (which may appear like rusty lines), broken welds, loose or missing bolts, or other signs of damage (page 115). If anything looks suspicious, have it checked professionally.

Tires

If you have a TST Tire Pressure Monitor, turn it on and give it a few minutes to check all the tire pressures for you (while you do something else). If you don’t have a monitor, you’ll need to check the air pressure on all of the tires (including the spare) with a manual tire gauge. Pressure should be within 5% of the maximum air pressure rating printed on the side of the tire. Add air as needed (page 119-120). While you’re there, inspect the tires for damage (page 122-123).

Propane

Check the propane level in both propane tanks, and fill if needed. Check propane pigtail hoses for cracks (page 189) and check propane system for leaks (page 187-188). If the hoses look bad or are very stiff, you can get new ones in our Propane Maintenance Kit, but since you’re replacing the hoses why not upgrade your safety level with a pair of GasStops as well?

Awning

Open the awning. Make sure it deploys properly and is free of unwanted creatures like spiders or wasp nests. Lube it if it’s sticky or hard to open (page 52). For a power awning you can also watch my video “9 Places Your Airstream Needs Lubrication”.

Water Heater

Open the exterior door to the water heater and look for any signs of insect nests, webs, or leaks. If you have a water heater with a tank (trailers before model year 2021) and the nylon drain plug was removed, replace with a new one (page 210). A new plug is included in our Maintenance Essentials Kit.

 

That’s it for the outside stuff! Now, let’s go inside your Airstream:

General Inspection & Cleaning

Inspect the interior for signs of rainwater or snowmelt leaks that might have occurred over the winter (page 68-71). Also check for signs of rodents (page 152-153).

Press the Test button on the smoke and/or carbon monoxide detectors. While you are at it, supply each with new, 9-volt batteries (page 161-162). Check all the other items that have expiration dates—for details, see this video: “9 Things That Expire In Your Airstream” or pages 161-163.

Test the GFCI outlets (page 168-169).

Sanitize the water system (page 94). This ensures you start the season with a fresh system, and can help remove some of the lingering taste of RV Anti-freeze (if it was used during winterizing). If your Airstream has a built-in water filter, replace the filter cartridge.

Appliances

You’ll want to test all the appliances to make sure everything is working correctly. First, turn on the propane gas at the tanks and light the stove to prove that all the air is out of the lines and you’ve got gas. If you have GasStop installed, be sure to press down on the GasStop’s built-in gauge a few times to ensure that gas is flowing.

Turn on the furnace to be sure the blower and heat are working. It will take a minute or two for heat to appear at the vents.

Turn on the air conditioning (if connected to shore power and the outside temperature is above 70 F) to be sure it’s cooling properly.

Turn on the refrigerator and let it run overnight. A propane/electric freezer should make ice within a day. Electric-only freezers are faster.

Turn on all lights and replace bulbs as needed (Airstreams with LED lights don’t have bulbs, so if they don’t come on, check the fuse box, page 167). If you need to replace a fuse, watch this video. Fuses and fuse pullers are included in our Maintenance Essentials Kit.

Turn on all the fans to make sure they work. Check fuses on the fans themselves and the batteries in the remote control (if applicable) if there’s a problem. If the fans or screens are dirty, check page 87-88.

Final Steps

Hitch up, then check the trailer lights (including brake and turn signals), and check the operation of the brake controller. If everything’s good, head out for a short tow. While you are out, roll down the windows and listen for strange noises from the hitch and trailer that could indicate a need for adjustment or repair.

Now you’re ready. You’ve checked every major system and probably learned a few things about your Airstream in the process. Feels good, doesn’t it?

Tales of things that go “pfzzt” in the night

At first I thought it was just a fluke when the Airstreams got killed.

It was at the event we called Alumafandango, back in August 2012. The rally was being held at jerry-rigged “campground” we whipped up beside an old amusement park. Electricians had run power to service nearly 100 Airstreams, tying into transformers that had probably been sitting outside for several decades.

The heat was unbearable in Lakeside, Colorado that day, and everyone who had a 30-amp hookup was running their air conditioning. For nearly 24 hours the electricians struggled to stay ahead of the threat of a complete electrical collapse, and in their haste they made a dangerous mistake. One circuit of Airstreams got a jolt of 240-volt power (instead of the 120 volts they were expecting).

Result: Pfzzzt! Fried electronics—mostly blown power converters but also a few refrigerator and water heater circuit boards.

The poor folks who got hit were out of luck for a day or so, until RV techs could get to replacing the fried parts. The Airstreamers could run on batteries for a while, but they had no air conditioning on some of the hottest days of the year, couldn’t run the TV or microwave,  and in some cases had no refrigerator or hot water.

It seemed like a fluke, but then it happened again at Alumapalooza in Ohio in May 2018. I happened to be operating the Airstream Life pop-up store at the time, and I knew there had been a power mishap was because suddenly all the Progressive Electrical Management Systems (EMS) on my shelves were sold.

And once again, at the WBCCI International Rally in July 2019. Same deal—I was minding my booth in the convention center and suddenly there was a line of people rushing to buy all Progressive EMS units that I had. It turned out that once again a line of trailers had come face-to-face with more voltage than they could handle, and the word spread quickly. I came to realize that freaky power situations happen more often than people care to believe.

This wasn’t nearly as much of a problem in the old days, because before 2006 there were very few 30-amp connections available at major Airstream rallies. We didn’t usually have hundreds of air conditioners all straining to pull juice from one fairground’s electrical supply.

[CURMUDGEON MODE ON] When I was a young Airstreamer we were glad to share a single 15-amp circuit across four Airstreams (that’s a miserly 3.75 amps each, just enough to keep the batteries charged)—and if it got hot you just put more ice cubes in your drink. You kids have it too easy! [/CURMUDGEON MODE OFF]

These days it’s just good practice to have an EMS. Now, I’ll admit that an EMS is not a sexy purchase. It doesn’t seem to do anything until you really need it. It’s just insurance, a mild-manner Clark Kent toiling behind the scenes most of the time. But wow—it turns into a superhero when a tsunami of electricity arrives and puts all your neighbors out of commission.

Actually, an EMS does several things. It checks the power when you plug in, and re-checks it repeatedly for about a minute. This way it can be sure that the power is OK. It looks for:

  • mis-wiring in the power outlet
  • bad or missing ground
  • excessively high or low voltage
  • proper frequency
  • stability (the power stays in the proper range)

If the power is OK, the EMS lets it flow through to your Airstream. If anything goes wonky at any time it immediately cuts off the power and keeps it off until things are OK again. It’s designed to respond in milliseconds, which means the EMS will cut off the power before it can do any damage to your Airstream.

Personally I won’t plug in my Airstream without the EMS in place, even at home. Too many times I’ve been to campgrounds with sketchy-looking, cracked, wasp-infested, and worn power outlets. They should be replaced but often they’re not, at least not until an angry customer shows up with a damage claim.

And even if the campground is new and the outlets look pristine, you can still get a surge from a lightning strike, or a brown-out that toasts your air conditioner on the hottest day of the year.

This summer we’ll be attending three major rallies, ranging from 200 to 800 rigs all parked together. In my experience, this is the most likely scenario for a power anomaly to occur. So if we didn’t already have an EMS, you can be sure I’d be shopping for one before we set out.

Sometimes people tell me that they are worried about their dog, who they’ve left in the Airstream with the air conditioner on. Their concern is that the EMS will cut off the power during the day while they’re gone. My response is that the EMS might save their dog’s life. If there really is a temporary and acute power problem, having no EMS protection could mean that the air conditioner is permanently damaged. That means no cool air for Rover the next several days until you can buy a new air conditioner.

With an EMS, the air conditioner can survive to resume cooling after the power issue has passed. That might be only a minute or two. This is a far better scenario for you and your dog. And for added security, you can install one of the available remote temperature monitors on the market, which will alert you on your phone if the Airstream’s temperature rises. (I’m currently testing some of these because we’ll be traveling with our dog this summer.)

Pets or no pets, I think an EMS is one of those “must have” pieces of equipment if you’re a regular traveler, and especially if you like to go to big rallies. As you can tell from my previous experiences, a lot of people become believers after the electrical storm. My advice is to save yourself the trouble and plan ahead for this summer’s travels.

Gearing up to avoid the crowds

If you’re an experienced Airstreamer, you may have already noticed that camping situations have changed—a lot—in the past year. It used to be optional to get reservations at a lot of campgrounds, but in these pandemic days campground availability has become a lot more scarce.

This makes it harder to go out on spontaneous weekend trips, and even trickier to roam the country. I used to just take off on cross-country trips without a single planned stop, and just find camping at the end of a driving day at any convenient place. This summer I expect it will be a different story.

But that’s OK. It just means a little more creativity, skill, and gear will be called for, and I always enjoy a good challenge.

The key is to go where other people aren’t—and that means being flexible about when and where you camp. This includes:

I’ve written about all of those topics, so you can click the links if you want more information on any of them. In this blog, I want to talk about how you can prepare to be a flexible Airstreamer, ready to spend the night anywhere.

Airstreams come out of the factory ready for an overnight or two, with full self-containment features built-in. That means you’ve got the ability to carry all the essentials, namely a fridge full of food, fresh water in the holding tank, two cylinders of propane, and a boxful of electrons. You should always leave home loaded up and ready (and don’t skimp on the water because some campfire expert told you you’d save on gas if you emptied the water tank—it’s not true). This way you can be ready for anything the road might throw at you, such as a breakdown, unexpected delay, or an inexplicable spontaneous desire to sleep at a Wal-Mart.

Although Airstream gave you the basics, there’s a lot you can do to improve your boondocking capabilities, and there’s definitely some gear you should consider carrying. Here’s my top tips on ways to prepare for a few nights of complete independence from campgrounds, the power grid, and campground reservations.

1. Learn to conserve

The key to successful boondocking is stretching your on-board resources as far as possible. You can use less propane and electricity by having a few warm blankets on the bed at night. You can cut electrical use by using a phone or tablet instead of a laptop. Learning how to shower efficiently saves a tremendous amount of water. The strategies available are nearly endless. It just takes a willingness to learn a few techniques and perhaps invest in a bit of gear.

 

2. Increase capacities

Do you really need to use your laptop for hours? Does it take a lot of water to rinse the shampoo out of your hair? Well, you can always find ways to add more capacity. Usually in an Airstream it’s a matter of installing bigger battery banks (a custom job best done at an RV or solar specialty shop). For water, it’s a simple matter to buy a couple of 5 gallon jerry cans made for fresh water, and keep those in the truck bed.

 

3. Have a long reach

If you’ve been forced away from hookups for a while and then see the opportunity to dump tanks, plug into power, or put some fresh water in your tank, you don’t want to get skunked just because they’re out of reach. Carry extensions for everything: water hose, power cord, sewer.

I recommend having at least 100 feet of electric cord, 20 feet of sewer hose, and 50 feet of water hose. This is one of the reasons I love the Ultimate Water Hose—I can carry a lot of hose without a lot of weight and it fits in a small space.

I’d also recommend getting one of those replacement sewer caps that has a garden hose fitting built onto it. You can bring a garden hose that you use only for this purpose and this will allow you to dump gray water (never black water) in approved areas.

 

4. Have the apps

When you need propane, a sewer dump, or a place to spend a night whenever everything is booked, apps like Campendium, and AllStays Camp & RV are lifesavers. Put them on your phone or tablet and practice using them in advance. When you’re on the road and freaking out (a little) about finding a place to stay, it’s great to just flip through the apps and find a solution in a few minutes.

 

5. Get at least a little solar capacity

Often in an impromptu camping situation like a casino parking lot or a Wal-Mart, you can’t run a generator. It’s the kind of behavior that gives RVers a bad reputation, and might get you kicked out. This is one of the many reasons that solar panels are so useful for serious travelers.

Even a smallish set of solar panels can be lifesavers. Flat batteries just plain suck. When the voltage drops too much, you’ll lose everything—even things that run on propane like the refrigerator, furnace, and water heater. It’s nice to have a backup.

 

 

 

6. Go analog

Anyone over the age of 40 remembers that the world was once primarily analog, and we had plenty of fun even back in those Stone Ages. Digital gear is great but it all takes power and too much of it is connected to the Internet. At the risk of seeming to be a Luddite (which I definitely am not) let me recommend bringing some analog experiences with you.

For example, a paper book. Throw a few books in the Airstream just for “emergency use”. There will be a day when you have to cool your heels for some unexpected reason, and that’s your chance to lay back on the bed and read. Pick something you’ll really enjoy, even if it’s embarrassing like a graphic novel or trashy romance. It’s your Airstream, you get to decide how to entertain yourself.

Or how about binoculars? Whether you’re a birder, leaf peeper, or just a peeper, a nice set of optics can be quite entertaining both day and night.

Board games? Playing cards? Sketchbook? Puzzles? Ukulele? Anything goes!

 

If you’re comfortable with winging it as needed, you don’t need to fear the crowds. Just get the gear you need, move out of the popular ruts, and you’ll discover a host of new experiences that probably will enhance your love of Airstream travel in the long run. As a bonus, you’ll also make your Airstream more useful if you have to “bug out” in the event of a natural disaster. Your Airstream is made to go almost anywhere and keep you comfortable. Why not take full advantage of it?

The inverter–simplified!

An inverter is a bit of RV technology that often baffles people. But like solar and other things we’ve explained in this blog, it’s simpler than you may think.

What the inverter does and where to find it in your Airstream

An inverter is a device that allows you to plug things into electrical outlets even when the trailer itself isn’t hooked up to campground power. For instance, charging your electric toothbrush when you’re enjoying a quiet boondocking spot far away from everything.

Normally, when you’re using only battery power, you can’t run something that you have to plug in. But the inverter makes this possible, through a little electrical trick: it turns the power from the batteries, which is 12 volt Direct Current (DC), into 120-volt Alternating Current (AC),* which is the same power you use in your house. With the inverter switched on, you can watch TV, play DVDs, and plug in your laptop, even if you’re not hooked up to campground power.

If you’ve got a late model Airstream (except Basecamp and Bambi), it probably has a factory-installed inverter. There’s a little control panel on the wall with a push-button to turn it on and off, like the photo to the right.

Other Airstreams might have an inverter too, but those are usually owner-installed.

How to use the inverter wisely

This handy device does have a few limitations, so let’s cover a few essentials for using it wisely. I’ll keep it simple, without getting into technology terms or complicated math.

1. Use inverter power sparingly.

You can run out of power if you’re not thoughtful about how long you keep the inverter turned on.

The inverter runs off the batteries in your Airstream. The factory-installed batteries are designed to support the Airstream for a day or two of “typical” needs. So realistically, if you use your laptop computer all day, there won’t be much power left for the next day unless you also have solar panels or a generator to recharge the batteries.

Also, the inverter isn’t particularly efficient. It wastes up to 20% of the power, so there’s a larger hit to the batteries than you might think, whenever you use it.

If you’re a frequent off-grid camper and heavy user of the inverter, you might want to talk to a good service center about adding more battery capacity.

 

2. Use only low-power appliances.

The standard inverter installed in an Airstream has a rated capacity of 1,000 Watts. That’s plenty for low-power devices like the TV, DVD player, toothbrush charger, or a laptop, but not nearly enough for some other appliances.

Here’s a rule of thumb: if it has a heating element, don’t try to run it from the inverter. This includes a hair dryer, toaster, coffee pot, space heater, waffle iron, etc. You might get away with it for a little while, but eventually, the inverter will overload and shut itself off—or burn out permanently.

Another rule of thumb: if it has a motor, think twice before using it. Most things with electrical motors need too much power. This includes the air conditioner and microwave (which aren’t even connected to the inverter, so they simply won’t go on), vacuum cleaner, plug-in fan, etc. At the very least devices like these will drain the batteries quickly, and they might overload the inverter.

 

3. Every appliance has a useful label.

Not sure if the device you want to plug in is safe for the inverter? You can easily find out. Every electrical device has some sort of labeling to tell you how much power it needs. For example, this is the label printed on my Macbook’s charger:

I apologize because this involves a tiny bit of math. You need to know that by multiplying Amps and Volts, you get Watts. (I promise, that’s as hard as it gets.)

Looking at this label, we see “Input: 100-240V”. That means this charger will operate on any voltage from 100 to 240. (That means you can use it in Europe!) In North America, it will run quite happily on 120 volts.

We take that number and multiply it by the next number. If you squint you’ll see that it says “~1.5A” which means it draws a maximum of about 1.5 amps.  So by multiplying 120 x 1.5, we come up with 180 Watts. That’s way below the 1,000 Watt rating of the inverter, so now we know there will be no problem using this charger.

Just for geeky fun, you might take a look at a few other items you might plug in, like a coffee maker. You might be surprised (dare I say “shocked”?) by the range of power requirements.

 

4. Turn the inverter off when you’re not using it.

Even in “stand by” mode with nothing plugged in, the inverter uses power. It’s not much at any given moment, but like a dripping faucet it adds up to quite a lot over the course of a couple of days. So only turn on the inverter when you really need it, and be sure to remember to turn it off again when you finish watching your movie.

 

5. Watch the heat.

Remember that 20% power waste I mentioned earlier? It goes up in the air as heat. The inverter has a pair of fans to keep it cool, but on a really hot day it can get too hot—and that’s bad for the longevity of the inverter.

Most of the time this won’t be a problem. But if you pull into a boondocking spot after a sunny day of towing and the interior of the Airstream is over 104 degrees F (which happens pretty easily in the southwest), the inverter will be over its safe maximum temperature. Wait for the Airstream’s interior to cool down before you use the inverter. You can easily check the interior temperature by pressing the appropriate button on the Airstream’s wall-mounted thermostat.

 

6. Outlets can be handy while traveling!

Here’s one of my favorite hacks: when I need to add air to the trailer’s tires during a trip, I use a portable compressor plugged into  one of the power outlets on my Airstream.

Note that the outside outlet isn’t connected to the inverter on most Airstreams, so you may need to run an extension cord from one of the interior outlets.

I used tip #3 to compute that the inexpensive portable compressor I use draws just 130 watts of power. So even though it has a motor, it’s well within the capacity of the inverter. That means that anytime I need air I can just flip on the inverter and plug in my compressor. That beats the heck out of trying to find a plug or a gas station air compressor!

 

That’s probably more than you need to know about inverters—but hopefully enough to make you see that the inverter is a really handy device, and how best to use it. Like all good things, it’s best enjoyed in moderation.

 

 * The voltages mentioned are not exact. Household current, for example, can run from 108 volts to 132 volts and still be considered normal. The WFCO brand inverter in a late model Airstream is actually designed to output 115 volts. Likewise, a “12-volt” battery is really going to put out about 12.6-13.0 volts when fully charged. This voltage drops as the battery is depleted. You didn’t need to know this and it really won’t change anything written here, but I mention it because otherwise, somebody will feel the need to “correct” me.

Solar–simplified!

The other day I heard about an educational seminar on the topic of solar power for Airstreams and decided to take a look. What I saw horrified me: the presenter turned this simple topic into an engineering class that would intimidate all but the geekiest among us. Imagine densely-packed slides full of numbers and technical terms.

Solar is easy. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. The sun shines, solar panels convert the sunshine into electricity, and that charges the batteries in your Airstream. That’s it.

The rest is stuff that only a few people really need to know. If you enjoy having all the details and talking about amps and volts (like me, I have to admit) by all means have fun learning everything you can, but I think most Airstreamers just want to get more camping time without having to find a plug or carry a generator.

Let me answer a few commonly asked questions:

“What can I run on solar?”

I often hear comments and questions from people who don’t understand exactly what solar panels are doing for them. At the risk of repeating myself: the solar panels charge the batteries. Solar panels don’t do anything else. So you don’t run anything on solar.

The batteries in your Airstream are actually doing the work of powering things when you’re boondocking. In my book “The Newbies Guide to Airstreaming” I have charts that show exactly what the batteries are powering. (In the 4th edition of the book you’ll find that chart on page 20.) Basically, if it runs on 12 volts, the batteries are powering it.

“Can I use the inverter?”

Sure. The inverter really has nothing to do with solar. It uses the battery’s energy to power the electrical outlets in the trailer. In other words, the inverter makes it possible for you to use things that have plugs, like the TV, DVD player and your laptop, when you’re boondocking—at least until the batteries run down.

Keep in mind that devices that plug in generally consume a lot of energy, so you should use them sparingly when you’re using the inverter. (I’ve done a more detailed blog on inverters which you can read here.)

“What size of solar panel system should I get?”

Unless you’re planning to camp off-grid for long periods of time, you don’t need a particularly large solar array. You can get a lot of benefits from a simple, plug-and-play portable solar setup like this one. You just unfold it, point it at the sun, plug it in, and walk away.

Solar panels are usually rated in terms of watts. The watt rating is really only useful for comparing one system to another since the actual energy generated on a given day varies depending on factors like cloudiness, time of year, and latitude. Personally, I wouldn’t bother with a system of fewer than 120 watts.

“Should I get solar or a generator?”

It depends on how you camp or travel. If you need to run things that consume a lot of power (like an air conditioner, microwave oven, hairdryer, CPAP machine, etc.) when you’re away from hookups, a generator will probably be the best choice.

But if you just want more battery power, solar has big advantages:

  1. Free energy from Mr. Sun
  2. Blissful silence
  3. Extended off-grid camping time
  4. No heavy generator or gasoline cans to carry

If you want more detail on this topic, check out this blog I wrote earlier.

“Should I get portable panels or a rooftop (permanent) installation?”

I wrote a separate blog about this topic, so if this is your question, click here.

“How do I know how much power I have?”

Sometimes people want to know how much power their panels are generating, or exactly how full their batteries are. This is entirely optional, but in this case, I recommend installing an amp-hour meter such as those made by Victron (BM-7xx series), Xantrex (Link series), Bogart Engineering (Tri-Metric), etc. These are much more useful than having a monitor on the solar panels themselves.

If you are less concerned with exact numbers, you can get by just fine with the built-in battery meter that came with your Airstream. It isn’t terribly accurate but it’s close enough for casual use.

To be honest I don’t even look at the numbers anymore. I just plug my solar panels in for the day and as long as we get a few hours of sunshine I know we’re fine for another day at least. (I could explain the math behind this, but I’m trying not to go down the rabbit hole of numbers here.)

“Do I need to upgrade the batteries?”

For most people, no. There are two cases where you should replace the batteries in your Airstream:

  1. They’re worn out and not taking a full charge anymore.
  2. You’re going to install a solar panel system larger than about 200 watts. In this case, you’d find there are a lot of days when the solar panels are producing more power than you can store, which means you’d have a lot of solar capacity that you can’t use. If you’re installing more than 200 watts you’re probably paying a fair amount to install rooftop panels, so you should talk to the RV solar specialist that is doing the work. They can help you match the battery bank to the capacity of your panels.

Bottom line: Solar is easy. Take in the free energy that the sun gives you and go enjoy your day.

 

If you want to check out my pick for a really simple and lightweight solar panel system, look here.