Locked out of your Airstream

 

It seems to happen at every large Airstream rally:  someone, somehow, gets locked out of their trailer or motorhome.

I have seen it far too many times.  There’s panicked look of owners as they realize they can’t get back in. They think about their wallet, pets, cell phone, and everything else they need that’s inside.  Then the the slow circulation of bystanders begins, anxious to help but not capable of doing much.

Then someone suggests climbing in through a cargo hatch.  This can work (and I’ve done it) but it only works on a few floorplans that have an exterior cargo compartment that goes under the bed—and you’ve got a very thin person on hand—and the bed is on hinges—and the hinges are not locked down.

Finally the inevitable call to a locksmith goes out.  An hour or two later, and a $100 bill, and they’re back inside.

Why is this such a common problem?  Several reasons:

  1. Some Airstream door locks have an “interesting” ability to occasionally self-lock when slammed
  2. It’s easy to drop your Airstream keys when you’re out and about
  3. People don’t think to stash a spare key
  4. Local locksmiths don’t usually have the correct blank in stock for Airstream door keys

Fortunately it’s very easy to prevent the shock of being locked out.  We sell blank keys for most Airstream trailer locks (door handle and deadbolt), Basecamps, and some motorhomes.  As I mentioned, you can’t find these at most locksmiths, so you need to order the blanks in order to get duplicates made.

After you’ve had the duplicates made (I suggest two spare sets), put one set in a hidden place. There are lots of interesting hiding places on the outside of an Airstream if you think about it for a while.  I won’t mention them all here (why help potential thieves?) but if you walk around the outside and look closely at the trailer A-frame, various unlocked access hatches, underside, wheel wells, and compartments I bet you’ll come up with a few ideas of your own.  A magnetic Hide-A-Key is helpful for fastening your keys to steel parts.

Another place to keep spares is in your tow vehicle, but that assumes you’ll have access to the vehicle even if you’ve left your Airstream keys inside.  Or, hide a spare key for the tow vehicle on the outside of the Airstream, and hide an Airstream key inside the truck.

But whatever you do, get a couple of spare sets of keys for your Airstream now!  Someday you’ll be glad you did.

 

Salt damage from camping at the beach?

We recently received this letter from a customer about his concerns for his gleaming new Airstream:

My wife and I bought a 2017 Serenity with dreams of travel, including beach locations. We were more than disappointed to learn, unfortunately after we bought, that sea air and beach life is brutal regarding rust and corrosion to our rig. Right now, lots of buyer’s remorse has set in as we had visions of time spent at many of the beach locations mentioned in your latest article.

We can see why that’s concerning, particularly with a spanking new rig. Yes, salt air is corrosive to just about any metal. But why limit your fun just because of that?

Seeing signs of use on our Airstreams makes all us smile. A few marks of wear remind us of adventures at beaches all over the USA. It doesn’t make sense to us to deprive ourselves of the fun of beach camping just so the Airstreams can stay new-looking longer.

Our take: “We bought this Airstream to use it,” and so we go to the beach whenever we want. Just make sure to rinse off the trailer with fresh water at a local truck wash as soon as possible afterward. (It’s risky to go to car washes because often they don’t have enough height clearance and/or turning radius for trailers to maneuver. Truck washes are harder to find but much easier to access.)

If someone were to be parked at the beach for a long time after their trailer has been exposed to salt spray, it would be a good idea to pull out and rinse off the salt, then return to the campground. It’s a shame to see a bit of that new-trailer shine dim a little, but that won’t really take anything away from the glow of good times on the road.

All about rivets

Your Airstream is made of aluminum, but rivets are what make it strong. Take those 5,000 rivets away and you’ve got a floppy pile of soft metal.

In this age of robotic vehicle assembly you might be surprised to learn that each one of those rivets was placed on your Airstream by hand by a pair of skilled workers at the factory in Jackson Center, Ohio. Those two people had to practice relentlessly and demonstrate their skill on practice sheets before they had the ability to repeatedly install rivets with speed and precision.

It’s not an easy thing to get right. At Alumapalooza we have held Rivet Masters contests for several years, where attendees get a quick lesson on how to put in a rivet properly and then compete for the fastest times. Most of the contestants are lucky to get about half the rivets in correctly even with some practice.

“Bucked” and solid

Most of the rivets you see on the exterior of your Airstream are “bucked” (solid) rivets. They start life as little mushroom-shaped bits of aluminum. These very strong rivets hold two panels together, or fasten a panel to one of the trailer’s internal ribs.

To do this requires a team of two people working together like dance partners.

How to buck a rivet—The outside installer holds an air-powered rivet tool, which is sort of a miniature jackhammer that pounds on the mushroom head of the rivet.

The inside installer holds a shaped metal tool called a “bucking bar” that is pressed against the tail (or stem) of the rivet. The rivet gun very quickly hammers the rivet, pushing it inward and squashing the tail against the bucking bar, which causes the tail to get shorter and wider. This fills the hole and locks the two pieces of aluminum together very strongly. Under normal circumstances, this rivet is in place forever, and it seals so tightly to the body panel that sealant is not needed for the rivet to be waterproof.

Bucking a rivet

Timing is critical. Stopping too early means the rivet won’t fully deform and thus it won’t fill the hole for maximum holding power. Hammering too long will flatten the rivet too much, which also lowers its strength and can look cosmetically awful on the exterior.

The difference between “too short” and “too long” is less than a second, so the riveters rely on their experience and the tone of the hammering to know exactly when to stop. Then, as a pair, they move to the next rivet without delay. Good teams can put in a perfect rivet every three or four seconds.

Blind rivets

Pop rivet
Pop rivet

Also known as “POP” rivets, these are mostly found on the inside of the Airstream. (These are commonly called “POP” rivets after the original brand name.) These rivets are easy to install and replace, using a different kind of rivet tool. Since you can put one in without needing access to both sides of the aluminum, it only takes one person.

A hand-operated rivet tool is something that should go into your everyday tool kit, because blind rivets do occasionally break and replacing them is a very easy job if you have a few spares and the rivet tool on hand. If you buy a tool, don’t skimp on quality. A good rivet tool is a pleasure to use, whereas cheap ones can be awkward and prone to jamming.

Rivet kit
Rivet Kit

A broken or missing blind rivet is not a serious issue. You’ll know a blind rivet is broken because it will either be obviously loose, missing, or you’ll see a little circle of black around the head of the rivet.

To replace a blind rivet, you put the thin end of a new rivet in the tool (the thin end is called the mandrel) and press the wider tail end of the rivet into the hole. Hold the rivet tool firmly against the surface while squeezing the handle three or four times. This makes the rivet expand in the hole and eventually the mandrel snaps off, which tells you the job is done.

Airstream uses a variety of pop rivets, but most are aluminum and most have 1/8” diameter body or 3/16” diameter body. You can find these easily in hardware stores. There are also specialty rivets with extra-wide heads, used for belly pan repairs. It’s a good idea to have a few of those in your tool kit too. Check the Airstream Life Store for those, and for a good rivet tool.

Belly pan rivet
Belly pan rivet

 

Bucked rivets

…usually last the life of the Airstream, and are only replaced when body panels must be repaired. Here’s where owners often face a decision point, because replacing the bucked rivets requires removing the interior skin of the Airstream so that two workers can drive the rivets in place. This adds considerable expense to a repair, and so quite often owners (or their insurance companies) opt for a shave-head (often called “Olympic”) rivet instead.

Shave-head rivets

…provide the same function as bucked rivets but can be fastened from the outside by one worker, so it’s not necessary to remove the interior to do an exterior panel repair. The design of this rivet is clever. It is installed just like a blind rivet but when you squeeze the handle of the rivet tool, three legs of the rivet billow outward like petals of a flower, on the opposite side of the panel where you can’t see it. These three legs enable a strong bond—not as strong as a bucked rivet, but adequate for repairs and patches.

Olympic rivet
Olympic rivet before and after

After a shave-head rivet is installed, it has an obvious bump in the center of the rivet head that doesn’t look as nice as a solid rivet. It’s a remnant of the rivet mandrel that broke off during installation, kind of like a belly button is a legacy of an umbilical cord. To make the rivet look just like a bucked rivet, there’s a tool called a “rivet shaver” which cuts off the bumpy part of the rivet stem and polishes the head so that it’s much harder to tell it was installed as a replacement. Now you know why these are called “shave-head rivets.”

Interestingly, current technology could allow Airstream to build aluminum trailers using only adhesives instead of rivets—but you probably wouldn’t want that. Rivets are more than just a way of fastening the metal together. They’re part of the “look” of an Airstream, thousands of little reminders of the strength and durability of your travel trailer, and a connection that reaches all the way back to the origins of Airstream in the 1930s.

The Airstream Life store offers an excellent rivet kit. Replacing a rivet is easy, even if you’ve never done it before!

You’ll also need a good rivet tool (or “rivet gun”), and we’ll teach you to use it!  Both the rivets and the tool come with an exclusive Airstream Life Guide that explains how to remove and replace rivets in your Airstream.

Cleaning your Airstream Interior

“How many of you guys like cleaning the inside of your trailer?” asked Jim Parrett, Airstream National Service Manager, during his Interior Maintenance seminar at Alumapalooza 7. To no one’s surprise, very few hands were raised. “Well, we’ve got a lot of tricks for you,” said Parrett. He didn’t promise you’d suddenly enjoy cleaning, but these factory tips might make the job faster and more effective.

No special products required

“There’s a lot of good cleaners out there on the market that you can use,” said Parrett. “All the things we use in our house, we can use inside our trailers.” Recommended household cleaners that you can find easily at the grocery or drug store include Formula 409®, Dawn®, Glass Plus®, Dow Bathroom Cleaner with Scrubbing Bubbles™, Fantastic®, Windex®, Lestoil®, Lysol® Brand Disinfectant Basin/Tub/Tile Cleaner, Mr. Clean®, TOP JOB®, and Clorox®.

Laminate surfaces

For everyday cleaning, use a damp cloth or sponge and a mild soap or detergent (see products listed above). Stubborn stains such as coffee or tea can be removed using any mild cleaner and baking soda, mixed together to form a paste. With a stiff nylon bristle brush, scrub the affected area about 15 to 20 strokes. Don’t use an abrasive brush or cleaner—that might damage the surface finish.

Impala Suede

The wall material in the new Airstream Classic is “pretty easy to care for,” said Parrett—but stains should be attended to as soon as possible. “If you happen to spill something like soda or anything light, the first thing you want to do is clean that spill up,” he said. Immediately blot excess liquid with an absorbent paper or cloth, then rub the fabric gently with a paper towel or a white cloth to absorb any remaining surface liquid or dampness.

Parrett recommends baby wipes, or a clean white cloth dampened with plain clean water. Use small circular motions, and don’t soak the fabric—that can cause permanent damage. “You don’t want to saturate it, or make it too wet,” he said. “An effective way of controlling the amount of water is to use a spray bottle,” he suggested.

Clean Classic

Though the easy care Impala fabric is dubbed “anti-stain”, some discolorations may require a solution of roughly 95% water and 5% soap (“like Dawn detergent,” said Parrett). Allow the cleaned area to dry completely, then gently brush or vacuum the area using strokes in the direction of the pile of the fabric. “Don’t rub against it, or scrub real hard.”

Tenacious stains (like ballpoint pen or grease) may need a second treatment. After the fabric has dried completely, try cleaning again with a diluted solution of isopropyl alcohol and a white cloth. “Then once you’re done, just vacuum it up”—with a dustbuster or wet-dry vac—“again, following the direction of the fabric.”

Ultra Leather

Routine care for your Ultra Leather upholstery is easy. Just wipe it down regularly with soap and water, and attend to spills as soon as they occur with Formula 409® or Fantastik®. You may sanitize with a 20% solution of bleach to water. Simply air dry.

Accidents happen, and stains on your furniture from ketchup, coffee, red wine, tea, and (ouch) blood can be cleaned with an alcohol-based product like Formula 409® or a 5:1 water/bleach solution—“that’s one ounce of bleach, five ounces of water,” said Parrett.

Mustard and ballpoint pen ink on the seats are tougher to remove. Wipe with isopropyl alcohol, and rinse with clean water. Wipe dry.

As with many problems, Airstream-related or not, prompt attention is important for a successful outcome. “If the stain has sat there for days, it may not be as easy to remove,” Parrett said.

Aluminum interior

microfiberMicrofiber is excellent for dusting and scrubbing because of the static-charged, woven fibers. The combination of polyamide and polyester is strong and soft, and microfiber towels absorb seven times their weight in moisture.

 

Use Pledge® Orange

Orange Pledge—a cleaner that dusts, shines and protects—with your microfiber cloth. “That’s a great combination,” said Parrett. “Pledge Orange is the best thing! It’s multipurpose; you can use it on your cabinets, wood, aluminum…we use it on pretty much all the surfaces. It does a great job, and smells good, too.” Don’t worry about the orange in the product introducing acid onto the clear coat. “It won’t harm it at all,” explained Parrett. “The citrus is just a scent.”

Make sure you wipe with the grain of the aluminum, not across it. “That way, if there happened to be something on the surface or on the towel that might cause a light scratch, it won’t show.”

Oceanair shades

Small marks can be removed by gently rubbing with a rubber eraser—the very same square-ish “Pink Pearl” kind you used in grade school. Even the eraser at the end of a pencil will work. Make sure it’s clean, and take it easy; the metal on the end of a pencil eraser could scratch the blind. Rubbing alcohol is also an option for tougher stains. Rub gently, and naturally air dry.

Clean blinds

Someday your shade may refuse to retract, but it’s possible to adjust the spring tensioner of the blind to alter the recoil effect. Pull the shade down and look to the left side of the top bar; a tension screw hides beneath the end cap. Remove the end cap fixing screw (without removing the plastic molding from the aluminum tube), and rotate it in a clockwise direction until satisfactory tension is achieved. Re-install the screw. Be careful not to “over-tension” and damage the spring.

Clean blinds

If a blind gets wet, simply pull it down to expose it entirely and leave it to dry naturally.

If you’d like to replace your older style Safari cloth shades with Oceanair blinds, you can, but “it depends on the mounting holes,” said Parrett. “You just have to order the right sizes. It would have to be a special order.”

Horizontal blinds

Just like in your home, miniblinds are a hassle to clean, and there’s no magic answer; they must be dusted off one at a time. “Look for blind tools that at least do four or five at a time,” suggested Parrett.

Bathroom

Use any of your favorite household cleaners, including Lysol® disinfectant sprays, on your fiberglass shower stall, toilet, and other bathroom surfaces.

Sunbrella fabric

Water stains on your Eddie Bauer awning? Don’t use an excessive amount of liquid to clean outdoor textiles; that could cause a stain or discoloration at the “shoreline” of the puddle. (Your awning and outdoor furniture should also be dried after a rain to avoid the same damaging effect.) Hard water can also leave a mineral residue on fabrics. To solve the problem, “you can use a light solution of bleach,” said Parrett.

“Don’t use a detergent, as that might leave a film.”  For deep cleaning of your awning or Zip Dee chairs (which are also made of Sunbrella fabric) get Zip Dee Washout Powder.

Oh, hail!

There are four things that absolutely kill Airstreams: water damage, neglect, accidents…and severe hail.

If you are a careful owner you’ve already got a copy of Airstream Life’s (Nearly) Complete Guide to Airstream Maintenance and are following the procedures described in it to keep your Airstream in good condition. That will eliminate water damage and neglect as possible destroyers. But there’s not much you can do about the forces of nature when they strike.

Most forms of weather are not a problem to an Airstream. Lightning strikes, for example, tend to pass around the exterior of the trailer’s aluminum skin. People inside who aren’t touching anything conductive are safe. Lightning can damage wiring and electronics and even burn a small hole in the skin, but all of that is repairable. (So if you are in your Airstream and lightning is crashing down around you, stay put. You’re already in a good shelter.)

Heavy winds are likewise not usually a problem. Your Airstream is already designed to slip through a headwind of 65 MPH (or higher) as smoothly as possible, so a blustery day is a pretty ho-hum event. Even a hard gust from the side isn’t likely to tip an Airstream over. In a major wind event, park the Airstream, drop the stabilizer jacks, and don’t worry. If you are exceptionally concerned you can tie down the axles during storage (we recommend The Claw for this).

Hail Damaged AirstreamBut hail can be a killer. Aluminum is soft metal, and easily dented by large hail. You don’t need to worry about hail smaller than a US nickel—it’ll just bounce off. But larger chunks can dimple the surface, and really major hail (2 inches or more) can rip holes in the skin.

Hail is a frequent occurrence through the nation’s heartland in the summer, especially the Plains states, but can happen anywhere there’s a thunderstorm. The problem is that while the likelihood of thunderstorms in an area can be approximated by the National Weather Service, the exact location of thunderstorms is virtually impossible to predict. If the weather report says 80% chance of thunderstorms you’ve got a pretty good chance of seeing some rain nearby, but no idea if that thunderstorm is going to pass right overhead.

There’s no 100% guaranteed way of avoiding hail damage other than keeping your Airstream parked under cover. Since it’s a shame to leave your Airstream sitting, try a few strategies to reduce your risk instead:

  1. Always check the weather report along your route during the summer when thunderstorms are more likely. If there’s a good chance of hail, the detail section of the report will tell you. Tornado warnings are a major red flag since tornadoes are spawned from the same severe thunderstorms that produce hail. Think about whether you can alter your route to avoid the highest risk areas.
  2. Re-check the weather as you go, particularly in the afternoon when thunderstorms tend to develop. A good weather app on your phone or tablet that shows color radar will help you spot thunderstorm activity as it happens.
  3. Get off the road before the thunderstorm hits. When lightning and hail start happening it’s usually too late to look for shelter. Driving into hail at highway speeds will result in the hail smashing on the front dome of the Airstream even harder, which increases the chance of permanent dimpling.

Emergency shelter can be found at gas stations with tall canopies, big-box home improvement stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot, and Interstate highway underpasses (as long as you can safely pull off the road and not block traffic). Parking under a large tree might help but you run the risk of branches falling on the Airstream instead, which could be worse.

If you have to make a choice between protecting the Airstream or your tow vehicle, keep in mind that your car or truck is made of steel and can resist the impact of hail better. However, if the hail is so large that it might smash through the windshield glass, there’s no question: protect yourself and your family first, and remember that the Airstream can be replaced.

Solar panels are always viewed as very susceptible to hail damage because they are made of glass, but the glass is actually very tough. It’s tempered and typically capable of resisting hail one inch in diameter without any damage! The Airstream’s aluminum roof might show dimpling long before the solar panel glass breaks, so don’t worry about the panels.

Most of the time hail damage is strictly cosmetic. This brings up a sticky issue, whether to fix it or live with it. A good insurance company should give you the option, but if you choose to take the damage settlement and not repair the trailer remember that it might be branded with a “salvage” title forever. Even if it isn’t, the resale value of any Airstream with noticeable hail damage is always reduced.

As you meet more Airstreamers you’ll eventually see Airstreams with unrepaired dimples from hail. Some owners keep it as a sort of “battle scar,” wearing it with pride, while others can’t stand their Airstream looking less than perfect and immediately opt for repair (or a trade-in).

Repairing hail damage to the aluminum is expensive. The curved aluminum segments must be ordered from Airstream and they can be labor-intensive to replace due to the need to remove and replace hundreds of rivets as well as windows and other exterior parts. There are options to consider too, such as riveting new panels over the old ones, and using “Olympic” style rivets rather than bucked rivets.

Talk to Airstream factory representatives or a trusted Airstream service center before making your decisions. There are no shortcuts to a good repair, so be wary of anyone who offers to fix it “cheap,” but you can save a little money and time by making good decisions.

If you travel a lot, you’ll eventually encounter some hail, but when it happens remember that it’s unlikely to be large enough to do permanent damage. Don’t let a minor risk overshadow your travels—you’ll be fine and your Airstream probably will be too.