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.

Removing Decals

Sometimes when you buy an Airstream there are a few unwanted things that come with it, such as decals, warning labels, somebody else’s Big Red Numbers, and souvenir stickers. Often these are glued-on remnants of the former owner’s lifestyle, and to make the Airstream your own, you may want to get rid of them.

Airstream Decals

Even new Airstreams come with legally required liability-limited warnings on the exterior. Some of them eventually can leave permanent marks on the clear coat after many years of baking in the sun, so you might choose to get rid of them early on. For example, there’s usually a propane warning up front, a lug nut warning over the wheel wells, and a clear “THOR” decal to the right of the main entry door.

It’s up to you to decide whether leaving those decals in place is helpful or if they are part of your Airstream’s history and originality.

If you think decals are just uglifying the exterior of your Airstream, there are multiple ways to remove them. The trick is to do it without damaging the Airstream’s clear coat or scratching the aluminum.

The Golden Rule of this job is to never use anything abrasive. No sandpaper of course, but also avoid Scotchbrite pads, jeweler’s rouge, or metal polish. Even soft brushes can leave fine scratches in the clear coat that may not be visible until it is in bright sun.

Airstream Decals

Most people head straight for the chemical solutions such as Goof Off, 3M Adhesive Remover, Aircraft Stripper, and even harsh chemicals such as toluene, xylene, or Methyl Ethyl Ketone (MEK). Combined with heat, these methods will usually work but they tend to be slow and/or dangerous.

We don’t recommend chemical approaches. As a general rule, the more complicated the chemical name, the more likely it is to damage the clear coat. MEK in particular is a known carcinogen, contaminates the water table, and produces fumes that can kill you. Avoid it.

The environmentally friendlier options tend to work more slowly, which is why people often throw caution (and good long-term health) to the wind and just pour on the toxics. But a more effective, cleaner, and far safer option is to rub off the decal with a 3M Adhesive Eraser Wheel.

This wheel mounts to a power drill and acts like a big pencil eraser, scrubbing off the vinyl decal and the underlying adhesive without damaging the clear coat. It works quickly and cleanly, leaving only a few bits of glue that are easily cleaned up with a safe citrus-based cleaner. The 3M Adhesive Eraser Wheel costs about $33 at auto parts stores and online. See how it’s done on this video.

Once removed, most decals leave no trace. But if it has been on for a while, you may find that the glue has reacted with the clear coat or the aluminum to leave a “ghost” imprint, a fine network of white “spider web”, or a rough and lifted patch of clear coat.

Damage to modern clear coat is generally difficult to repair. Small marks might be concealable with clear nail polish. For larger damage the only solution is to completely remove the clear coat (a nasty job requiring MEK and therefore best left to professionals), then re-coat it—or replace the affected aluminum panel entirely.

Either of those solutions would be quite expensive, so you might choose to live with the “beauty marks” or, ironically, conceal them with another decal.

Sealants — A Sticky Subject

In the Airstream universe you will find a curious phenomenon: passionate debates about sealants. That’s because the constant movement of all parts on the road causes all travel trailers to leak eventually, and a good sealant is our first line of defense against rain penetration. Rather unfairly, Airstreamers get more of this debate than owners of other brands, mostly because Airstreams have been around for so long, and so many of them remain on the roads after decades of use.

An Airstream might easily be re-sealed a dozen times over its lifetime. In contrast, “disposable” cheap travel trailers tend to get chucked into a landfill when they start to leak because they’re starting to fall apart too. You don’t hear the owners of those talking quite so much about re-sealing. They’re busy re-financing.

The aluminum construction of an Airstream is another reason Airstreamers love to debate sealant. Common silicone sealants don’t adhere as well to aluminum, so we have to use polyurethane sealants that are more expensive but stick like crazy and stay gooey for a long time.

By the way, we use the term “sealant” because “caulk” isn’t flexible, whereas the sealants used on an Airstream are elastomeric, meaning they can stretch without breaking their seal as the travel trailer moves down the road.

Sealants, then and now

In the old days the general-purpose sealant of choice was called Vulkem, and you’ll still hear vintage Airstream owners talk about it. Like the modern sealants, it had a marvelous ability to seal gaps tightly, stick to aluminum, and remain slightly tacky beneath the surface for many years.

These days it has been supplanted by a more modern formulation that carries the same name, as well as a few other new products. Most of the recommended modern sealants have certain characteristics in common: they are sticky like hot salt-water taffy and they adhere to aluminum and plastic like glue. Once cured, they flex a lot without breaking their seal, and they are designed for exterior use (only) so they are UV-resistant and completely waterproof.

SealantAs long as you choose a sealant that meets those criteria, you can use any particular one that fits your needs. Popular choices include TremPro 635, Vulkem 116, Sikaflex 221, ParBond, AdSeal, and others. ParBond is thinner than the rest, comes in a silver color, and creates a “rubberized” seal that’s good for tight spots, so it’s typically used on small jobs. The others are great for roof work (they come in colors, so get white), and larger areas of coverage.

Where to shop

Finding appropriate sealant is sometimes difficult. Lots of online sellers offer it but since a tube is anywhere from $6-14 and shipping tends to add $7-9, you want to get it locally or combine it with another order to duck the shipping charge. If you are in a rush to fix a leak, check hardware stores for a construction sealant that is guaranteed waterproof, UV stable, approved for outdoor use and which adheres to aluminum, painted surfaces, and plastic.

You can always go to the local RV store and find acceptable alternative products, but in my experience white-box RV store products seem to be made for the disposable RV market because they often break down too quickly and start to crack, then leak. By comparison, a really good polyurethane sealant can stay sticky, waterproof and pliable for decades, in places that aren’t exposed to the sun.

cracked sealant
Cracked sealant

Sticky situations

There are a few challenges with using this stuff. First off, the fumes are stinky and toxic, which means you have to beware of the fumes if you are lucky enough to have a garage to work on your Airstream.

Second, it’s trickier to shape and smooth than silicone, because it sticks to everything. The old “wet finger” trick that you use with silicone won’t work—these sealants will stick to your wet finger. Wear disposable vinyl gloves and bring along a bunch of paper towels for cleanup.

Third, keep in mind that the good sealants tend to cure very slowly. For example, Vulkem cures at the rate of just 1/16″ of an inch per day at 75 degrees F & 50% humidity. You’ll want to allow some time for a good cure before exposing the new sealant to weather.

Saving sealant

It’s hard to save the leftovers. Once you’ve opened a tube of sealant, take some care to re-seal it well for storage. There are many techniques to try to seal the tube, such as putting a golf tee in the opening, covering with the tip of a rubber glove, using food saver vacuum bags, and commercially-available storage caps of various designs. Hot glue on the tip works well.

Don’t freeze it—that method can cross-contaminate other items in the freezer (your ice cream might taste funny after a while) and the manufacturers of the sealants generally don’t recommend storing at that temperature.

Whatever you do, don’t expect opened sealant to still be usable in a year. Even if you take tremendous effort to close up the tube against outside air and moisture, it will probably cure to a solid lump in a few months. Parbond seems to be the exception. It lasts for years just by replacing the cap.

Safety first

The sealants discussed here are fairly safe but you should take a moment to read the fine print on the tubes before using them. Avoid skin contact or breathing of the vapors in a confined space. (That also goes for chemicals used to clean up afterward.) There are recommended temperatures at which you should apply sealants, and recommended techniques for application, cleanup, and storage.

Sealing the Airstream against leaks really isn’t rocket science. Generally the sealants last a long time, so the old days of climbing on the roof to “re-caulk the seams” every year are over. When replacement is eventually needed, making a good choice of product will be a key part of keeping your Airstream dry and happy.

Be seen!

“I don’t think Airstreams come with enough reflectors to be safe,” said John Irwin, seminar presenter at a recent Alumaevent. “One night I went to a meeting in my neighborhood, when my Airstream was parked in front of my house. Afterwards, I walked up the street towards the trailer and I realized that I couldn’t see it at night very well. So one of the first things I did with my new trailer was to increase the amount of reflective surface.”

Irwin—an Airstream Life contributor since the magazine began in 2004—is known for designing clever modifications that you can apply to your own factory-issue Airstream to make it safer and more convenient. Many are easy and affordable, and the following tips will keep you and your trailer more visible on the road and at your campsite.

Stick ‘em up.

Airstream reflectors“If you look at any 18-wheeler on the road you’ll find that they’re bedecked with red and white reflective markers,” said Irwin, who recommends affixing the same type of strips to your trailer as he uses on his third Airstream, a 2005 28-foot Classic.

“The Classic with the pull out drawer in the back is perfect for those,” he said, as the height of the bumper is precisely the same as a standard reflectors that you can buy at any auto parts store. The package usually contains three reflectors; peel and stick two to your bumper and get creative with the third one. “I cut that up in pieces and put the white portions on the front of the trailer and banana wrap, and the red ones on the back of the trailer,” said Irwin

“This has a nice side effect,” he said. “When we’re at a rally and we’re walking back at night, you can spot your trailer a mile away with a flashlight. Virtually everyone in our (WBCCI) Unit has additional reflectors on their Airstream.”

Convert to LED taillights.

Most recent Airstreams are installed with LED taillights, but if you don’t have them, Irwin suggests converting from incandescents to deter rear-end accidents. “LEDs are much safer at sundown,” he explained. “They can be seen with sun on the back of the trailer.”

Conversion kits are available for most Airstreams, but if you can’t find one for your model it’s easy to MacGyver a solution. “Get on the internet with somebody like LED4RV and start a conversation,” suggests Irwin. “They can most certainly come up with a way to convert your taillights to LED. They’ll be eager to work with you, and it gives them something new to sell to customers.”

Fire up your clearance lights.

“If you’re broken down by the highway somewhere, it’s a good idea to light up your trailer, particularly if a tow vehicle has to be unhitched and taken away for repair,” said Irwin, who recommends purchasing an inexpensive old-style clearance light blinker at any auto parts store. “Back in the old days before cars were computerized there were little blinker units that you can still plug in to your umbilical cord to make your lights blink,” he said. (Be aware that running the clearance lights all night without being connected to power will run down the battery.)

Travel with a safety cone—or two, or three.

Safety Cones - IrwinReflector Triangle - IrwinDistracted or sleepy drivers often hit disabled vehicles on the shoulder of the road, so carry several warning devices to place behind your parked or broken-down rig. Traffic cones—including space-saving collapsible models—are easy to purchase online and at hardware and RV parts stores. “I have three of them,” said Irwin. “They actually come in handy for a lot of things; put one by your ProPride hitch stinger to keep your friends from tripping over it, or set up cones by a hazard at an RV park or rally.”

“Even in the smallest Airstream you can have a few reflector triangles,” he said. “They don’t take up a lot of space, and they don’t cost too much money.” You might need to weigh them down with a wrench or rock to secure them against the wind from passing traffic. (Irwin suggests bean bags.)

“Invest in a really good LED flashlight,

and expect to pay forty dollars or more for it,” said Irwin. “You need a good light, and be able to get your hands on it when you need it.” It will always be accessible if you do what he did: screw the canvas case your flashlight came in to a wall inside a cabinet in your Airstream.

Blinky gadgets

TurboflareIrwin uses various emergency lights—like the flashy rotating Turboflare—for safety and misadventures. “I like to keep a light inside the trailer between the curtain and the back window,” he said. “It really makes the trailer show up to any traffic that’s coming down the street. Let it run all night.” Continuous lights inside give an unoccupied Airstream a lived-in look.

Double trouble

“Everybody—all my kids, all my grandkids—keep giving me LED lights,” Irwin laughed. “I have several LED trouble lights that I’ve collected over the years.” Trouble lights come in various nifty configurations and usually have a hook for hanging. “They are really nice if you have to change a tire or something like that at night,” said Irwin. “Those lights are worth their weight in gold.”

Check all gadgets once a year to ensure that the batteries are viable.

Try this old Army trick: when the device isn’t in use, flip the batteries around backwards (reversing the plus/minus direction) to prolong their life.

7 things you didn’t know about polished Airstreams

1. They didn’t come that way from the factory—usually.

Lots of people who see shiny vintage Airstreams flashing by on the highway think that Airstreams were made that way originally. A few were delivered with a polish by special request, back in the days when you could custom-order an Airstream any way you wanted. But the vast majority of them came from the factory with a rather ordinary aluminum finish, which is more matte than mirror.

2. Polishing is more about chemistry than abrasion.

If you thought polishing was about removing the top layer of tarnished aluminum, you might be surprised to find that a professional grade polish like Nuvite actually converts the oxidized aluminum layer chemically back into shiny aluminum. That layer is “recycled” and re-deposited on the surface. Microscopic peaks of metal are worn down to fill scratches and pits, smoothing the surface at the same time that it gains that unforgettable shine.

This is why abrasives such as rouge and sandpaper are never used for a good polish. Those methods are destructive because they scrape off aluminum. Getting a great polish on an Airstream that has previously been abraded is much harder.

3. It’s cost-effective to do it yourself.

Starting to Polish Airstream
Polishing outset

Professional Airstream polishing typically runs $100 to $200 per foot of trailer length. So a 25 foot Airstream could be quoted at anywhere from $2500 to $5000. The price is mostly driven by the cost of local labor.

If you’ve got the time and the inclination, you can do it yourself with only a few tools (buffer, pads, polish, mineral spirits, a ladder and a few small supplies like gloves). Good polish isn’t cheap but it’s a pittance compared to the cost of paying someone else to do it. The longer your Airstream, the more you’ll save.

4. The polish doesn’t go into the metal.

OK, so you’re buffing away with a can of Nuvite F7 for the first time, and you’re blown away by the speed with which the oxidization disappears. But the polish disappears, too. Is it going into the metal?

Surprisingly, it’s evaporating. The polish is in a base similar to mineral spirits, and as it is worked into the metal it “flashes off” or evaporates. Very little of the polish gets into the metal, so after it has done its work of converting oxidized aluminum and smoothing the surface, it just goes away.

5. Even newer Airstreams can be polished.

Just because you mostly see Airstreams from 1948-1980 polished doesn’t mean that the newer ones can’t be. Airstream changed the type of aluminum it uses a few times over the years, but even the newer alloys can take a polish, at least up to the 1999 model year. The only trick is that any clear coat on the trailer has to be chemically stripped off first.

Since 1999, Airstream has been using a very tough fluorocarbon clear coat by PPG. As of now, nobody has yet devised a chemical method for efficiently removing it, which makes polishing impractical for trailers made 1999 to present. Of course for those Airstream owners that’s good news—the clear coat seems to be exceptionally durable and long lasting. But undoubtedly sometime in the future a clear coat stripping method will be found, so in a few decades even owners of “vintage” 2005 models can have a mirror shine if they want.

6. It’s not as messy as you think.

You can definitely get messy polishing. Black bits of partially-used polish seem to have an amazing ability to get everywhere. But you don’t need to end up looking like a chimney sweep from Mary Poppins each day. Vinyl gloves, some work clothes (black is a good choice for shirts), and a hat will keep the worst of it off you. The rest washes off pretty easily.

For clean-up, Goop or a similar mechanic’s hand cleaner will work well on your skin, followed by ordinary soap and water. Clothes should be done in a separate wash load. To dilute polish stains on surfaces such as the garage floor or tools, mineral spirits work very well.

7. There’s more than one way to polish.

All kinds of polishes can be used to make an Airstream shine. Your choice of polish should be based on the depth of shine you want. A middling shine can be had quickly with various “one step” polishes, and you can use your hands, a rotary buffer, a Cyclo, or whatever tool you want.

Polished Airstream Swirl Marks
Strike line scratches

If you want the ultimate mirror shine with no cloudiness, the best method is the way the airlines do it, working up through three or four grades of polish. This takes more time than the one-step polishes but the results are exceptional.

Regardless of the technique you use, if you see twisty reflective “swirl marks” or “strike lines” on a sunny day, you’ll need to use a finer grade of polish. The swirl marks are caused by scratches in the surface, left by the rotary buffer. A finer grade of polish will reduce the swirl marks until they are unnoticeable.