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.