Why is there a “Zamp only” plug on your Airstream?

Does your Airstream have one of these?

Ever wonder why the factory installed solar port says “Only use Zamp”?  Well, it’s not because other solar panels won’t work.

This is an industry standard (SAE) port with a big label to scare you into using Zamp brand solar panels.  In fact, any solar panels will work with this port, since it’s just a way to connect to the trailer’s 12 volt wiring.

Now, I like Zamp’s portable solar panels just fine, but they are among the most expensive in the industry.  I think you should be able to consider other portable solar panels, such as the Go Power solar kit we recommend, if you want.

All you need is a simple adapter, which is included in our kit, or which you can buy separately. And then, voila! You’ve got solar. It will work just fine.

By the way, if you don’t have this port, we have another adapter that goes right into the 7-way cord found on every Airstream.

We’ve made an exact-fit replacement label, which more accurately describes this solar port. Starting in November 2017 we’ll include it with every adapter and solar kit we sell.  Truth in labeling!

 

 

Top 9 Airstream Accessories

You’ve got a new (or new to you) Airstream—what upgrades should be first on your list? Alumapalooza 7 attendees learned about these favorites from Rich Luhr, author of Airstream Life’s (Nearly) Complete Guide To Airstream Maintenance and Terry Halstead, an ASE certified master mechanic and Airstream factory-trained service tech.

“This is by no means a comprehensive list,” said Luhr. “There’s probably five hundred more things that we could add, and not everything on this list is for everyone. These are just a few great upgrades that you might want think about having, and see if they fit your lifestyle.”

1. A cordless drill

“…so you don’t have to kneel on your hands and knees in the mud to put your stabilizers up and down,” said Halstead. Use it with a Camco 57363 Leveling Scissor Jack Socket, available on Amazon for about $5.

“It’s a really great timesaver.” Luhr agrees. “Whatever brand of drill you choose for this purpose, make sure it’s 18-volt or stronger.”

2. In-line water pressure regulator

In-line water pressure regulator
In-line water pressure regulator

“Airstream trailers come with a built-in pressure regulator, but that does absolutely nothing for the hose,” said Halstead. “This goes on the spigot at the campground to give protection to your hose. I’ve personally been to a couple of campgrounds over the years that have had a horrible amount of pressure. So this little ten dollar device will save your $30 hose.”

[NOTE: If you have our Ultimate Water Hose you won’t need a regulator at all! The Ultimate Water Hose can take up to 360 psi without damage.]

The regulator prevents bursting by reducing what could be 120 psi on the spigot end to about 50 psi on the trailer end— and you won’t further reduce your water pressure inside. “Don’t forget to put this on your checklist so you don’t drive off and leave it at the campsite,” added Halstead.

Another pro tip from Luhr: “Put your water filter on the trailer end of the hose in case the hose itself might be a little bit contaminated.”

3. Range hood LED

Your newer Airstream came with a Baraldi, “the Italian sports car of range hoods,” said Halstead. “They look really great, and they work really great, but they do have one minor thing that could be upgraded”: the lights above the stove are halogen.

Range hood LED
Range hood LED

“Those do two things,” he said: “generate a lot of heat, and use a lot of power.” “Fifteen watts,” added Luhr. “That’s a fair amount for one light when you’re boondocking.” Simply pull out the bulb and replace it with an LED—problem solved. “That will cut your power consumption about 90% off those halogens,” said Halstead. “You can find them in various places online and at RV stores,” said Luhr. “Good LEDs aren’t cheap, and cheap LEDs aren’t worth it. They usually have a very short life. Ten to fifteen bucks is pretty reasonable for a good-quality LED of this type.”

4. Voltage monitor

“These are really simple, and they do a couple of things,” explained Luhr. “Just put it into any outlet in your Airstream when you’re plugged into shore power, and it will tell you the voltage that you’ve got available—which is super important. It’s quite possible that the electrical pedestal at your campsite has a wiring problem, and that can actually be hazardous to your health.”

Voltage Monitor
Voltage Monitor

There’s a reason we need to worry about the voltage coming into our trailers. “We know that it’s supposed to be 120 volts,” Luhr explained. “Rarely is it actually exactly 120 volts; there’s a tolerance. Your appliances are going to be fine plus or minus ten percent.” Drop much below that, though, and you’re at risk of burning out certain appliances—especially your air conditioner.

“Under-voltage is by far more problematic,” said Luhr. “Your air conditioner typically can go down to 105, but when you fire up your air conditioner that big compressor draws more power.” If your voltage meter shows 108 you might be okay, but keep an eye on it as it starts up; if the voltage suddenly drops down near 102 for more than a few seconds, “you’re going to very quickly burn out the motor in your air conditioner and you’ll be facing a big bill, either to fix it or replace the entire unit,” he said.

“You read online sometime, guys who say ‘it’s okay, I run my Airstream off a 15-amp outlet, I do it all the time.’ Well, you can get away with some things, but I don’t recommend playing Russian roulette with your air conditioner, with your plug, with your cord. Watching your voltage is very important, and it doesn’t matter if you’re in a brand-new campground—especially on hot humid days when everybody’s cranking. So this is an item you definitely should have.” On a summer day, leave the meter plugged in and periodically glance at the voltage readout to make sure it doesn’t get below a safe level. The AC compressor could be cycling on and off, and each time it will draw extra power.

5. A rivet tool

“A rivet tool is a surprisingly easy thing to learn how to use,” assures Luhr. “Basically you just stick a rivet in, hold it tight, pop the handle of the tool a few times, and the stem of the rivet breaks off when you’re done. It’s so simple. It’s easier than a screwdriver, honestly.” Halstead said, “That’s actually an advantage of owning an Airstream trailer. The rivets are extremely easy to install.”

Rivet tool
Rivet tool

Do you really need to travel with a rivet tool? Luhr says yes, and here’s why. “Someday there will be a corrosion problem where the aluminum and steel frame meet on your belly pan, and it will rot out around the rivets and fall down and drag on the highway,” he said. “If you don’t have a rivet tool, that’s a major problem. If you have a rivet tool and some aluminum pop rivets it’s only a five-minute problem that you can fix yourself, right there by the side of the road.”

A rivet tool is handy for replacing popped interior rivets as well, and can save you a lot of money. “Missing one or two inside rivets is not a serious problem; it’s actually perfectly normal,” said Luhr (“especially after traveling over rough road,” agreed Halstead). With your handy rivet kit you can solve the issue yourself, no trip to the service bay necessary.

“It’s a no-brainer,” said Luhr. “There are 5000 rivets in the average Airstream. You should probably be able to replace one of them.”

6. A tire changing kit

…is another item Luhr feels strongly about. “Your Airstream did not come with any tools to change a tire. This is baffling to me. They give you a spare tire, but no way to put it on.” Luhr believes that a AAA membership is not a good substitute for knowing how to change a flat.

“Everybody should know how to change their own tires, even if they don’t plan to do it,” he said. “You may be physically unable to, but if you have the knowledge and you have the tools with you, then at least somebody else can change the tire. The alternative is calling for roadside assistance, which might seem to be a great solution, but you’ll be sitting by the side of the road for hours, in a place you often do not want to be,” he said. “Waiting to have someone come to change a tire for you is like hiring somebody to dress you. If you could just do it yourself it would be so much easier.”

“It’s not hard to change a tire,” Luhr said, who offers a tire changing kit in the Airstream Life store. “I sell it because I believe people need it, but if you buy all these items yourself you’ll spend the same amount of money. Just buy the tools.”

The basics are a torque wrench (essential for correctly tightening the lug nuts when you put the wheel back on); a breaker bar (used for removing the wheel); an extension, and a socket.

The complete tire changing kit is also packed with a safety vest for roadside visibility, a pencil gauge to check the air pressure, and a six page instruction manual that explains exactly how to change a tire. “If you read that manual and take the kit out and try it, you’re going know how to do this simple job,” said Luhr. “Then you just throw the kit in the back your trailer and never think about it again until the day you need it.”

If you choose to buy all the parts separately, “make sure you don’t skimp on the torque wrench,” said Luhr. “Cheap torque wrenches are not worth the money.”

“Remember, the torque wrench is for tightening,” added Halstead. “It is meant to be used in one direction, and it will let you know when you’ve reached the proper torque setting, usually with an audible click. If you use it to loosen the lug nuts, you’re going to throw off the calibration and it won’t be accurate after that. Bad things happen when you don’t torque the lug nuts correctly.”

7. MegaHitch lock

“Storage facilities are not safe,” cautioned Luhr. “I hear reports almost every month from people who have lost their Airstreams out of supposedly secure RV storage that had 24-hour management living on site, with video cameras. Just last month some friends of mine found out that someone had broken into their stored trailer and the thousands of dollars worth of their tools inside were all gone. Management didn’t even know—and it turned out that the videocameras were fakes.”

MegaHitch Lock
MegaHitch Lock

Cheap hitch locks provide zero security. “You can see a video on my website where they take about ten different hitch locks and defeat them all anywhere from between five seconds and two minutes,” said Luhr. “If you spend about $40 or $50 on a lock I guarantee a thief could break into that it within thirty seconds.” Thieves can’t break a MegaHitch.

The $200 price tag “is a big expense,” Luhr admits. “And it’s heavy. But it works. If you’re keeping a $70,000 or $100,000 Airstream on a storage lot, $200 is not a lot of extra money. I strongly recommend it.” Halstead added, “Check with your insurance company. If you have proof that your trailer was locked with one of these, in most cases they’ll waive the deductible for theft.”

8. Tire pressure monitor

A flat tire can do lot more damage to your trailer than you might think. “It doesn’t just go flub flub flub and then you come to a stop,” said Luhr. “Often you have no idea that you’ve had a flat because it’s ‘way back there on the trailer as it starts to shred. It rips up your Airstream, destroys the wheel, creates a hazard on the road, and it leaves you with a thousand dollars of damage that could’ve been prevented.” While highly recommended, the TST tire pressure monitoring system is again, not cheap, but it’s the best. “There are many others out there that are frankly garbage,” said Luhr.

Damage from flat tire
Damage from flat tire

9. Portable solar panels

If you’ve noticed the items on this list have been increasing in price, you’re correct—and solar panels are definitely one of the most expensive Airstream upgrades. If you’re considering going solar but don’t want to make too great of an initial investment, portable panels are a good alternative.

Portable solar panels
Portable solar panels

“You can get anywhere from 40 to 200 watts; they fold up into a carrying case, they have their own charger, and they’re easy to use,” said Luhr. “Just plug them in, and they charge your batteries.” Luhr prefers the Go Power brand over Zamp. “They’re a little bit less expensive and the quality is excellent,” he said. “The 120 watt system comes with everything you need, and you can get a 7-way adapter that plugs right into your umbilical cable, no special wiring.”

If your trailer came with a factory-installed solar port that says “Use only Zamp”, the Go Power panels will plug directly in and work with it! Click here for more info on that.

Solar vs Generator?

Lots of new Airstream owners want to find ways to extend their camping time while “boondocking,” (off-grid camping, away from electrical hookups). So inevitably the question comes up: which is better, a generator or solar panels?

Generator AirstreamThe answer comes down to your needs. Generators are the most practical way to have enough power to run very high-wattage appliances like the air conditioner and microwave oven. If you must have air conditioning when not plugged in, you will have to use a generator, and it will need to be capable of at least 2,600 watts peak output, and preferably 3,000 watts.

However, if you can live without your air conditioner and microwave oven, solar panels become a very attractive option. Solar panels are silent, don’t require you to carry fuel, and are virtually maintenance free (other than washing them once in a while). They work without any intervention from you and can keep the batteries in your Airstream charged while it’s in storage.

A major difference is that solar panels only provide power to charge the batteries. They don’t directly power anything, although the batteries will of course power all of your 12-volt devices and can even power low-wattage 120-volt AC appliances like laptops and TVs using an inverter.

Most RV generators have on-board inverters so that they can provide 120-volt AC power directly to the Airstream, just like plugging in. This is convenient but most of the time the generator is producing far more power than you actually need.

If you want a generator primarily to recharge your batteries while camping off-grid, you can get the smallest generator possible. Even a small 1000-watt (rated) generator can typically produce far more power than the batteries will accept at any given time. The rest of the power is wasted, unless you are running the microwave or some other power-hungry AC appliance while the generator is running.

This means that the best time to use the generator is when power demand is high. It’s much easier to avoid using battery power by being plugged into the generator, than to try to recharge battery power later. Use the generator in the morning and evening when you are cooking and using lights and water pump, and the power needed will be supplied by the generator rather than coming from the batteries.

If you want to get a generator, do yourself and your neighbors a favor and get one of the quieter models specifically made for RV use. Both Yamaha and Honda make excellent products which have good reputations for reliability and quietness. If you borrow a “construction” generator from work on your weekend camping trip you will save some money but you won’t be popular when you fire it up—and the noise might detract from the peacefulness of your boondocking site, so what’s the point? Similarly, there are cheaper “knock off” brand generators on the market, but their quality is not up to the standards of the major brands.

Solar’s big advantage is in recharging batteries, so if extending your time at camp is your primary goal, they are the preferred option. Rather than pumping out large amounts of power in short time periods like a generator, solar provides a steady all-day charge will have a much better chance of getting your batteries up to 100%. It’s like the turtle and the hare. With batteries, slow and steady wins the race.

If you have both a generator and solar panels, use the generator when the batteries are heavily discharged (for an hour or so in the morning, for example) to get the bulk charge done quickly, and then let solar finish the job over the course of the day.

If you only have solar, keep in mind that during the morning and mid-day, moderately or heavily discharged batteries will probably accept every amp the panels can generate. Then the charging rate naturally slows down. If the sun is still shining at that point you have surplus power, and so that’s the time of day to plug in all of your rechargeable accessories like phones, cameras, laptops, etc. This strategy takes maximum advantage of the power being generated.

Sometimes people go with generators over solar because they are afraid they won’t have power on a cloudy day. Certainly clouds will drastically reduce the amount of power generated, but you’ll still get some. The solution is to add batteries so that the Airstream has enough power to bridge a cloudy day (or two) without a problem.

If you are considering adding solar panels, keep in mind that the solar panels should be sized to approximately match the capacity of the batteries in the Airstream. If the panels produce a lot more power in a typical day than the batteries can store, you’ll have wasted money on expensive panels. If the panels are too small, they might not produce enough power to keep the batteries charged, which can lead to short battery life if the trailer is not plugged in regularly (such as during long-term storage).

It’s hard to do an apples-to-apples comparison of generators and solar panels, because as you can see, they perform very differently. It’s even hard to pin down a cost for comparison, because the output of each option can vary widely. Quiet RV generators from Honda and Yamaha range from 1,000 watt units suitable for battery re-charging and small appliances, up to big 3,000 watt units to run the air conditioner. Solar panel systems (including battery banks) can run from 50 watts up (typically 200-400 watts will fit on the roof, plus more possible using portable panels), and the costs of an installed system are likewise varied. Keep in mind that comparing wattages is not useful since the solar panel runs whenever the sun shines, and the generator usually only runs for short times.

You’ll need to decide which option you prefer, and then talk to a solar installer, or shop generator prices. RV solar specialists are in many parts of the country (some are even mobile and will come to you) and they can help determine the optimal size of your battery bank and provide solar panels to match.

Either way, upgrading your Airstream to give you more boondocking time is a great advantage. It will open up new travel options for you and eliminate worries about running out of power when on a long trip or during storage.

For more, pick up your copy of Rich Luhr’s books, “The Newbies Guide To Airstreaming” and “Airstream Life’s (Nearly) Complete Guide To Airstream Maintenance” at the Airstream Life store.

Questions and answers about power, batteries, and solar

Solar power, shore power, generator backup…the configurations are as varied as the number of rigs on the road, and the answer to most power questions is “it depends”.

While each Airstream is uniquely outfitted, many Airstreamers have common queries. Following are answers to questions posed at one of our recent Aluma-events.

I’m a solar user, but what happens to my batteries when I plug in to shore power?

Your solar panels are still active when you use shore power, and a built-in regulator prevents the batteries from overcharging. Put simply, solar panels always produce power when exposed to light, and that power is sent to be stored in the battery. Shore power (AC, which gets converted to DC) also goes to the battery, so both sources are working to keep the batteries charged. One source might contribute more than the other, but it’s all good power input.

How can I extend my battery life?

Baby it. Your battery will last nine years and counting, depending on how it’s maintained. If you’re plugged in often, it’s a good practice to check the battery water every 30 days. Pop the caps off and fill them up over the lead plates; otherwise, they’ll sulfate and corrode the other batteries.  A dead cell in one battery will drag the other battery down with it, over time.

If it freezes outside in winter it won’t last it’s full life expectancy. Don’t leave it dead; if the electrolytes aren’t excited in the battery, they’ll freeze. Take your battery out and let it winter over in the garage.

Can my family multitask in the trailer?

Yes, but to a reasonable limit. If you’re using a curling iron, the air conditioner, and a microwave all at the same time, you’ll draw too much and flip the breaker. Overloading the outlets (a.k.a. AC power system) with too many plug-in appliances will trip the circuit breaker.

DC power differs, and if your battery has drawn down too low you’ll have trouble with the vent fan, lights, or water pump—and there’s no circuit breaker on the DC power system. When lights dim and the pump and fan are sluggish (or non-working), it’s past time to recharge. Try not to draw the batteries down more than 50% between charges, because doing so will shorten its life. Consider installing an amp-hour meter to more accurately keep track of the power in your batteries.

Where is my converter? And what does it do?

Your converter changes 120 volts AC shore power to Airstream appliance-friendly 12 volt DC power, and prevents your Airstream battery from draining. You’ll have to snoop around to find it, as the location depends on your Airstream floor plan. Often the power converter (a “black box”, literally) will be installed under the refrigerator or sofa, or inside the closet. Open the door and you’ll see the 110 breakers and fuses inside.

I want to go solar. How much do I really need? How much does it cost?

These and other questions about solar conversion are like asking “how long is a rope?” Answers will vary, depending on the panel size and watt capacity. Some users claim that one hundred watts of solar provides enough power for a family; others require nearly three times that amount.

Your location and weather play an important factor as well, as the battery charges through the day for the night, and recharges the next day—and the more panels you have, the merrier you’ll be. The number of permanently-attached solar panels you can accommodate depends on your Airstream model and the available real estate on the roof.

What’s that rotten egg smell?

Could be the converter is overcharging the battery, but more likely you have a battery low on water (assuming it uses water). Allow the battery to cool before adding more water.