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.

 

Here’s why you really do need a torque wrench

Every Airstreamer should know how to change a tire, but many don’t.  That’s why we do tire changing demonstrations at most of our Aluma-events.

Lots of people want to learn the technique, but there is usually one point at which they start to resist the idea: they don’t want to buy a torque wrench.

I can understand why.  A good quality torque wrench is a moderately expensive tool, and if you don’t need to work on cars regularly it will probably sit in your Tire Changing Kit most of the time.

Also, people often wonder why they need a torque wrench for their Airstream trailer wheels, when they don’t apparently need one for their car.

The reason is that the aluminum alloy wheels found on all late model Airstreams are prone to allowing lug nuts to loosen in the first 50 to 100 miles of towing.  To prevent them from completely coming loose, you need to check them with a torque wrench a couple of times, any time that the wheel is removed.

Each lug nut must be tightened to a specific tightness.  Usually this is about 110 foot-pounds (ft-lbs) of torque for aluminum alloy wheels.  (If you use metric specifications that’s 150 Newton-meters.)  To get the correct torque spec for your wheels, check the Specification page in your Owner’s Manual or ask Airstream about the wheels you have.

The wheel studs (the part the lug nuts thread on to) are designed to stretch a tiny amount to clamp the wheel on. This elasticity of the stud is what helps to secure the wheel on the hub. If the lug nuts are put on too tightly, the threads on the wheels studs can stretch beyond their elastic range. In the extreme, this can cause the studs to break and the wheel will come flying off.

Too loose, and the lug nuts will gradually work their way loose, which is just as bad.  When a wheel comes off, the wheel is generally damaged beyond repair, and the Airstream tends to get collateral body damage that can run into the thousands of dollars.

That’s why you don’t want to guess at the proper tightness. Even if you work with cars every day, you can’t accurately estimate how tight those nuts should be.  The torque wrench is the way smart professionals verify the job is done right.

A few other tips: 

Before putting lug nuts on, check that the threads are clean (no dirt or grease).  Wipe any contaminants off with a paper towel or clean rag.

Don’t use any kind of lubricant (oil, grease, moly, anti-seize compound) on the studs.  Those things will make the torque reading inaccurate and you’ll end up over-tightening the nuts.

If you need a good torque wrench, we offer an excellent choice at a good price in the Airstream Life Store.

If you need a full set of tire changing tools, we have a complete kit with instructions and a carry bag.

 

Airstream Fire Safety: How to Use an Extinguisher

“You have to practice for an emergency like a fire,” said RV expert John Gold at a recent Alumaevent. “I’m superstitious. I believe in Murphy’s Law: the worst possible thing will happen at the worst possible time. If,” he added emphatically, “IF you aren’t prepared. So be prepared!”

Safety step one: stock a fire extinguisher in your Airstream. “They are all about the same,” said Gold. “But when is the last time you took one out?”

Practice, practice, practice.

Or maybe just once per camping trip. Gold encourages all RVers to take their fire extinguisher out of its cradle before hitting the road, look at it, cut the wire tie if necessary (the pin keeps you from accidentally squeezing the trigger), and follow the next steps.

Look at the dial.

If it’s in the red, “it won’t work,” said Gold. “Throw it out and get another one. If it is in the green, it may work.”

Change may to will.

Shake the canister, hard enough to feel the powder moving inside. “If you have to, bang it on the ground a couple of times until you feel the powder move,” he said.

Compressed gas inside the extinguisher pushes out a powder that puts out the fire. “Every time your Airstream hits a bump, the powder inside becomes compacted on the side or bottom of the can and won’t come out after a time, only the compressed gas—which won’t put out a fire,” he said. If you feel the powder moving and the dial is in the green, then you know the extinguisher will work.

Practice the pin.

Pull the pin out and put it back in. (It will take some force.) Then give it to your spouse and other travelmates to try it, too. “It doesn’t explode like a hand grenade!” assured Gold. The pin merely prevents you from engaging the trigger before you’re ready.

fire extinguisher pin

Fire fighting basics

If the time should ever come when you need to deploy the extinguisher, you’ll have 45 seconds to use it, “because that’s all the compressed gas they put in there, even if you get a bigger one,” stated Gold. “Why 45 seconds? The fumes from a fire in an enclosed space like a trailer, motorhome or residential kitchen will render you unconscious anyway in two minutes.” Gold shared a surprising statistic: four full extinguishers are required to put out a burning tire. How many do we need in our trailers? “Maybe two,” he said. “But don’t stress about this too much. Fires in RVs are very rare.” The most common fire in your Airstream will likely be the same one that can occur in your home: a small grease fire on the stove. “You know how to put that out, just calmly smother it,” said Gold. “Put a lid on it, or towel over it.” (Be sure to pass this skill on to the kids and grandkids.)

Using the extinguisher

If there’s a significant fire requiring the use of an extinguisher, and there are two or more of you in the trailer when a fire occurs, “you each have different jobs,” said Gold. “One of you, grab the extinguisher. The other, get the cell phone, its charger, your emergency escape kit, and every living thing out of the Airstream. And nobody go back in except for the person operating the extinguisher.”

The P.A.S.S. technique

The American Red Cross and OSHA recommend memorizing “PASS”—an acronym that reminds you how to operate your extinguisher during the excitement of a sudden fire. Follow the “pull, aim, squeeze, and sweep” technique, step by step:

  1. “Pull” the pin. This will also break the tamper seal.
  2. “Aim” low, pointing the extinguisher nozzle (or its horn or hose) at the base of the fire. (Don’t touch the plastic discharge horn on CO2 extinguishers; it gets very cold and could damage your skin.)
  3. “Squeeze” the handle to release the extinguishing agent.
  4. “Sweep” from side to side at the base of the fire until it appears to be out. Watch the area; if the fire reignites, repeat “aim” and “squeeze”. (If you have the slightest doubt about your ability to fight a fire, “evacuate immediately” says the Red Cross.)

fire extinguisher

To flee or not to flee?

After emptying the first canister, “you may need to make a decision,” stated Gold: “Do I go for the second extinguisher or not? That will be determined by your RV insurance,” he said with a smile. “Every one of you has insurance on your Airstream, but not everyone has replacement cost insurance.” (For more information, read the section on Airstream insurance in a prior Outside Interests article.) “If your coach is burning, you should know exactly what your insurance will cover and be able to quickly do the math in your head to debate your next move,” said Gold. A proactive phone call to your insurance company before you hit the road will help with this scenario. If the loss pencils out, “be safe, walk away, and buy a new Airstream.”

The problem with propane.

Fire in an RV is a serious matter, and especially in an Airstream carrying so much propane. “Even a small 3-pound propane container, when ignited, would explode and destroy a trailer and damage all the RVs around it,” said Gold. “If there’s a fire in an RV park where you are staying, and you are close by, move your rig,” he cautioned. “Do not stay and watch at a close distance.”

Dial 911

—and let the fire department come, even if you’ve put out the fire. “You want to make sure nothing is burning internally, and verify that the fire is completely out,” said Gold.

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.

Ways to keep your Airstream from being stolen

First the bad news. “If they want your trailer, they’ll take it,” say savvy Airstreamers. No matter what security measures you employ, a competent thief can find a way to separate you permanently from your Airstream.

“Airstreams are targets,” explained an expert at an Alumafandango seminar. “If yours gets stolen, you won’t get it back. They’re hard to recover, and they all look alike.”

“Most late-model coaches are stolen for parts, and can be sent overseas in shipping containers. Four or five coats of paint on your tongue hitch covers the VIN number. And cheap hitch locks are kind of worthless,” he continued. “They can be broken into in five minutes.”

Victims of theft agree. “It’s almost like the insurance companies go, oh, just get ‘em a new trailer,” said one. “They don’t go after who stole it and don’t pursue where it went. They just figure it’s been scrapped out, it’s just gone, and that’s the cost of doing business.” Don’t expect law enforcement to step in, either. “Sadly, the highway patrol does nothing proactive to find stolen RVs,” said one victim. “They simply add the license to their list.”

Yikes. What’s the good news? You can take steps to reduce your chances of theft—in increasing degrees of difficulty for the bad guys. First, get a really good hitch lock.  We sell the best one on the market, in the Airstream Life Store.

Thom (no pun intended) Locke at Sutton RV recommends the MegaHitch lock Coupler Vault. “It’s the best lock we’ve found,” he said. “It’s powder coated, and quarter-inch thick steel. When locked, you’d have to cut through two thicknesses, a half an inch. That’s a lot,” he said. “It also has a round key that’s almost impossible to duplicate.”

“It would take a long time and someone would have to work very hard to break into a MegaHitch,” said a fan. “It’s kind of like a car alarm in that it calls attention to the theft in process, causing suspicion.”

Second, keep your trailer close to home, if you can.  “Ours is on our own property in a fenced yard behind an electric gate, and there’s a truck usually in the way, blocking it,” said one owner.

 

If you want to go to extremes, there are more options:  “Take one wheel off on one side, and partially deflate the tire on the other side,” offered one Airstreamer. Others suggested “jack the trailer up and put it on blocks”, and “install a big u-bolt underneath with a drag mechanism on it.” Or not.

Third, check your insurance policy.  “A replacement policy isn’t necessary with most RVs, but with an Airstream, it is,” said experts at Alumfandango. Review with your agent every detail of your policy, and understand the meaning of replacement value, agreed value, and the various types of loss. Make sure your content coverage is adequate; there’s more in your trailer than you might remember. (“Thank goodness we had enough,” said an RV crime victim. “We needed not only to replace things like sheets, dishes, and inside supplies but all the tools, cords and hoses.”) Keep ALL receipts, and make it easy on the insurer. Organization scores points.

Fourth, don’t trust storage facilities to keep your Airstream safe.  “The biggest problem are those big facilities where they have small storage rooms as well as boat and RV parking,” said another, and many agree. “Thieves come in there and rent a small, cheap storage unit, and go in and out for a couple-three months. Since they have 24-hour access to the yard, one day they hook up an Airstream and just take it away. Then they keep paying their rent, inconspicuous, and cancel the rental after a couple more months.”

That’s exactly what happened to the former owners of a “new, 2009 27ft front bedroom we had in what we thought was a very secure storage unit,” said the victim. “People came in and out all the time that had nothing to do with the trailers.” (Management later suspiciously claimed the security camera wasn’t working or possibly rolled over the recording.) They have their new Airstream—entirely replaced by insurance—in a facility that “has tons and tons of cameras, and it’s strictly a boat and RV storage lot.”

More tips:

  • When choosing a storage lot, ask when security cameras recycle. “It’s gotta be at least three months,” said an Airstreamer who packs his away for the winter.
  • Keep the Airstream hitch and/or wheels locked tight when stored, no matter how secure the facility.
  • Etch the VIN number on both the trailer and your tow vehicle. “Etching kits are easy to find online and inexpensive,” said another victim of theft (who learned these lessons the hard way). “I etched the number around the vehicles in four places.”
  • Ask your dealership what anti-theft measures are in place while your coach is in for service.