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.

My Campsite, My Worksite

More and more Airstreamers are taking their jobs on the road with them. No, not camp hosting, or even work camping — they’re keeping an office job afloat as they travel from place to place, either temporarily in extended vacation mode, or on a permanent basis, year ’round. The rewards are obvious (like that view, below), but there are challenges, too.

Oceanview from an Airstream
Airstream ocean view (photo by Laura Domela)

Kevin Morris and wife Laura Domela run their own business (an online publication for electrical engineers) and manage ten employees. “We really can’t take much of a break from work,” said Laura, a professional photographer—but that hasn’t stopped them from regularly traveling in their 27-foot, 2010 FB Airstream International. “Kevin does the writing and manages most of the business side, and I do the layout and publishing of our articles and newsletters,” she said. “After eleven years of taking our work on the road we find that it’s really important not to just work the day away without taking a good break to go see or do something new.”

The Airstream office of Morris and Domela
The Airstream office of Morris and Domela

Kyle Bolstad, (who has traveled to every state in the nation and all ten Canadian provinces while succeeding at his job as a software developer), concurs. “My one piece of advice for others who work while they travel is to try and take breaks during the day, to get out and explore,” he said.

Kyle Bolstad - jobs on the road
Kyle Bolstad

Itching to see the country, Kyle moved out of his apartment and into an Airstream five years ago. He maintains a full time job while full-timing in a 2008 23-foot CCD International, towed by his trusty Touareg. He’s currently in Hawaii (the only state he has visited without the Airstream).

“I typically work a bit in the morning, take a break during lunch to explore the area during daylight hours, and then continue working later that night when it’s too dark to explore much,” he said. “If your job doesn’t allow you to take a break during the day, try to mix up your work environment by getting out of the Airstream to work in a cool coffee shop, park, hotel lobby, restaurant, you name it.” As Kyle’s website states, “with a MacBook Pro and an internet connection, he works out of an Airstream—anywhere.”

Getting (and staying) electronically connected to employers, coworkers and associates while traveling is a challenge that Kevin, Kyle and Laura solve by using a sophisticated variety of hotspot technologies and all the associated gadgetry. More casual users will be glad to hear that plain old campground wifi is increasing in reliability.

As recent as three or four years ago, the internet connection at most campgrounds was nonexistent or spotty. “When they first started out they used consumer-level, homeowner solutions,” said Michael Sullivan, an Apple certified support professional and owner of MPS Consulting. “They put the router in the clubhouse, or the laundry room, or some other ‘central location’.” RVers requiring the internet learned to ask where the signal was strongest when checking in, and then selected the nearest campsite. “You’d put up with being next to the laundromat just so you’d have a good wifi signal, or you had to walk over with your laptop and sit there,” said Sullivan.

“There were a couple of problems with the campground wifi setup,” he explained. “Obviously, the range—the further you’d get out, the slower it would be, if you got a connection at all. And the consumer level units providing the signal were a combination of router and wireless device all in one box that wouldn’t give very good partitioning.” Each user on the network was visible to all. “You could look at your neighbor’s dirty laundry very easily,” he laughed, “especially if they have their computer set up for guest sharing. You’d be able to print to their printer if they had one! That would be really funny.”

Campground owners have recently wised up and learned from commercial hotels. “Mid range hotels provide reliable free internet, and they realize the better it is, the more likely you are to stay with them,” said Sullivan. “The campgrounds are just now figuring this out. They know wifi is a major pull. A high speed, high bandwidth connection is the new swimming pool.”

Look for higher-end campgrounds that have installed professional level equipment; meaning, a wifi controller box in a central location with a wire loop running throughout the grounds with a series of WAPs—wireless access points—broadcasting out. “Instead of one antenna, you have a whole series of antennas throughout the property,” said Sullivan. “So you could be parked way out on the end or wherever you liked, and still get a strong signal and high bandwidth.”

“Another problem with consumer level units is that they’re only meant to support a small number of wifi connections before there’s a great degradation in quality of the signal,” he continued. “Often times if you exceed the number of people, the wifi unit kind of freezes. The manager had to unplug it—knocking everyone off—plug it back in, and then everyone can get back in the pool…until it exceeds the quantity again, over and over. The commercial ones don’t tend to do that; they’re better controlled and better partitioned, with better security, and better availability. They don’t tend to croak.”

Another good thing: professional equipment usually comes with a maintenance contract. “If somebody has a problem, they call an 800 number instead of the poor hapless guy running the KOA who might be really good at cleaning pools and maintaining the site, but with the internet, not so much,” Sullivan said. “Now you can get a guy on the other end who will be able to remotely see what’s going on with your system and fix it for you, or troubleshoot the problem.”

Sullivan’s consulting business is located in a town popular for it’s outdoor recreation. “We have a lot of clients that we do tech support for that say ‘do you mind, I’m not in a traditional house, I’m not in a traditional business, I’m in an Airstream’ halfway to nowhere,” he said. “Do you mind dropping in on us? I say ‘no, we live for that!’”

“You see somebody with a really nice Airstream, and pulling it is a really nice rig — that’s somebody that wants to be taken care of in the same way as somebody living in a really nice house,” Sullivan said. “That’s our market—we take care of these people. And the mobile market is growing.”

“It seems like every mammalian species out there has an iPad or iPhone,” he joked. “Everybody wants to be mobile, and everybody wants to be able to take care of business while they are lounging about at their cabin, or in their RV. It’s getting harder and harder to cut the cord, so to speak; to say “I’m going on vacation and I’m not turning on my cell phone or device.”

“We’ve even snowshoed to a client, with our equipment in a backpack,” he said.

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.