Hot weather travel tips

Maybe it’s because I’m in Arizona right now and the temperatures are already hitting the nineties every day, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about summer travel. For the most part it’s fun to plan where we will go and think about the great things we’ll see, but for us, traveling in the summer is a necessity in order to escape the unrelenting southern Arizona heat.

With an Airstream it’s usually easy to get out of the heat—after all, we have wheels—but there are times when it’s inescapable for a few days, like when we are crossing the Great Plains states on our way to Alumapalooza in late May. Many times we’ve been crossing Kansas or Oklahoma or Missouri and we’ve been nearly steamed to death in what the meteorologists call “oppressive humidity.”

So even if you plan to drive away from the heat, you need strategies ready in case the heat follows you. Here are a few of the things we’ve learned over the years:

First off, if you have delicate pets or humans traveling with you, don’t mess around: get a campground with 30-amp or 50-amp power and plug in. This may necessitate a change in plans and you might end up somewhere you don’t want to be, but the blessing of cool air blowing in from the A/C will make it all worthwhile.

I find that a lot people are surprised to discover the limitations of a single air conditioner on a 30-amp plug. If you’ve got a newer Airstream with dual air conditioners (and a 50-amp plug) you can deal with just about any level of heat. But a single A/C definitely has limits. The A/C will generally cool the incoming air by about 20 degrees, but that doesn’t mean your trailer will be 20 degrees cooler if it’s sitting in the sun. In our 30-footer, for example, a sunny 100-degree day means we’ll experience indoor temperatures in the low 80s, at least until the sun goes down.

So it’s useful to park in shaded campsites, preferably not in asphalt parking lots (green surroundings = cooler air), and be realistic in your expectations. If the trailer is over 100 degrees inside when you arrive, it’s going to take a while before the air conditioner can remove all the latent heat that is stored in every object in the interior.

To cope, try to spend the few couple of hours somewhere else (like a restaurant or visitor center) while the air conditioner does its job. Don’t even dream of using the stove or oven—the burners can output much more heat than the air conditioner can remove. If you have a microwave use it instead, or go out for dinner, or cook outside, or eat a cold dinner.

The keys to surviving a night in the heat are water and electricity:

Water, because you need to stay hydrated and a quick cool shower once or twice a day will go a long way toward keeping your body comfortable. In desert boondocking situations you can even soak towels and place them strategically around the trailer for evaporative cooling. We bring a few gallons of extra drinking water when we’re heading into a boondocking site in the summer.

Electricity, because you’ll use a lot more battery power than usual with the vent fans running constantly. A single Fantastic Vent (the kind installed as original equipment in Airstreams including motorhomes) might draw about an amp of power, which isn’t much for short durations. But with two of those fans running around the clock for a weekend, you’re looking at something in the region of 90 amp-hours, which is going to overwhelm the typical 2-battery setup in an Airstream trailer. You’ll need solar panels or a generator, and/or a much larger set of batteries.

 

The Zip Dee awning that came with your Airstream trailer (or the equivalent awning on a Nest, Basecamp, or Interstate) can make a big difference if it’s on the south or west side when you park. Definitely deploy the awning as much as you can to shade that side of the rig.

A Zip Dee Solar Shade is a huge help too, when the sun is beating down on that side of the trailer, especially when the entry door is facing west.  The Solar Shade broadens the shady patch in the afternoon, when it really matters, and gives you a nice outdoor space that you otherwise wouldn’t enjoy on a hot day.

In an Interstate motorhome, you may find that the Mercedes dashboard air conditioning isn’t quite enough when traveling on the highway on a 100+ degree day, especially for any back-seat passengers. Sometimes you need to fire up the onboard generator so that you can run the roof air conditioner as you go. It might seem weird but it’s OK to do this.

When you’re parked, you will probably discover that you don’t need to turn on the water heater. Often the fresh water hose lying in the sun, combined with warm water in the tank, will be plenty warm for showers. But there’s a downside to this: not all water hoses are rated for “hot water” use. Cheap-o hoses made of PVC or other plastics may leach chemicals when laying in the sun all day filled with hot water. That’s why we switched to drinking water hoses that are rated for hot water use.

Keep an eye on your refrigerator as well. Often, RV refrigerators don’t have great ventilation and so heat can build up in the refrigerator compartment (the space behind the refrigerator). When the air temperature around the refrigerator’s cooling fins approaches 100 degrees—which is very common in the enclosed compartment, even when the outside temp is much lower— the result is warm food in the refrigerator.

To combat this, keep the fridge door closed, and if you need to get something be sure to get it quickly. It’s not like your home refrigerator that has a big compressor and can recover its coolness in a few minutes. Each time you open that door it can take hours to recover fully on a hot day.

Also get a wireless temperature monitor so you can check the interior temp without opening the door. You can get two of them and monitor the freezer as well, but I’ll tell you right now that if the fridge starts to climb above 50 degrees, whatever is on the door of the freezer will probably start to defrost. (Pack your ice cream and seafood in the back.) These wireless monitors are available from many sources and they’re not expensive.

If you camp in hot weather a lot, with or without air conditioning, consider having a set of electric fans installed in the chimney of the refrigerator compartment. These things are amazingly effective at moving the hot air out of the fridge compartment to help the refrigerator cool down. We switch our fans on every day that the outside temperature is above 85 degrees. Some Airstreams come with those fans, but most don’t, and I think they’re a must for serious summer travelers. We’re going to work on a kit for the Airstream Life Store later specifically to solve this problem.

Finally, as you travel on hot days you need to be extra aware of the condition of your tires. They are much more susceptible to problems and wear on hot days. When the air is 95 degrees Fahrenheit, the highway surface can easily be 120+, and the air inside the tires will often exceed 140 degrees at highway speeds. That’s brutal on tires and it shortens their life.

This is just one of several reasons I strongly recommend a good tire pressure/temperature monitoring system. Blowouts and other failures are far more likely on hot days, and you want to know right away if something goes wrong before it does additional damage. If you don’t have a tire pressure monitoring system you should make a habit of visually inspecting all the tires at every stop, and checking air pressure frequently.

AC Maintenance

Feeling hot in your Airstream? The quality of cooling you get from your rooftop air conditioner depends a lot on what you do. In normal operation, the air conditioner can produce air that’s about 18 to 22 degrees cooler than what goes into it. That means if the interior of the Airstream is 100 degrees, 80-degree output air is about the best you can expect initially. As the air recirculates, the temperature of the output air will drop. To get the best cooling, do what you can to park in shade, and follow these tips:

Insulate

Close curtains, shades, and blinds. Put insulation to your windows, vent fans and skylights. The “bubble wrap” type of insulation with silver coating works well and can be cut to fit.

Seek shade

If you can’t park in shade, try to park on gravel or grass. Put out your patio awning and window awnings if you have them.

Stay cool

Cook outdoors or use the microwave oven to avoid adding heat to the trailer. Limit use of incandescent lights—each one of them is like a little 10-watt heater.

Monitor voltage

“The best thing you can do for the long life of your air conditioner is to feed it the proper electrical voltage,” said Rich Luhr, author of Airstream Life’s (Nearly) Complete Guide To Airstream Maintenance. “Low voltage is bad news for the compressor.” Don’t expect your air conditioner to start with less than 103.5 volts, and running it on a day when the campground voltage is less than 108 volts is risky.

It only takes a short “brown out” to drop the voltage below a safe level and cause damage, and it can happen while you aren’t looking. This is one reason why you should have an AC voltage monitor somewhere in your Airstream, or an electrical protection device that cuts off the power when the voltage is too low.

Even newer campgrounds can have voltage problems. If it’s a hot, humid day and everyone is running their air conditioning full blast, be wary and check the voltage. Likewise, don’t run your air conditioner on a household extension cord or a household 15-amp outlet because that will add to the risk of low voltage.

Maintenance matters

Don’t use an extension cord rated for less than 30 amps (50 amps for Airstreams with two air conditioners), and never use a household (15-amp) outlet. Keep filters, condenser fins, and all other parts clean. “The last two tips are the ones people ignore the most, and that’s a shame because they are really the most important,” writes Luhr.

To maximize the efficiency of the air conditioner, clean dust off the filters regularly. Dust builds up quickly and can severely reduce the amount of cool air you get. Also, dirty filters cut down the amount of air that can circulate and will encourage frost to form on the cooling coil, which means the air conditioner is more likely to ice up.

Depending on the model of air conditioner you may have two knobs and then two screws to drop the shroud (older style), a pair of surface-mounted plastic vents with tabs to release, or a pair of small filters that can be slid out from the front.

Airstreams with ducted air (25-foot and longer trailers starting with model year 2015) have filters located above the return air grills in the ceiling. Replacement filters are available from Airstream dealers, part #382236.

To remove the return air grill on a trailer with ducted air conditioning, just pry it out with a non-marring tool at the short edges of the screen. The filter lies atop the grill.

While you’ve got the filters out, look inside for excessive dust, bugs, cobwebs, or other debris. You can vacuum this out with a brush attachment. Most filters are washable, so you only need to replace them when they can’t be cleaned or when they get torn.

View from the top

If you want to go further, take a look at the air conditioner from the roof. First, remove the shroud (just a few screws) in order to get a good look at the condenser fins and compressor coils. You can spray the fins with a water hose or compressed air, from the inside out, to clean them up, and bend the fins straight again. There’s a tool called a “fin comb” that can be used for this. Check for mold, wasp nests, and dirt, and clean everything.

If you suspect problems with the air conditioner, it’s probably best to take it to an RV technician. The tech will compare the incoming air temperature to the outgoing air temperature (the “temperature delta”) to see how well the unit is cooling. Other checks include a more thorough inspection of the components, checking the amperage draw, inspecting the condensate drain, the condition of the roof pan and mounting bolts, and perhaps oiling the fan motor.

For more about air conditioning and other invaluable maintenance tips, order your copy of Airstream Life’s (Nearly) Complete Guide To Airstream Maintenance. “Maintenance of your Airstream is not nearly as difficult as most people think, and with just a few basic tools and this guide, you can do almost every routine task yourself,” states author Luhr. “No more trips to the service center for every little thing, and you might even find that this book saves one of your vacations, if something goes wrong on the road!”