There are some upgrades you do because they solve a problem you already have, and other upgrades you do because you want to avoid a potential problem. The SmartPlug probably falls in the latter camp for most new Airstream owners.
The reason is that the standard electrical inlet on the side of every Airstream is pretty good. Problems like melted plugs, worn-out prongs, corrosion, and loose plug heads generally only crop up after years of use—or under challenging conditions.
But it’s the peak of summer now, and many of us are camping with the air conditioner cranked up all day long. That’s when your power cord and inlet are being strained to their utmost.
When a problem happens and you lose power on a humid day in the 90s, it’s little consolation while you’re sweltering to know that a better replacement can be added…tomorrow. So if you are the type who likes to get ahead of a potential problem, the SmartPlug is for you.
This is basically an industrial-grade replacement to the inlet that came with your Airstream. It has twenty times the electrical contact area, which means it is much less likely to get hot when the electrons are flowing at maximum. That’s its big claim to fame, because heat build-up at the plug and inlet is the cause of melted plugs.
The larger contact area for the plug means a better electrical connection, and less susceptibility to the effects of corrosion. (If you haven’t inspected and cleaned the plugs on your Airstream’s power inlet and power cord, you should soon. There’s a kit on the Airstream Life Store specifically for this purpose. Corrosion causes problems.)
There are other nice features of the SmartPlug inlet, such a blue LED that shows when there’s power, and a nice self-locking mechanism that secures the plug in place, but our big concern when considering this review was the difficulty of installing it. We figure many Airstreamers won’t want to do the upgrade if they have to pay a technician to install it, so we obtained a SmartPlug to try it out.
The instructions that come with the SmartPlug were obviously written for boaters (this was originally a marine product, which is why weatherproofing is a big selling point too). But the instructions apply equally to an Airstream.
Basically you just remove the four screws holding the inlet in place, pull it out, unscrew the three wire attachments, and then replace with the SmartPlug using the same four screws. There’s no sealant required because it comes with a gasket, and the only tool you need is a screwdriver.
We encountered a problem initially because the original inlet wouldn’t come out. It turned out that during assembly Airstream sealed the backside of it with a huge circle of sealant, which was gluing the inlet into place. We obtained access to the inside by removing some drawers, peeled off the sealant by hand, and from there the installation was easy.
Attaching the wires to the SmartPlug is easy. They are color-coded (black, white, green) so even a non-electrician can connect them correctly. The wires just slip into sleeves are locked into place with an Allen wrench that is supplied with the kit. No wire cutting or stripping is necessary unless the wires are damaged. Our installation was done in about 45 minutes, of which 15 minutes were spent figuring out the mystery of the sealant on the inside.
It’s clear from handling the inlet that it’s a quality product. Even though you’ll never see the interior portion of the inlet once it’s installed, it was obviously designed by someone who wanted it to be functional and look every bit worth the price. The plastic casing on the inside is thick and nicely crafted.
The exterior is pretty snappy too, if you go for the stainless steel model. SmartPlug does offer plastic versions for the white box RV and marine markets, but we’d strongly recommend going for the stainless. It just looks great on your Airstream, and it will probably last much longer.
Plugging in is a little easier with SmartPlug. You just push the plug straight in, without twisting like the original inlet. When you plug in, two springs catch the plug and lock it into place. The stainless steel outlet cover also snaps down to grab the cord on top. Weather seals ensure that moisture won’t get in, which is important for long term prevention of corrosion.
Overall, we like the SmartPlug. The only downside we can see of this upgrade is that it is a little expensive, running around $190 to 250 in the Airstream Life Store, depending on whether you have 30-amp or 50-amp, and whether you choose the factory molded cord or modify your existing cord.
Unquestionably it’s a solid upgrade, so the decision whether to go for it really depends on how much you rely on shore power, and how much you would like to avoid a power problem in the future.