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.

Newbies Tool Kit

Airstream maintenance might seem like something only an RV technician can do, but most routine maintenance isn’t hard, especially if you have the right tools to get the job done. Almost anyone can do the basics with a little instruction.

Naturally, the tools you need depend on the jobs you are willing to take on. For most tasks you can get by very comfortably with just a few tools. You should have a small collection of tools and parts that stay in the Airstream to deal with on-the-road problems. Consider carrying the parts and tools needed to do common maintenance like:

  • change a tire
  • replace a fuse or light bulb
  • disconnect / re-connect the battery
  • clean up corrosion
  • detect a gas leak and tighten a gas connection
  • remove and replace a rivet
  • tighten a loose screw
  • test a power outlet
  • fix a simple plumbing fixture leak
  • stop a rainwater leak
  • lubricate hinges, latches, and hitch

Surprisingly, you don’t need a ton of fancy tools to do those jobs. Most of them are readily found in hardware stores.

Probably the most useful (and expensive) tool you might need is a cordless drill. Get a powerful one, 18 volts or better. Obviously it’s great for drilling holes if you need to install a new hook somewhere, but you will end up using it the most to raise and lower the stabilizers on your trailer. (You’ll need a socket adapter and the correct size of socket.) This turns a tedious chore into a 30 second non-event. You will appreciate this the first time you set up or break camp in a heavy rain.

The cordless drill is essential for drilling out broken rivets so you can install replacements, so you’ll want a set of drill bits as well. The usual size drill for an interior rivet in an Airstream is #30, or 1/8” but you should get a set that ranges from 1/16” to 1/4”. 

With a small set of screw bits, your cordless drill can also be used as a high-speed, high-power cordless screwdriver. Owners who have equipped their Airstream with either a Hensley Arrow or Pro-Pride 3P hitch can also use a cordless drill with the 3/4” socket and socket adapter to run their weight distribution bars up and down.

The only other expensive tool you need for maintenance is a good torque wrench (and a 10″ extension & socket), so you can be sure you’ve got the lug nuts tightened properly when you change a tire. (Or a complete Tire Changing Kit.)

The rest of the tools most people need are pretty simple and not terribly expensive, even the rivet tool used to replace pop rivets.

If you travel for long periods, or if you’ve got an older Airstream, then you’ll want more stuff. The trick is not knowing what to bring, it’s knowing when to stop packing tools. Turning your tow vehicle into a rolling tool box is overkill, and can even be dangerous if you are overloading it with heavy tools you won’t need.

On a long expedition, it might make sense to carry a hard-to-find tool or part, if it’s light or small, but there’s a point at which it makes more sense to find a service center—or just buy the part when you actually need it. This is a judgement call.

You should be prepared for anything that might seriously disrupt a trip and is easily repairable on the road, such as problems with tires, electricity, gas leaks, and water leaks. It’s really frustrating to be somewhere wonderfully remote, like Big Bend National Park in Texas, or the north rim of Grand Canyon, and find you have power problems because of a simple bad ground caused by corrosion—but be forced to leave because you don’t have the tools to find and fix it.

Here are a few more suggestions of basic tools and supplies you should consider carrying in your Airstream or tow vehicle at all times:

Tools for changing a tire. Airstreams don’t come with tire changing equipment or instructions, and the ones for your tow vehicle won’t work. Our kit includes everything you need, such as torque wrench, tire pressure gauge, a high-visibility vest, instructions, and more.

Silicone Spray
Silicone Spray

Silicone spray. Dozens of sticky areas on your Airstream can benefit from a squirt of silicone spray: the awning, hinges, locks, stabilizers, vent seals, window seals, and more.

Hitch ball lube or grease. No one likes a squeaky hitch. Use a heavy-duty grease.

Headlamp. Go hands-free while making repairs, manipulating parts, or searching through supplies.

First Aid kit. Only the Interstate comes with a first aid kit. Buy a pre-assembled kit, or make your own, and be sure it has more than just a few Band-Aids.

voltage monitor
Voltage Monitor

Voltage monitor. Low voltage kills air conditioners. Plug it into any interior outlet while you’re hooked to shore power and make sure the voltage is at least 114 when the air conditioner or microwave are running.

Screwdriver set, or combination screwdriver. Did you know that Phillips screws are the most common in Airstream trailers? Stock a couple of sizes, and medium, small and “stubby” flat heads too. One space-saving combination screwdriver provides all you’ll need.

Tape. Pack Teflon plumber’s tape (PTFE), useful for stopping leaks on threaded fittings (choose the blue “Monster” brand), and a small selection of other specialty tapes: electrical, duct, and/or masking as needed. Some available in silver.

Screws
Screws

A few screws, especially #8 and #10 wood screws for replacing lost screws in furniture and wall attachments. (Some wood glue wouldn’t hurt, either.) Look for an assortment of stainless screws in the boat store.

Rivet gun, and a small handful of aluminum POP rivets: 1/8” aluminum POP rivets (grip range 1/8” —1/4”) for the interior; 3/16” aluminum large flange POP rivets (grip range 1/8”—1/4”) for the belly pan. Replacing POP rivets is easy. Seriously. You can find a top quality rivet gun at store.airstreamlife.com, with instructions on how to use it.

Heavy duty scissors. You’ll find many uses for strong kitchen or utility-style shears, or a retractable safety knife.

Rubber hose washers for fresh water hoses that leak at the fittings.

Wrenches & Pliers
Wrenches & Pliers

Wrenches and pliers. Carry a small selection for tightening gas fittings, removing drain plugs, and more. Start with a single adjustable wrench and ordinary pliers, and then add more if you see the need.

Spare incandescent bulbs for interior lighting, brake and turn signals, and clearance lights. If you’ve got a newer Airstream with full LED lighting, you don’t need to carry spares. Some of the LEDs are replaced as whole fixtures rather than bulbs.

Fuses
Fuses

Fuses. Assorted 12v automotive-style blade fuses are handy, primarily the yellow 20-amp and green 30-amp fuses. (Check your power converter to see what ratings your trailer requires.)

Sandpaper, emery cloth or a small burnishing tool to remove corrosion on wires.

Electrical tools. Wire stripper/cutter, red and blue butt splices, electrical tape, and butt splice crimping tool—if you might occasionally modify or repair 12-volt wiring.

Old beach towel. Those who’ve read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy know that a towel is about the most massively useful thing you can have—and the best value tool you’ll ever carry in your Airstream. Use it for a pad when kneeling by or laying under the trailer, cleaning dirty hoses and cords, drying tools, etc.

Be seen!

“I don’t think Airstreams come with enough reflectors to be safe,” said John Irwin, seminar presenter at a recent Alumaevent. “One night I went to a meeting in my neighborhood, when my Airstream was parked in front of my house. Afterwards, I walked up the street towards the trailer and I realized that I couldn’t see it at night very well. So one of the first things I did with my new trailer was to increase the amount of reflective surface.”

Irwin—an Airstream Life contributor since the magazine began in 2004—is known for designing clever modifications that you can apply to your own factory-issue Airstream to make it safer and more convenient. Many are easy and affordable, and the following tips will keep you and your trailer more visible on the road and at your campsite.

Stick ‘em up.

Airstream reflectors“If you look at any 18-wheeler on the road you’ll find that they’re bedecked with red and white reflective markers,” said Irwin, who recommends affixing the same type of strips to your trailer as he uses on his third Airstream, a 2005 28-foot Classic.

“The Classic with the pull out drawer in the back is perfect for those,” he said, as the height of the bumper is precisely the same as a standard reflectors that you can buy at any auto parts store. The package usually contains three reflectors; peel and stick two to your bumper and get creative with the third one. “I cut that up in pieces and put the white portions on the front of the trailer and banana wrap, and the red ones on the back of the trailer,” said Irwin

“This has a nice side effect,” he said. “When we’re at a rally and we’re walking back at night, you can spot your trailer a mile away with a flashlight. Virtually everyone in our (WBCCI) Unit has additional reflectors on their Airstream.”

Convert to LED taillights.

Most recent Airstreams are installed with LED taillights, but if you don’t have them, Irwin suggests converting from incandescents to deter rear-end accidents. “LEDs are much safer at sundown,” he explained. “They can be seen with sun on the back of the trailer.”

Conversion kits are available for most Airstreams, but if you can’t find one for your model it’s easy to MacGyver a solution. “Get on the internet with somebody like LED4RV and start a conversation,” suggests Irwin. “They can most certainly come up with a way to convert your taillights to LED. They’ll be eager to work with you, and it gives them something new to sell to customers.”

Fire up your clearance lights.

“If you’re broken down by the highway somewhere, it’s a good idea to light up your trailer, particularly if a tow vehicle has to be unhitched and taken away for repair,” said Irwin, who recommends purchasing an inexpensive old-style clearance light blinker at any auto parts store. “Back in the old days before cars were computerized there were little blinker units that you can still plug in to your umbilical cord to make your lights blink,” he said. (Be aware that running the clearance lights all night without being connected to power will run down the battery.)

Travel with a safety cone—or two, or three.

Safety Cones - IrwinReflector Triangle - IrwinDistracted or sleepy drivers often hit disabled vehicles on the shoulder of the road, so carry several warning devices to place behind your parked or broken-down rig. Traffic cones—including space-saving collapsible models—are easy to purchase online and at hardware and RV parts stores. “I have three of them,” said Irwin. “They actually come in handy for a lot of things; put one by your ProPride hitch stinger to keep your friends from tripping over it, or set up cones by a hazard at an RV park or rally.”

“Even in the smallest Airstream you can have a few reflector triangles,” he said. “They don’t take up a lot of space, and they don’t cost too much money.” You might need to weigh them down with a wrench or rock to secure them against the wind from passing traffic. (Irwin suggests bean bags.)

“Invest in a really good LED flashlight,

and expect to pay forty dollars or more for it,” said Irwin. “You need a good light, and be able to get your hands on it when you need it.” It will always be accessible if you do what he did: screw the canvas case your flashlight came in to a wall inside a cabinet in your Airstream.

Blinky gadgets

TurboflareIrwin uses various emergency lights—like the flashy rotating Turboflare—for safety and misadventures. “I like to keep a light inside the trailer between the curtain and the back window,” he said. “It really makes the trailer show up to any traffic that’s coming down the street. Let it run all night.” Continuous lights inside give an unoccupied Airstream a lived-in look.

Double trouble

“Everybody—all my kids, all my grandkids—keep giving me LED lights,” Irwin laughed. “I have several LED trouble lights that I’ve collected over the years.” Trouble lights come in various nifty configurations and usually have a hook for hanging. “They are really nice if you have to change a tire or something like that at night,” said Irwin. “Those lights are worth their weight in gold.”

Check all gadgets once a year to ensure that the batteries are viable.

Try this old Army trick: when the device isn’t in use, flip the batteries around backwards (reversing the plus/minus direction) to prolong their life.

Electronic Security Tips

Airstreamers are becoming more and more dependent on the wonderful mobile devices that save us time and precious space inside our aluminum homes—and that’s a compelling reason to take a hard look at electronic security and backup options.

“I don’t want to be a bummer here, folks,” said Rich Luhr to his seminar audience at Alumafiesta, “but if you have a lot of data on your phone, or your laptop, or your tablet, it’s time to get serious about securing your devices and backing them up against failure.”

Luhr, Editor and Publisher of Airstream Life, offers the following smart tips. (Warning—reader discretion is advised. Until you adopt these measures, you might have trouble sleeping at night.)

There’s an app for that.

If you own an iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, or Mac, download “Find My iPhone”,  free from the app store. (Similar apps are available for Android devices.) If you misplace any of these devices, use this app on another device to locate the one that’s missing— or protect your data by remotely locking it, or even erasing all of its data. “Lost Mode” locks your missing device with a passcode and can display a custom message and contact phone number right on the screen—and you can keep track of where it’s been.

Basic rule #1: Password protect everything.

If you leave your machine on “sleep” without securing it with a password, someone, anyone, can wake it up and start snooping—or stealing. “Password protect all your devices, and don’t use the same password for every device or every service you use,” advised Luhr.

Get serious about regular backups.

“How many people are willing to admit you don’t back up your computer?” asked Luhr. (You know who you are.) “You need to get on a regular routine. A hard drive failure on the road is one of the worst things that can happen to you. You’ll be using the computer and suddenly the hard drive starts making a funny noise, and twenty minutes later it’s gone. Hard drives fail. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.” You’re at particular risk if your computer is more than three or four years old. The time to back it up is now.

Consider carrying a portable hard drive in your Airstream for every computer you own, and run backups on a regular basis while you travel. At home, keep a second set of backup drives in a fireproof safe. “If your Airstream burns to the ground and you lose your laptop and backup, you’ll have files to restore, safe at home,” said Luhr. “Think about all the thousands of photos you’ve taken over the years, or that people have sent you—pictures of your grandchildren—images you could lose and never get back. Have one backup with you, and one away from you.”

Mac users, try Carbon Copy Cloner or use the built-in Time Machine backup utility. Backup before every trip, and often even when you aren’t traveling.

Your compromising data is already out there.

And no, we’re not talking about those nekkid pictures, either—your email inbox is filled with far worse. “All your old email is archived unless you actively delete it,” said Luhr. “When the wrong people get ahold of your email they start skimming through it; that’s the first thing they do when they steal a laptop,” he said. “They’re looking for passwords, log in IDs, social security numbers—anything that you’ve emailed or might have been emailed back to you that can be used to break into your accounts. If they can break into one, sometimes they use that to break into another, and it becomes a cascade.”

Luhr told the terrifying tale of someone who lost his computer—and nearly his identity. Using data found only in email, hackers entered his Amazon account and leapfrogged from there to find credentials, codes, recovery passwords and Apple ID. Eventually they even wiped his hard drive by remote control. “Everything went out the window,” said Luhr, “including irreplaceable photos of his daughter when she was first born.”

Encrypt your hard drive.

Meaning, you’ll set a password for your computer, and need to type it to unlock it every time you use it. “This takes you just a second,” said Luhr. “It’s simple. If somebody steals your laptop or hard drive, they can’t crack it.” Consider using full disk encryption on your laptop if your job depends on it.

Be cautious about public wifi networks.

“I don’t like ‘em,” said Luhr. “I think if you have the choice of your own cellular connection—your phone’s ‘personal hotspot’, MiFi, or Jetpack—that’s a far safer way to do anything online. Public wifi can be hacked.”

If you do use one, make sure it’s one you know; your KOA-supplied connection is safer than the dreaded “free public wifi”. If you see that in your connection drop down menu, “run away,” cautioned Luhr. “That’s what hackers use as their ID to try to get you to join it.”

Sadly, it’s no longer safe to use the computers in a cyber cafe or hotel business center, either. “Unless you’re just printing, do not use any public or borrowed computer for any site that requires login. It’s not worth it,” said Luhr. “That computer could be compromised in so many different ways. We all have our own computers now. Don’t use any other unless it’s an absolute emergency.”

The next big thing: Two-step authentication

“Passwords are becoming passé,” said Luhr. “They’re not enough anymore.” For one thing, they’re too easy to guess—the most popular choice is still “password”, followed by the equally lame “123456”—and even a word that’s special to you is subject to computer-generated “dictionary attack”. “Sooner or later if you’re using a real word—something like ‘airstream’—they’re going to get it,” said Luhr. “It’s just a matter of time.” That’s why you’re likely now building your passwords from a combination of lower case letters, an uppercase letter, numerals, and symbols. (When you choose a new password, keep submitting ideas until its designation moves from “weak” to “strong”.)

“All they need is that one piece of information to eventually get into all your accounts, which is why two-step authorization is a great system for enhancing security,” said Luhr—especially for sensitive sites (like a banking service) that are restricted to absolutely everyone other than you.

It’s simpler than it sounds: two-step requires something you know (like a pet’s name) along with something you have (like your phone or credit card). When you key in your password a site will “know” your computer, but will be suspicious if you log in from another device; you’ll then be required to prove that you know more. A popup alert will announce that a security key—usually a 6-digit code—has been sent your phone number on file; use that code to enter the site you need back on the computer. “That’s a one time confirmation, that proves that I know the password and I’m holding the phone in my hand,” said Luhr.

Once considered overkill, two-step authentication is now becoming commonplace, and only takes a minute to set up. Definitely use it for high-security, financial applications whenever available—and consider it for email, websites, even social media, too. “Any service that offers it does so for a really good reason,” said Luhr. “If they offer it, give it a try—particularly for your email. That’s the biggest security hole that you have, with the most information about you in it.”

“Even social media gets hacked,” said Luhr. “Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—and it only takes one hack for people to get a lot more information about you than you ever thought possible. It’s almost eerie how much information is online these days, even for those of us who don’t go online.”

Get a password manager.

So now you’re fortified—good for you. Every device you own is secure and recently backed up, and all your online accounts are password protected with a different combination of letters, numbers, and symbols. But, c’mon. How are you supposed to remember them all?

“You’re right,” said Luhr. “You’ve got two hundred different passwords, and I’m sorry, but none of us over fifty are going to remember them all. It’s not gonna happen.” And writing them down? That’s a bad idea. “My mother did what a lot of people do: wrote all her passwords down on a big piece of paper and tacked it to a bulletin board, right next to her computer. If somebody broke in and took the list, that would be a disaster. I said ‘Mom, you need to get a password manager’.”

There are several good ones to choose from, and Luhr uses mSecure. “It keeps all your passwords, on your phone, in encrypted form where they can’t be hacked, always with you, in one safe place,” he said. “All you have to do is remember the password for mSecure.” (Of all your passwords, this is one to ensure it’s rated “strong”.)

Log in and tap to look up your passwords and associated handy details, including the URL it belongs to and usernames. The passwords appear as a series of dots, obscured until you’re ready, from prying eyes that may be looking over your shoulder.

“It’s one of the more expensive apps you’ll buy,” said Luhr, “but I strongly recommend it. Think about the cost of the information you have. Data security is the reality of our lives today.”

– By RG Coleman