Battery Storage

Reader Jim L. wants to know:

“How is it best to handle batteries on the winter? Do I take them out? Store in my cold garage? Do I put a charge on them all winter to keep from freezing? Do I add water in the winter when they are not used? Do I store them on wood rather than concrete? HELP!! Before cold winter comes to Tennessee.”

Thanks for asking, Jim. It’s that time of year for many Airstreamers to think about winter storage. From your question, we’ll assume you don’t have an electrical outlet near where you keep your Airstream during the cold months.

In this case the best approach is to remove the batteries from the trailer and store them somewhere that you can keep them plugged into a device designed specifically to maintain batteries. We’re not talking about a typical battery charger here, but a dedicated battery maintainer. You can keep the batteries hooked up to a charge maintainer all winter without fear of overcharging. They are easily found in auto parts stores or online.

battery

You should add distilled water to the batteries anytime they need it (after first disconnecting the charge maintainer). The water will mix with the electrolyte in the batteries and won’t freeze as long as the battery is kept charged.

The stories you may have heard about storing batteries on wood instead of concrete are old myths based on batteries made in the olden days. You can read much more about winterization, batteries, and proper maintenance procedures in The (Nearly) Complete Guide To Airstream Maintenance.

battery-cover

 

Options for preserving your Airstream batteries during storage

Ed B. from Washington posed a question that might be on your mind, too—

“I’m wondering about replacing the factory converter/charger unit with a ‘smart charger’. Battery management seems to be my problem just now. When in storage, the batteries go down to zip or overcharge, both of which are hard on the batteries. We have no problems while underway.

I tried putting a small charger unit on the batteries while in storage, but the small constant draw seems to fool the charger in to delivering full charge all the time without activating a trickle delivery as it is designed to do. Is this why Airstream has not put ‘smart charging’ units in at the factory?”

The converter/charger that Airstream installs works very well for the vast majority of cases. It is perfectly adequate unless you (a) want integrated inverter capability; (b) switch to AGM or other type of batteries; (c) want a faster charge rate, or some bells & whistles; (d) add a lot more battery capacity.

Before you spend money on an upgrade, try a few other basic steps:

Battery disconnect1. During short term storage, use the “Battery Disconnect” switch to cut off demands on the battery (except the propane leak detector).

2. During long term storage, disconnect the battery cables and put the trickle charger on. Make sure what you have is really a smart trickle charger designed specifically for storage of batteries and not simply a battery charger with a “float mode”. If the latter, then all you’ve done is replace your Airstream’s charger with another one that is doing exactly the same thing.

3. As an option, if your Airstream is stored outside, consider a solar panel and solar charge controller. A 100 watt panel would be plenty to keep your battery happy under average conditions.

4. Make sure you are maintaining the water level in the batteries during storage. Consider switching to AGM batteries. These will not “boil off” (lose water) during charging cycles so you don’t have to check the water level during storage, and they last longer.

5. If you have the ability to measure current draw on the battery while the trailer is stored and the Battery Disconnect is switch to “STORE”, do so. Parasitic draw may account for up to half an amp, but if it’s higher than that you have a voltage leak or device that isn’t working properly, and that will kill the battery pretty quickly.

Use It or Lose It

If you live in the north, it’s a sad day when you’ve got to put your Airstream to bed for the winter season. When campgrounds in your area start to close, or you see frost in the morning, or the forecast starts to dip close to freezing, it’s time to get the Airstream ready for colder temperatures and a period of non-use.

A good winterizing procedure will protect your Airstream against damage from freezing, but there are no absolute guarantees that everything will be perfect in the spring. Stuff happens when you aren’t looking, so I always recommend that people take a few minutes to inspect their Airstream during any long period of storage.

Snow Airstream

What can happen during storage? A slowly-melting blanket of snow atop the roof will severely challenge the waterproofness of everything on the roof, even spots that didn’t leak in the last gentle rain. Rodents can move in, and cause extensive damage by chewing wires, tunneling through the insulation, making nests, and leaving smelly urine stains. Batteries that aren’t maintained with a full charge can lose a lot of their useful lifespan. Smoke detector batteries can go flat and you won’t hear the audible “chirp” warning.

Fortunately, all of these problems are easily avoided with just a quick check during the storage season—and it doesn’t have to be a tedious chore. Your Airstream makes a great getaway even when it’s not going anywhere beyond your driveway or storage lot.

Think about it: your Airstream is a great home away from home, but it’s also a great clubhouse, den, man cave, study, music room, or escape from the in-laws. All you need is some power (either an extension cord, solar panels, or a generator) and propane, and you’ve got the perfect place for a little “staycation.”

An Airstream in winter storage is a dark, cold, and uninviting place, but in just a few minutes you can transform it to a welcoming vacation “cabin”. Turn on the heat and lights, set out some cozy blankets, pop on some slippers and make the place come alive while you relish the peace and quiet (or enjoy the company of a friend). Bring a book or a DVD, or something easy to cook on the stove, and something to drink.

Yes, if the Airstream is winterized you can’t use the plumbing, but you’ve still got lights, heat, TV to watch the football game or a movie, stereo to listen to music, microwave (if plugged into 30-amp power) to re-heat the pizza or nachos, refrigerator for cold drinks, freezer for ice cream—and best of all, blessed privacy. It’s the ideal place for a break, to find some quiet for reading, take a nap, or just to clear your head after a long week.

Game in Airstream
Play a board game in the Airstream in winter

One of my favorite things to do in the Airstream is put on a favorite old movie and then browse maps and guidebooks looking for new ideas for the next trip. There’s no more inspirational place to plan new adventures than in the comfort of your Airstream.

With nowhere to go, you’ll have time to think about what you’d like to do next and what you can do to improve the Airstream. You can bring a pad of paper and make notes on items you want to pack for the next trip, and things to bring for your next little getaway during the storage season.

This is also the best and easiest way to maintain your Airstream. Airstreams are happiest when they are being used. You’ll easily spot little things that need attention before they become bigger and more expensive problems. Spending a little time with your Airstream will make you feel better, like a mini-vacation, and may well extend its life too. It’s good for the Airstream and it’s good for you.

– by Rich Luhr

For more tips on easy maintenance you can do yourself, check out Airstream Life’s (Nearly) Complete Guide to Airstream Maintenance, available at Amazon.com and the Airstream Life Store. With over 200 pages of tips and techniques, it’s an indispensable guide for every Airstreamer.

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.