Watch the voltage!

James H. sent us this excellent question: “The voltage in our current campground is running 107 to 100 volts with my 5 year old Dometic air conditioner running. How low can the voltage go before I risk overheating the compressor?”

Most AC-powered appliances are capable of handling +/- 10% voltage without damage, which means from 108 volts to 132 volts. But, below 108 you’re playing a risky game.

Dometic warns that attempting to start the air conditioner at 103.5 volts or less will result in serious damage to the compressor.

Digital Voltage MeterIn practice, even when the campground voltage is running 108 volts, things can get dicey. That’s because the voltage will fluctuate and could dip much lower when the compressor starts up. One trick you might try is to plug into the 50-amp plug (using an adapter) if the campground power pedestal has both 30- and 50-amp outlets. Sometimes that circuit will have better voltage than the 30-amp one.

Low voltage is a common problem in campgrounds—and that’s why every Airstreamer should have a digital voltage monitor on board.

Airstream AC Interior

 

Top 9 Airstream Accessories

You’ve got a new (or new to you) Airstream—what upgrades should be first on your list? Alumapalooza 7 attendees learned about these favorites from Rich Luhr, author of Airstream Life’s (Nearly) Complete Guide To Airstream Maintenance and Terry Halstead, an ASE certified master mechanic and Airstream factory-trained service tech.

“This is by no means a comprehensive list,” said Luhr. “There’s probably five hundred more things that we could add, and not everything on this list is for everyone. These are just a few great upgrades that you might want think about having, and see if they fit your lifestyle.”

1. A cordless drill

“…so you don’t have to kneel on your hands and knees in the mud to put your stabilizers up and down,” said Halstead. Use it with a Camco 57363 Leveling Scissor Jack Socket, available on Amazon for about $5.

“It’s a really great timesaver.” Luhr agrees. “Whatever brand of drill you choose for this purpose, make sure it’s 18-volt or stronger.”

2. In-line water pressure regulator

In-line water pressure regulator
In-line water pressure regulator

“Airstream trailers come with a built-in pressure regulator, but that does absolutely nothing for the hose,” said Halstead. “This goes on the spigot at the campground to give protection to your hose. I’ve personally been to a couple of campgrounds over the years that have had a horrible amount of pressure. So this little ten dollar device will save your $30 hose.”

[NOTE: If you have our Ultimate Water Hose you won’t need a regulator at all! The Ultimate Water Hose can take up to 360 psi without damage.]

The regulator prevents bursting by reducing what could be 120 psi on the spigot end to about 50 psi on the trailer end— and you won’t further reduce your water pressure inside. “Don’t forget to put this on your checklist so you don’t drive off and leave it at the campsite,” added Halstead.

Another pro tip from Luhr: “Put your water filter on the trailer end of the hose in case the hose itself might be a little bit contaminated.”

3. Range hood LED

Your newer Airstream came with a Baraldi, “the Italian sports car of range hoods,” said Halstead. “They look really great, and they work really great, but they do have one minor thing that could be upgraded”: the lights above the stove are halogen.

Range hood LED
Range hood LED

“Those do two things,” he said: “generate a lot of heat, and use a lot of power.” “Fifteen watts,” added Luhr. “That’s a fair amount for one light when you’re boondocking.” Simply pull out the bulb and replace it with an LED—problem solved. “That will cut your power consumption about 90% off those halogens,” said Halstead. “You can find them in various places online and at RV stores,” said Luhr. “Good LEDs aren’t cheap, and cheap LEDs aren’t worth it. They usually have a very short life. Ten to fifteen bucks is pretty reasonable for a good-quality LED of this type.”

4. Voltage monitor

“These are really simple, and they do a couple of things,” explained Luhr. “Just put it into any outlet in your Airstream when you’re plugged into shore power, and it will tell you the voltage that you’ve got available—which is super important. It’s quite possible that the electrical pedestal at your campsite has a wiring problem, and that can actually be hazardous to your health.”

Voltage Monitor
Voltage Monitor

There’s a reason we need to worry about the voltage coming into our trailers. “We know that it’s supposed to be 120 volts,” Luhr explained. “Rarely is it actually exactly 120 volts; there’s a tolerance. Your appliances are going to be fine plus or minus ten percent.” Drop much below that, though, and you’re at risk of burning out certain appliances—especially your air conditioner.

“Under-voltage is by far more problematic,” said Luhr. “Your air conditioner typically can go down to 105, but when you fire up your air conditioner that big compressor draws more power.” If your voltage meter shows 108 you might be okay, but keep an eye on it as it starts up; if the voltage suddenly drops down near 102 for more than a few seconds, “you’re going to very quickly burn out the motor in your air conditioner and you’ll be facing a big bill, either to fix it or replace the entire unit,” he said.

“You read online sometime, guys who say ‘it’s okay, I run my Airstream off a 15-amp outlet, I do it all the time.’ Well, you can get away with some things, but I don’t recommend playing Russian roulette with your air conditioner, with your plug, with your cord. Watching your voltage is very important, and it doesn’t matter if you’re in a brand-new campground—especially on hot humid days when everybody’s cranking. So this is an item you definitely should have.” On a summer day, leave the meter plugged in and periodically glance at the voltage readout to make sure it doesn’t get below a safe level. The AC compressor could be cycling on and off, and each time it will draw extra power.

5. A rivet tool

“A rivet tool is a surprisingly easy thing to learn how to use,” assures Luhr. “Basically you just stick a rivet in, hold it tight, pop the handle of the tool a few times, and the stem of the rivet breaks off when you’re done. It’s so simple. It’s easier than a screwdriver, honestly.” Halstead said, “That’s actually an advantage of owning an Airstream trailer. The rivets are extremely easy to install.”

Rivet tool
Rivet tool

Do you really need to travel with a rivet tool? Luhr says yes, and here’s why. “Someday there will be a corrosion problem where the aluminum and steel frame meet on your belly pan, and it will rot out around the rivets and fall down and drag on the highway,” he said. “If you don’t have a rivet tool, that’s a major problem. If you have a rivet tool and some aluminum pop rivets it’s only a five-minute problem that you can fix yourself, right there by the side of the road.”

A rivet tool is handy for replacing popped interior rivets as well, and can save you a lot of money. “Missing one or two inside rivets is not a serious problem; it’s actually perfectly normal,” said Luhr (“especially after traveling over rough road,” agreed Halstead). With your handy rivet kit you can solve the issue yourself, no trip to the service bay necessary.

“It’s a no-brainer,” said Luhr. “There are 5000 rivets in the average Airstream. You should probably be able to replace one of them.”

6. A tire changing kit

…is another item Luhr feels strongly about. “Your Airstream did not come with any tools to change a tire. This is baffling to me. They give you a spare tire, but no way to put it on.” Luhr believes that a AAA membership is not a good substitute for knowing how to change a flat.

“Everybody should know how to change their own tires, even if they don’t plan to do it,” he said. “You may be physically unable to, but if you have the knowledge and you have the tools with you, then at least somebody else can change the tire. The alternative is calling for roadside assistance, which might seem to be a great solution, but you’ll be sitting by the side of the road for hours, in a place you often do not want to be,” he said. “Waiting to have someone come to change a tire for you is like hiring somebody to dress you. If you could just do it yourself it would be so much easier.”

“It’s not hard to change a tire,” Luhr said, who offers a tire changing kit in the Airstream Life store. “I sell it because I believe people need it, but if you buy all these items yourself you’ll spend the same amount of money. Just buy the tools.”

The basics are a torque wrench (essential for correctly tightening the lug nuts when you put the wheel back on); a breaker bar (used for removing the wheel); an extension, and a socket.

The complete tire changing kit is also packed with a safety vest for roadside visibility, a pencil gauge to check the air pressure, and a six page instruction manual that explains exactly how to change a tire. “If you read that manual and take the kit out and try it, you’re going know how to do this simple job,” said Luhr. “Then you just throw the kit in the back your trailer and never think about it again until the day you need it.”

If you choose to buy all the parts separately, “make sure you don’t skimp on the torque wrench,” said Luhr. “Cheap torque wrenches are not worth the money.”

“Remember, the torque wrench is for tightening,” added Halstead. “It is meant to be used in one direction, and it will let you know when you’ve reached the proper torque setting, usually with an audible click. If you use it to loosen the lug nuts, you’re going to throw off the calibration and it won’t be accurate after that. Bad things happen when you don’t torque the lug nuts correctly.”

7. MegaHitch lock

“Storage facilities are not safe,” cautioned Luhr. “I hear reports almost every month from people who have lost their Airstreams out of supposedly secure RV storage that had 24-hour management living on site, with video cameras. Just last month some friends of mine found out that someone had broken into their stored trailer and the thousands of dollars worth of their tools inside were all gone. Management didn’t even know—and it turned out that the videocameras were fakes.”

MegaHitch Lock
MegaHitch Lock

Cheap hitch locks provide zero security. “You can see a video on my website where they take about ten different hitch locks and defeat them all anywhere from between five seconds and two minutes,” said Luhr. “If you spend about $40 or $50 on a lock I guarantee a thief could break into that it within thirty seconds.” Thieves can’t break a MegaHitch.

The $200 price tag “is a big expense,” Luhr admits. “And it’s heavy. But it works. If you’re keeping a $70,000 or $100,000 Airstream on a storage lot, $200 is not a lot of extra money. I strongly recommend it.” Halstead added, “Check with your insurance company. If you have proof that your trailer was locked with one of these, in most cases they’ll waive the deductible for theft.”

8. Tire pressure monitor

A flat tire can do lot more damage to your trailer than you might think. “It doesn’t just go flub flub flub and then you come to a stop,” said Luhr. “Often you have no idea that you’ve had a flat because it’s ‘way back there on the trailer as it starts to shred. It rips up your Airstream, destroys the wheel, creates a hazard on the road, and it leaves you with a thousand dollars of damage that could’ve been prevented.” While highly recommended, the TST tire pressure monitoring system is again, not cheap, but it’s the best. “There are many others out there that are frankly garbage,” said Luhr.

Damage from flat tire
Damage from flat tire

9. Portable solar panels

If you’ve noticed the items on this list have been increasing in price, you’re correct—and solar panels are definitely one of the most expensive Airstream upgrades. If you’re considering going solar but don’t want to make too great of an initial investment, portable panels are a good alternative.

Portable solar panels
Portable solar panels

“You can get anywhere from 40 to 200 watts; they fold up into a carrying case, they have their own charger, and they’re easy to use,” said Luhr. “Just plug them in, and they charge your batteries.” Luhr prefers the Go Power brand over Zamp. “They’re a little bit less expensive and the quality is excellent,” he said. “The 120 watt system comes with everything you need, and you can get a 7-way adapter that plugs right into your umbilical cable, no special wiring.”

If your trailer came with a factory-installed solar port that says “Use only Zamp”, the Go Power panels will plug directly in and work with it! Click here for more info on that.

Digital Voltage Monitor

Should you care about the power that comes into your Airstream from the campground?

Absolutely. YES.

Even newer campgrounds can have problems with their electrical power. Outlets may be mis-wired or damaged in a way that can be hazardous to your health—and the health of your Airstream.

Especially on a hot and humid day, when everyone in the campground is running their air conditioner, you’ll need to know that voltage is high enough to avoid burning out your A/C compressor.

The best way to know you’re getting good power is to use a digital AC voltage monitor. Outside Interests recommends one of the best: the Prime Products monitor, available at the Airstream Life Store. It constantly displays voltage so you’ll know if the power is sagging, and it checks for common mis-wiring conditions:

  • Reversed polarity (which can cause a very dangerous “hot skin” condition
  • Open neutral
  • Open ground

Digital Voltage MonitorIt’s simple to use: just plug it into any available outlet in your Airstream while you’re connected an electrical hookup, and observe the lights on the display. You’ll always know at a glance that you’re getting good power.

This voltage monitor is something every Airstream should carry at all times, and is available from the Airstream Life Store. When you order from Airstream Life you’ll also receive Rich Luhr’s short instructional booklet, How To Avoid Electrical Problems At The Campground.

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!”