Salt damage from camping at the beach?

We recently received this letter from a customer about his concerns for his gleaming new Airstream:

My wife and I bought a 2017 Serenity with dreams of travel, including beach locations. We were more than disappointed to learn, unfortunately after we bought, that sea air and beach life is brutal regarding rust and corrosion to our rig. Right now, lots of buyer’s remorse has set in as we had visions of time spent at many of the beach locations mentioned in your latest article.

We can see why that’s concerning, particularly with a spanking new rig. Yes, salt air is corrosive to just about any metal. But why limit your fun just because of that?

Seeing signs of use on our Airstreams makes all us smile. A few marks of wear remind us of adventures at beaches all over the USA. It doesn’t make sense to us to deprive ourselves of the fun of beach camping just so the Airstreams can stay new-looking longer.

Our take: “We bought this Airstream to use it,” and so we go to the beach whenever we want. Just make sure to rinse off the trailer with fresh water at a local truck wash as soon as possible afterward. (It’s risky to go to car washes because often they don’t have enough height clearance and/or turning radius for trailers to maneuver. Truck washes are harder to find but much easier to access.)

If someone were to be parked at the beach for a long time after their trailer has been exposed to salt spray, it would be a good idea to pull out and rinse off the salt, then return to the campground. It’s a shame to see a bit of that new-trailer shine dim a little, but that won’t really take anything away from the glow of good times on the road.

Cleaning your Airstream Interior

“How many of you guys like cleaning the inside of your trailer?” asked Jim Parrett, Airstream National Service Manager, during his Interior Maintenance seminar at Alumapalooza 7. To no one’s surprise, very few hands were raised. “Well, we’ve got a lot of tricks for you,” said Parrett. He didn’t promise you’d suddenly enjoy cleaning, but these factory tips might make the job faster and more effective.

No special products required

“There’s a lot of good cleaners out there on the market that you can use,” said Parrett. “All the things we use in our house, we can use inside our trailers.” Recommended household cleaners that you can find easily at the grocery or drug store include Formula 409®, Dawn®, Glass Plus®, Dow Bathroom Cleaner with Scrubbing Bubbles™, Fantastic®, Windex®, Lestoil®, Lysol® Brand Disinfectant Basin/Tub/Tile Cleaner, Mr. Clean®, TOP JOB®, and Clorox®.

Laminate surfaces

For everyday cleaning, use a damp cloth or sponge and a mild soap or detergent (see products listed above). Stubborn stains such as coffee or tea can be removed using any mild cleaner and baking soda, mixed together to form a paste. With a stiff nylon bristle brush, scrub the affected area about 15 to 20 strokes. Don’t use an abrasive brush or cleaner—that might damage the surface finish.

Impala Suede

The wall material in the new Airstream Classic is “pretty easy to care for,” said Parrett—but stains should be attended to as soon as possible. “If you happen to spill something like soda or anything light, the first thing you want to do is clean that spill up,” he said. Immediately blot excess liquid with an absorbent paper or cloth, then rub the fabric gently with a paper towel or a white cloth to absorb any remaining surface liquid or dampness.

Parrett recommends baby wipes, or a clean white cloth dampened with plain clean water. Use small circular motions, and don’t soak the fabric—that can cause permanent damage. “You don’t want to saturate it, or make it too wet,” he said. “An effective way of controlling the amount of water is to use a spray bottle,” he suggested.

Clean Classic

Though the easy care Impala fabric is dubbed “anti-stain”, some discolorations may require a solution of roughly 95% water and 5% soap (“like Dawn detergent,” said Parrett). Allow the cleaned area to dry completely, then gently brush or vacuum the area using strokes in the direction of the pile of the fabric. “Don’t rub against it, or scrub real hard.”

Tenacious stains (like ballpoint pen or grease) may need a second treatment. After the fabric has dried completely, try cleaning again with a diluted solution of isopropyl alcohol and a white cloth. “Then once you’re done, just vacuum it up”—with a dustbuster or wet-dry vac—“again, following the direction of the fabric.”

Ultra Leather

Routine care for your Ultra Leather upholstery is easy. Just wipe it down regularly with soap and water, and attend to spills as soon as they occur with Formula 409® or Fantastik®. You may sanitize with a 20% solution of bleach to water. Simply air dry.

Accidents happen, and stains on your furniture from ketchup, coffee, red wine, tea, and (ouch) blood can be cleaned with an alcohol-based product like Formula 409® or a 5:1 water/bleach solution—“that’s one ounce of bleach, five ounces of water,” said Parrett.

Mustard and ballpoint pen ink on the seats are tougher to remove. Wipe with isopropyl alcohol, and rinse with clean water. Wipe dry.

As with many problems, Airstream-related or not, prompt attention is important for a successful outcome. “If the stain has sat there for days, it may not be as easy to remove,” Parrett said.

Aluminum interior

microfiberMicrofiber is excellent for dusting and scrubbing because of the static-charged, woven fibers. The combination of polyamide and polyester is strong and soft, and microfiber towels absorb seven times their weight in moisture.

 

Use Pledge® Orange

Orange Pledge—a cleaner that dusts, shines and protects—with your microfiber cloth. “That’s a great combination,” said Parrett. “Pledge Orange is the best thing! It’s multipurpose; you can use it on your cabinets, wood, aluminum…we use it on pretty much all the surfaces. It does a great job, and smells good, too.” Don’t worry about the orange in the product introducing acid onto the clear coat. “It won’t harm it at all,” explained Parrett. “The citrus is just a scent.”

Make sure you wipe with the grain of the aluminum, not across it. “That way, if there happened to be something on the surface or on the towel that might cause a light scratch, it won’t show.”

Oceanair shades

Small marks can be removed by gently rubbing with a rubber eraser—the very same square-ish “Pink Pearl” kind you used in grade school. Even the eraser at the end of a pencil will work. Make sure it’s clean, and take it easy; the metal on the end of a pencil eraser could scratch the blind. Rubbing alcohol is also an option for tougher stains. Rub gently, and naturally air dry.

Clean blinds

Someday your shade may refuse to retract, but it’s possible to adjust the spring tensioner of the blind to alter the recoil effect. Pull the shade down and look to the left side of the top bar; a tension screw hides beneath the end cap. Remove the end cap fixing screw (without removing the plastic molding from the aluminum tube), and rotate it in a clockwise direction until satisfactory tension is achieved. Re-install the screw. Be careful not to “over-tension” and damage the spring.

Clean blinds

If a blind gets wet, simply pull it down to expose it entirely and leave it to dry naturally.

If you’d like to replace your older style Safari cloth shades with Oceanair blinds, you can, but “it depends on the mounting holes,” said Parrett. “You just have to order the right sizes. It would have to be a special order.”

Horizontal blinds

Just like in your home, miniblinds are a hassle to clean, and there’s no magic answer; they must be dusted off one at a time. “Look for blind tools that at least do four or five at a time,” suggested Parrett.

Bathroom

Use any of your favorite household cleaners, including Lysol® disinfectant sprays, on your fiberglass shower stall, toilet, and other bathroom surfaces.

Sunbrella fabric

Water stains on your Eddie Bauer awning? Don’t use an excessive amount of liquid to clean outdoor textiles; that could cause a stain or discoloration at the “shoreline” of the puddle. (Your awning and outdoor furniture should also be dried after a rain to avoid the same damaging effect.) Hard water can also leave a mineral residue on fabrics. To solve the problem, “you can use a light solution of bleach,” said Parrett.

“Don’t use a detergent, as that might leave a film.”  For deep cleaning of your awning or Zip Dee chairs (which are also made of Sunbrella fabric) get Zip Dee Washout Powder.

Oh, hail!

There are four things that absolutely kill Airstreams: water damage, neglect, accidents…and severe hail.

If you are a careful owner you’ve already got a copy of Airstream Life’s (Nearly) Complete Guide to Airstream Maintenance and are following the procedures described in it to keep your Airstream in good condition. That will eliminate water damage and neglect as possible destroyers. But there’s not much you can do about the forces of nature when they strike.

Most forms of weather are not a problem to an Airstream. Lightning strikes, for example, tend to pass around the exterior of the trailer’s aluminum skin. People inside who aren’t touching anything conductive are safe. Lightning can damage wiring and electronics and even burn a small hole in the skin, but all of that is repairable. (So if you are in your Airstream and lightning is crashing down around you, stay put. You’re already in a good shelter.)

Heavy winds are likewise not usually a problem. Your Airstream is already designed to slip through a headwind of 65 MPH (or higher) as smoothly as possible, so a blustery day is a pretty ho-hum event. Even a hard gust from the side isn’t likely to tip an Airstream over. In a major wind event, park the Airstream, drop the stabilizer jacks, and don’t worry. If you are exceptionally concerned you can tie down the axles during storage (we recommend The Claw for this).

Hail Damaged AirstreamBut hail can be a killer. Aluminum is soft metal, and easily dented by large hail. You don’t need to worry about hail smaller than a US nickel—it’ll just bounce off. But larger chunks can dimple the surface, and really major hail (2 inches or more) can rip holes in the skin.

Hail is a frequent occurrence through the nation’s heartland in the summer, especially the Plains states, but can happen anywhere there’s a thunderstorm. The problem is that while the likelihood of thunderstorms in an area can be approximated by the National Weather Service, the exact location of thunderstorms is virtually impossible to predict. If the weather report says 80% chance of thunderstorms you’ve got a pretty good chance of seeing some rain nearby, but no idea if that thunderstorm is going to pass right overhead.

There’s no 100% guaranteed way of avoiding hail damage other than keeping your Airstream parked under cover. Since it’s a shame to leave your Airstream sitting, try a few strategies to reduce your risk instead:

  1. Always check the weather report along your route during the summer when thunderstorms are more likely. If there’s a good chance of hail, the detail section of the report will tell you. Tornado warnings are a major red flag since tornadoes are spawned from the same severe thunderstorms that produce hail. Think about whether you can alter your route to avoid the highest risk areas.
  2. Re-check the weather as you go, particularly in the afternoon when thunderstorms tend to develop. A good weather app on your phone or tablet that shows color radar will help you spot thunderstorm activity as it happens.
  3. Get off the road before the thunderstorm hits. When lightning and hail start happening it’s usually too late to look for shelter. Driving into hail at highway speeds will result in the hail smashing on the front dome of the Airstream even harder, which increases the chance of permanent dimpling.

Emergency shelter can be found at gas stations with tall canopies, big-box home improvement stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot, and Interstate highway underpasses (as long as you can safely pull off the road and not block traffic). Parking under a large tree might help but you run the risk of branches falling on the Airstream instead, which could be worse.

If you have to make a choice between protecting the Airstream or your tow vehicle, keep in mind that your car or truck is made of steel and can resist the impact of hail better. However, if the hail is so large that it might smash through the windshield glass, there’s no question: protect yourself and your family first, and remember that the Airstream can be replaced.

Solar panels are always viewed as very susceptible to hail damage because they are made of glass, but the glass is actually very tough. It’s tempered and typically capable of resisting hail one inch in diameter without any damage! The Airstream’s aluminum roof might show dimpling long before the solar panel glass breaks, so don’t worry about the panels.

Most of the time hail damage is strictly cosmetic. This brings up a sticky issue, whether to fix it or live with it. A good insurance company should give you the option, but if you choose to take the damage settlement and not repair the trailer remember that it might be branded with a “salvage” title forever. Even if it isn’t, the resale value of any Airstream with noticeable hail damage is always reduced.

As you meet more Airstreamers you’ll eventually see Airstreams with unrepaired dimples from hail. Some owners keep it as a sort of “battle scar,” wearing it with pride, while others can’t stand their Airstream looking less than perfect and immediately opt for repair (or a trade-in).

Repairing hail damage to the aluminum is expensive. The curved aluminum segments must be ordered from Airstream and they can be labor-intensive to replace due to the need to remove and replace hundreds of rivets as well as windows and other exterior parts. There are options to consider too, such as riveting new panels over the old ones, and using “Olympic” style rivets rather than bucked rivets.

Talk to Airstream factory representatives or a trusted Airstream service center before making your decisions. There are no shortcuts to a good repair, so be wary of anyone who offers to fix it “cheap,” but you can save a little money and time by making good decisions.

If you travel a lot, you’ll eventually encounter some hail, but when it happens remember that it’s unlikely to be large enough to do permanent damage. Don’t let a minor risk overshadow your travels—you’ll be fine and your Airstream probably will be too.

Removing Decals

Sometimes when you buy an Airstream there are a few unwanted things that come with it, such as decals, warning labels, somebody else’s Big Red Numbers, and souvenir stickers. Often these are glued-on remnants of the former owner’s lifestyle, and to make the Airstream your own, you may want to get rid of them.

Airstream Decals

Even new Airstreams come with legally required liability-limited warnings on the exterior. Some of them eventually can leave permanent marks on the clear coat after many years of baking in the sun, so you might choose to get rid of them early on. For example, there’s usually a propane warning up front, a lug nut warning over the wheel wells, and a clear “THOR” decal to the right of the main entry door.

It’s up to you to decide whether leaving those decals in place is helpful or if they are part of your Airstream’s history and originality.

If you think decals are just uglifying the exterior of your Airstream, there are multiple ways to remove them. The trick is to do it without damaging the Airstream’s clear coat or scratching the aluminum.

The Golden Rule of this job is to never use anything abrasive. No sandpaper of course, but also avoid Scotchbrite pads, jeweler’s rouge, or metal polish. Even soft brushes can leave fine scratches in the clear coat that may not be visible until it is in bright sun.

Airstream Decals

Most people head straight for the chemical solutions such as Goof Off, 3M Adhesive Remover, Aircraft Stripper, and even harsh chemicals such as toluene, xylene, or Methyl Ethyl Ketone (MEK). Combined with heat, these methods will usually work but they tend to be slow and/or dangerous.

We don’t recommend chemical approaches. As a general rule, the more complicated the chemical name, the more likely it is to damage the clear coat. MEK in particular is a known carcinogen, contaminates the water table, and produces fumes that can kill you. Avoid it.

The environmentally friendlier options tend to work more slowly, which is why people often throw caution (and good long-term health) to the wind and just pour on the toxics. But a more effective, cleaner, and far safer option is to rub off the decal with a 3M Adhesive Eraser Wheel.

This wheel mounts to a power drill and acts like a big pencil eraser, scrubbing off the vinyl decal and the underlying adhesive without damaging the clear coat. It works quickly and cleanly, leaving only a few bits of glue that are easily cleaned up with a safe citrus-based cleaner. The 3M Adhesive Eraser Wheel costs about $33 at auto parts stores and online. See how it’s done on this video.

Once removed, most decals leave no trace. But if it has been on for a while, you may find that the glue has reacted with the clear coat or the aluminum to leave a “ghost” imprint, a fine network of white “spider web”, or a rough and lifted patch of clear coat.

Damage to modern clear coat is generally difficult to repair. Small marks might be concealable with clear nail polish. For larger damage the only solution is to completely remove the clear coat (a nasty job requiring MEK and therefore best left to professionals), then re-coat it—or replace the affected aluminum panel entirely.

Either of those solutions would be quite expensive, so you might choose to live with the “beauty marks” or, ironically, conceal them with another decal.

Sealants — A Sticky Subject

In the Airstream universe you will find a curious phenomenon: passionate debates about sealants. That’s because the constant movement of all parts on the road causes all travel trailers to leak eventually, and a good sealant is our first line of defense against rain penetration. Rather unfairly, Airstreamers get more of this debate than owners of other brands, mostly because Airstreams have been around for so long, and so many of them remain on the roads after decades of use.

An Airstream might easily be re-sealed a dozen times over its lifetime. In contrast, “disposable” cheap travel trailers tend to get chucked into a landfill when they start to leak because they’re starting to fall apart too. You don’t hear the owners of those talking quite so much about re-sealing. They’re busy re-financing.

The aluminum construction of an Airstream is another reason Airstreamers love to debate sealant. Common silicone sealants don’t adhere as well to aluminum, so we have to use polyurethane sealants that are more expensive but stick like crazy and stay gooey for a long time.

By the way, we use the term “sealant” because “caulk” isn’t flexible, whereas the sealants used on an Airstream are elastomeric, meaning they can stretch without breaking their seal as the travel trailer moves down the road.

Sealants, then and now

In the old days the general-purpose sealant of choice was called Vulkem, and you’ll still hear vintage Airstream owners talk about it. Like the modern sealants, it had a marvelous ability to seal gaps tightly, stick to aluminum, and remain slightly tacky beneath the surface for many years.

These days it has been supplanted by a more modern formulation that carries the same name, as well as a few other new products. Most of the recommended modern sealants have certain characteristics in common: they are sticky like hot salt-water taffy and they adhere to aluminum and plastic like glue. Once cured, they flex a lot without breaking their seal, and they are designed for exterior use (only) so they are UV-resistant and completely waterproof.

SealantAs long as you choose a sealant that meets those criteria, you can use any particular one that fits your needs. Popular choices include TremPro 635, Vulkem 116, Sikaflex 221, ParBond, AdSeal, and others. ParBond is thinner than the rest, comes in a silver color, and creates a “rubberized” seal that’s good for tight spots, so it’s typically used on small jobs. The others are great for roof work (they come in colors, so get white), and larger areas of coverage.

Where to shop

Finding appropriate sealant is sometimes difficult. Lots of online sellers offer it but since a tube is anywhere from $6-14 and shipping tends to add $7-9, you want to get it locally or combine it with another order to duck the shipping charge. If you are in a rush to fix a leak, check hardware stores for a construction sealant that is guaranteed waterproof, UV stable, approved for outdoor use and which adheres to aluminum, painted surfaces, and plastic.

You can always go to the local RV store and find acceptable alternative products, but in my experience white-box RV store products seem to be made for the disposable RV market because they often break down too quickly and start to crack, then leak. By comparison, a really good polyurethane sealant can stay sticky, waterproof and pliable for decades, in places that aren’t exposed to the sun.

cracked sealant
Cracked sealant

Sticky situations

There are a few challenges with using this stuff. First off, the fumes are stinky and toxic, which means you have to beware of the fumes if you are lucky enough to have a garage to work on your Airstream.

Second, it’s trickier to shape and smooth than silicone, because it sticks to everything. The old “wet finger” trick that you use with silicone won’t work—these sealants will stick to your wet finger. Wear disposable vinyl gloves and bring along a bunch of paper towels for cleanup.

Third, keep in mind that the good sealants tend to cure very slowly. For example, Vulkem cures at the rate of just 1/16″ of an inch per day at 75 degrees F & 50% humidity. You’ll want to allow some time for a good cure before exposing the new sealant to weather.

Saving sealant

It’s hard to save the leftovers. Once you’ve opened a tube of sealant, take some care to re-seal it well for storage. There are many techniques to try to seal the tube, such as putting a golf tee in the opening, covering with the tip of a rubber glove, using food saver vacuum bags, and commercially-available storage caps of various designs. Hot glue on the tip works well.

Don’t freeze it—that method can cross-contaminate other items in the freezer (your ice cream might taste funny after a while) and the manufacturers of the sealants generally don’t recommend storing at that temperature.

Whatever you do, don’t expect opened sealant to still be usable in a year. Even if you take tremendous effort to close up the tube against outside air and moisture, it will probably cure to a solid lump in a few months. Parbond seems to be the exception. It lasts for years just by replacing the cap.

Safety first

The sealants discussed here are fairly safe but you should take a moment to read the fine print on the tubes before using them. Avoid skin contact or breathing of the vapors in a confined space. (That also goes for chemicals used to clean up afterward.) There are recommended temperatures at which you should apply sealants, and recommended techniques for application, cleanup, and storage.

Sealing the Airstream against leaks really isn’t rocket science. Generally the sealants last a long time, so the old days of climbing on the roof to “re-caulk the seams” every year are over. When replacement is eventually needed, making a good choice of product will be a key part of keeping your Airstream dry and happy.