While I firmly believe that Airstream is the best mass-produced travel trailer available, they are not without their issues. A lot of people seem to think that for the price (usually over $100k), there should be no issues, but obviously that’s not realistic. From what I understand, Airstream does do a pretty good job of fixing that which wasn’t done correctly in the first place (and you can stay at the “mothership” while they fix it!). Do “small things” fail too often? Probably. Are there some really bad ideas/designs implemented on a fairly regular basis. Maybe. But “batting 500” is considered stellar (if not impossible) in terms of baseball stats, and Airstream is probably doing better than that, so it all depends on perspective.
Many Airstream problems are a result of poor design, but those problems are almost always “luxury” problems (cabinets, appliances, layout, latches, etc.), not major mechanicals or the design of the body and frame.
Most Airstreams also aren’t built for “owner maintenance.” As such, when something goes wrong, it can be incredibly difficult to fix. Sometimes people end up “breaking things more” while attempting to fix something that they shouldn’t have been messing with in the first place.
The issue is similar to the Apple vs. PC mentality. Apple products are made to only function with Apple components; by keeping things close, Apple creates an environment where they have more control over the outcome. Apple products are meant to be “worked on” only by licensed Apple specialists. PC’s are made more for the “do-it-yourself” crowd, and there are a plethora of components that can be used to make things work in myriad ways. Apple is generally thought of as a product for people who just “want things to work.” If those items stop working as they should, Apple customers send them back, trade them in, or have an “expert” fix them. Airstream definitely operates by the Apple code, and the price of the initial product as well as the maintenance reflects that ideal.
Another issue is often that people try to use their Airstream outside of it’s window of expected use (sub-zero camping, questionable road conditions, etc). In other words, they are pushing the boundaries of what Airstream has intended for the trailer. Many people believe that if you spend over $100,000 for a trailer, it should work all of the time, in any condition. But what those people fail to consider is that it’s more like owning a Ferrari. If you don’t baby it, things will go wrong, and it will be expensive to fix them… if you can even find someone with the expertise to do the work properly.
All of these thoughts are going into my idea of what an ideal Airstream renovation should entail. I think the build should certainly be “done right” in the first place (no cabinets “anchored to air” or missing fasteners), but it should also be user-friendly, so that when something goes wrong (because thing will go wrong when you’re bouncing down the road for years), they can be easily fixed by anyone with a decent idea of “how things work.” Components should also be readily available, so that it doesn’t take weeks (or even months!) of waiting for parts or service windows.
Any time something is mass-produced, you make sacrifices in quality control (the more hands there are, the more opportunity there is for mistakes). The “Apple mentality” is one way of trying to minimize those issues. I prefer the “one-at-a-time” approach (which is certainly a luxury), and that’s how I plan to renovate and reinvent travel trailers. I don’t plan on getting rich. I just plan on building great vehicles.
Here are some threads I’ve collected that reflect people’s varied opinions on Airstream build quality and service, as well as some of the specific things that seem to consistently go wrong…
“Attention to detail” issues…
Designed to sell, not to use…
Frustrated with Airstream quality…
Forty things we would change on our Airstream…
Had it with my Basecamp…
Bath mirror cabinet fell off…
Bath vanity failure…
Remounting medicine cabinet to prevent falling…
Leaking, rust, A/C issues, drawers off tracks, cabinet alignment…
Just some links I’ve found useful…
Propane Lines and Quick Connects
I am always baffled when I see Airstream interiors with a couch or two chairs under the panoramic window. What a waste of space! The dinette with seating that wraps around a table is obviously the way to go, so one can maximize on seating, have a decent table at which to eat, and also to collapse into an extra bed. Not to mention all the extra storage in the dinette bench seats!
However, I can’t believe how hard it is to find a decent telescoping base for a dinette table!
Most of the choices come from yacht outfitters, and are thus astronomically priced. The few “RV Specific” bases I have found seem to be poorly reviewed as a result of being poorly constructed (weak materials that lead to wobbling and bending). The two companies that come up most often in a search for RV dinette/table bases are Springfield and Garelick. The products from each company look to be fairly similar, but for what it’s worth, the reviews for the Springfield products are much better than those for the Garelick. This means that either the Springfield bases are a superior product, or Springfield has a better social media and internet team.
Through Deck vs. Surface Mount
Since I’m rebuilding from scratch, this wouldn’t be as much of an issue for me, but it definitely does lock you in to the position you originally install (since it telescopes through a permanent hole in the floor, and sticks out into the belly pan area). I think most people will want a surface mount base, and since there isn’t much difference in availability between surface mount and through-deck, I’m just going to stick with surface mount (which is ultimately an easier install anyway).
The surface mount, telescoping pedestal base that seems most solid, best reviewed, and within price range (though still more expensive than I would expect at around $400) is the Springfield 12″ – 28″ Anodized Air-Powered 3-Stage Table Pedestal. There are three slight variations that included differences in lift range and finish materials, but this one has the lowest price (by about 40 bucks) and the highest reviews. It’s also conspicuously similar to the base pictured in the Airstream brochure photo above, so there’s that.
Another interesting and slightly less expensive (around $250) option from Springfield is the lever lift Springfield Marine 1660203 Polished Aluminum 12-25 Inch Adjustable Hinged Boat Table Pedestal, though it’s quite a bit bulkier, and I see lots of opportunity for pinched (or even lost!) fingers.
Penguine Eng LTD looks great and has a lot of selection, but it’s in Great Britain, so there’s VAT and shipping on top of already “luxury” pricing.
Motorized is great for the “wow” factor, but my philosophy is, “The more you motorize things, the more opportunity there is for mechanical failure.” If you can make something function well without sacrificing ease of use, that is the way to go. Can gas/air systems fail? Of course. Will they fail as often as something that uses electricity, plastic gears, wires and solder, etc.? Nope. If gas/air makes it easy to lift/lower a table (vs. a completely manual system which is difficult to slide up and down and lock in place) while minimizing the chance of mechanical failure, then for me, a gas/air lift telescoping base is the superior choice.
Have you found something else that you like or think works better? Leave a comment and let everyone know!
I keep taking The Ghost of Ohio out well before she’s ready. Some would say I’m a glutton for punishment, but I think you “learn things better” when you experience them first hand. Traveling with an Airstream that is under renovation, though it’s not the most luxurious situation, contributes greatly to improvements in design, layout, use, and materials.
The first road trip (at least the end of it) was a pretty miserable failure. My kid will always have fond memories of breaking down in the middle of nowhere and being stranded for a week, and he swears that Worland, WY is his favorite place on the planet, but there’s no denying that the end of that trip (post breakdown and what it led to), was one of the worst experiences of my life …and that’s saying something.
So here I am on the second “case study” road trip. Just me and my 5-year-old driving from Denver to Northwest Ohio.
Use your tire covers (especially when your Airstream is sitting for extended periods).
Tire blow out. Likely the result of UV damage (covered-side tires were far less deteriorated). I quickly learned that it is difficult to find trailer tires while on the road, and most places simply will not put anything but an ST (trailer rated) tire on a rim meant for a trailer (liability).
Luckily we had a good spare, but that also reminded me how important it is to check your spare before you leave on a trip!
Having things fastened down and contained is key.
We don’t have cabinets or permanent seating (with storage) yet, so currently everything is in bins (or loose). Even things that seemed like they would never move or slide were all over the place. Every time we stopped, it was an adventure (and a pain) getting everything back to where we could make sense of and access our stuff. If it’s an option, even just screwing a 2×4 to the subfloor to create a rail to keep bins from sliding is a good idea when traveling while you’re under construction.
Space to move around is a major consideration.
While it’s fun figuring out just how tightly you can cram everything into a space (Tetris-ing seems like the most efficient way to organize and store your stuff), using the Airstream with all that stuff crammed in there makes me realize how important negative space really is. After visiting my parents, we also took on extra cargo that contributed to the issue. Trying to move around while living became a nightmare. This is a good lesson to learn and will definitely contribute to future layout design.
Be judicious with your preparations.
I have a problem. I am waaaay too concerned with making sure I’m “prepared.” And to me, prepared means over-prepared, usually to the detriment of getting on the road in a timely fashion. I also enjoy figuring out how to make my tool collection most efficient for any and all possible situations, but I’m still taking way too many tools. Take tools that are good for emergencies and can do double-duty, but don’t waste time, space, and weight with tools for a “project” that you might undertake while on the road. In fact, make your life so much easier and your trip so much more enjoyable by NOT doing ANY of your resto/reno projects while on the road.
A brake controller is a nice thing to have.
I realize now that I had no brake controller all the way from Denver to Indiana. On the upside, it means the tow vehicle can handle braking with the Airstream if the controller or trailer brakes fail. On the downside, it certainly wasn’t ideal as far as safety goes, and I’m sure I need new brake pads now. Be sure you are familiar with your controller and how it works before you head out on the road, so you aren’t figuring out what things mean and how things work while you’re towing. My controller looked to me like it was doing its job, but I realize now that it wasn’t hooked up properly.
Hensley Hitch Issues (know how your hitch works and travel with spare parts if you can!)
The safety chains go BETWEEN the leveling bars. I went back and forth on this when hooking up the trailer, and I should have just taken the time to consult the manual. It seemed like the chain would be in the way of the bars if “threaded” through the middle, so I laid them on the outside of the leveling bars. Big mistake. On the return trip, I actually bent one of the struts to nearly a 90 degree angle. The struts also pinched and dented the head (the part that holds the ball hitch).
I spent almost a whole day trying to find parts to make the hitch work for the return home, but finally just threw in the towel and ended up rolling with the Airstream attached straight to the ball (Hensley Hitch removed).
Additionally, and even though I actually did take time to think about it and try different routing paths, be sure your trailer electrical connector doesn’t get pinched by the hitch. My cord was pinched at some point (though I’m still not sure how), cutting several of the wires. I lost my running lights; luckily the brake and turn signal wires weren’t damaged, and those things continued to function.
Materials and routing are important things to consider.
Aluminum conduit (obviously) conducts heat, and the back of your 3-way fridge gets INSANELY hot! I had a temporary 12v line run up the wall, and it shifted and lay across the refer cooling coil. I’m surprised it didn’t melt anything (including the wires inside). I grabbed the conduit to move it, and it burned me good enough to blister. Idiot. [update: I have since had a similar issue where the conduit fell across the coil again (not my fault!) and the wires inside did actually melt and blew a fuse]
Pay attention to the message other drivers are trying to convey to you!
While driving, the rear side hatch blew off (not really sure how, most likely didn’t get shut and latched properly). When someone drives by waiving their arms wildly, sometimes they are just admiring your awesome Airstream. However, more often than not, they are letting you know that something is flopping around or that you’ve lost something (and hopefully it didn’t hit their vehicle).
The biggest fridge isn’t always the bestest fridge.
I tried out a larger fridge on this trip, and I didn’t have it hooked up to propane. While it’s nice having that extra space, if you are going for significant amounts of time without being able to power the refrigerator (in my case, being able to plug into 120v), you will have problems keeping things cold. Not only will the larger fridge lose it’s cool faster than a smaller one, but it also takes longer to get it back to cool. A smaller fridge is easier to use like a cooler (placing ice packs in it to keep it cool). Just something to consider when deciding on fridge size.
Carry plenty of hand sanitizer and wet wipes (especially if the plumbing isn’t hooked up yet!).
Even if you have plenty of bottled water or jugs, it isn’t always convenient to haul them outside just to wipe your hands. Wipes and sanitizer are SO much more convenient when you’re on the go (literally and figuratively). I have also since learned that a pump container of Gojo (pumice hand cleaner) and a good rag is really nice to have if you are continually working on things covered in grease, diesel exhaust, etc.
There are armadillos in Missouri! Lots of them.
Unfortunately, the ones we saw were all dead and lying on the side of the road. My five-year-old and I are also convinced we saw a dead platypus (duck bill and beaver tail, no question!). Yes, I know they only live in Tasmania and a little bit of Australia’s southern coast, but we saw one (shut up), so it must have escaped from a zoo.
Trucks have all kinds of weird diesel pumps these days. You are not always allowed to use them.
I actually came across a station that advertised diesel, but would not sell me diesel (because I didn’t have a semi-truck). It was incredibly frustrating, especially when running on fumes.
Sprayed Foam vs. Rigid Panel vs. Batt vs. Bubble/Foam Foil
I had quite a few questions to answer before deciding how I would insulate our Airstream. I was lucky enough to get our trailer with the interior already removed, which means I didn’t have to deal with the toxic mess of removing the original fiberglass batt, which is almost ALWAYS infested with rodents, their homes and tunnels, and their droppings in these older Airstreams. Not only that, but the batt is usually wet and filled with mold, and often still glued to the skins and difficult to remove completely.
I knew I wouldn’t be reinstalling fiberglass (it’s AWFUL to work with, and doesn’t hold up as well as a lot of the newer alternatives), but I wasn’t certain as to which option would be best for us. My initial thoughts revolved around using Spray Foam, but I did a lot of research and eventually decided to go a different route.
Here were my areas of concern when thinking about insulation for the Airstream:
- maximizing R value
- containing heat while allowing vapor/moisture to escape (we plan on using our Airstream all four seasons)
- ease of installation
- durability and endurance (how long the insulation will last)
As mentioned, Spray Foam was my initial choice for insulating the Airstream. The thought of using a very light product that not only gets into EVERY nook and cranny, but also seals things up and ads structural integrity to the trailer just seemed like a no brainer. However, there were some issues I uncovered that eventually caused me to go in another direction.
Spray Foam Cons (for my Airstream):
- Harder to find material or someone to do it
- Commercial sprayers create heat than can warp skins and ribs
- You have to do it all at once (nozzles are one time use, rented equipment or someone else doing it, etc.)
- Even though it’s not necessarily toxic (depending on the specific product), it makes a mess
- Once installed, repairs are very difficult because the foam is bonded to the skin and must be removed with chemicals –this is the main reason Timeless Travel Trailers doesn’t use spray foam in their trailers
A lot of people on the Airstream forums expressed concerns with Spray Foam breaking down into “fine powder” because of road vibration, but I think there are enough examples of places it has been used successfully (factory installed in various Argosy and other brand trailers, most modern refrigerated trucks, people who’ve done it themselves, etc.), to eradicate those concerns. Perhaps the cheap “canned foam” options from big box stores would break down, but I think commercial products will hold up to the rigors of the road.
Bear in mind, if you go the Spray Foam route, you need to make sure the product is closed-cell foam (not open cell, like the canned stuff at the big box stores, which will take on and retain moisture).
Also, spray foam seams like a bad idea for the chassis (insulating the underside), as it will retain water between the floor and the foam and thus contribute to floor rot, not to mention it prevents access to all the stuff down there that might need regular access (wiring, plumbing, holding tanks, etc.).
Fiberglass Batt or Rockwool
If the state of the original fiberglass or rockwool that you see when removing your panels isn’t enough to assure you that there are now better choices, here are some other reasons fiberglass batt sucks:
- collects and retains moisture that turns into mold
- moisture greatly reduces R value
- is easily penetrated (inviting even) and harbors vermin
- awful to work with (incredibly itchy in your skin)
- settles in the walls to reduce R values over time much more so than rigid panels or spray foam
Foil-faced Foam and/or Bubble Wrap
A lot of people go with Reflectix or Prodex. And though the two products look similar, they are actually quite different. Reflectix is foil-faced bubble wrap (yes, that bubble wrap). It’s fairly worthless. Prodex is actually foil faced closed-cell polyethylene foam, which has a greater R value than bubble wrap (meaning a “real” R value).
Reflectix is more readily available; you can pick it up at your local big box store, but it doesn’t do much for you. Your Airstream is already made of a reflective material (shiny aluminum!), and the bubble wrap doesn’t really insulate anything (very minimal air contained within the thin layer of “bubble”).
Prodex must be ordered, it’s relatively expensive, and I’ve read in quite a few places about Prodex delaminating (the layers coming apart). 700 square ft. (two, 24 inch wide x 175 ft. rolls) is around $250. Most variations on size still come in around $250 for 700 sq. ft., so the product is around $2.80/sq. ft. (right around the same price as Rigid PIC Panels).
Many people will point out Prodex’s claim of an R-16 rating, but that rating comes with some pretty unattainable parameters (at least in an Airstream). From their product spec sheet:
Parameters of test: 24-inch on center 2″ x 6″ wood assembly. Roof application. Test method ASTM 1116. Airspace of 2.64 inch on each side of product. Heat-flow direction down. Interior side of product exposed.
To get an R-16 rating from a 3/16″ sheet of Prodex, you need more than two-and-a-half inches of air space on either side of the material, PLUS air flow (venting). I can’t seem to find an R value for the product without the air space on either side.
Prodex is extremely easy to install and they claim it is self-sealing, so that’s great, but cost and availability (and the fact that the Airstream doesn’t have 5 inch walls) knocked it out of the running for me.
Polyisocyanurate Rigid Panels
There are several types of “rigid panel” foam products.
Polyisocyanurate (PIC) panels are rigid foam panels that are quite water resistant and sport an R value of 6.5 per one inch of thickness.
Thermasheath Rmax is sold in 4’x8′ sheets and is readily available at Home Depot (Lowe’s does not carry any PIC panels, only extruded poly and Styrofoam). At the time of this posting, here in Colorado a 1/2″ thick panel (R 3.2) is $11.97, a 1″ thick panel (R 6.5) is $16.35, and a 2″ thick (R 13.1) panel is $28.85. Obviously the 2″ thick product is too thick for the Airstream wall cavity, so you’ll either need to go with the 1″ thick product or multiple layers of the 1/2″.
The 1″ thick panels will need to be scored to follow the contour of the Airstream walls, and the scores then need to be resealed with foil tape to maintain the moisture/radiant barrier of the foil facing. The 1/2″ panels will actually bend enough to follow the contour of an Airstream (though not the compound curves of the end caps) without scoring the backside of the panel. If cost is not an issue (the half inch panels are more expensive in regard to total volume), multiple layers of 1/2″ panels are easiest to install since they don’t need to be scored. And in the grand scheme of things, the extra $8 per 1 inch thickness in a 4’x8′ panel is probably well-worth the extra cost in saved time and the fact that there are no voids from scoring and bending like the ones that will be created in the 1″ panels.
An added advantage of both rigid panels and foil faced flexible foam is you can run wires in the voids.
FWIW, I’ve not heard of anyone using “blown-in” cellulose or recycled denim, but I would think potential moisture penetration would make that a bad choice, as well as major settling of the material from the motion and vibration of the trailer.
Finally, something to consider is the thermal bridge… anywhere things “touch” from outside to inside will conduct heat/cold. Insulation can help mitigate this effect between exterior skin and interior skin, but the major problem area is the ribs, which touch both the exterior skin and interior skin, and are made from highly conductive aluminum!
I tried looking in to Aerogel/Thermagel for the Thermal Bridge. Specifically I e-mailed, called, and even snail-mailed Aspen Aerogels in Massachusetts, but I never received a response. I assume this is because I’m “small beans,” and they deal with only multi-million dollar outfits. Considering they seem to be marketing mostly to the oil industry, I am almost certain that Aerogel is cost prohibitive. I have a cousin in green tech and solar who let me know that Aerogel in it’s original form is pretty hard to work with. It was described to me as tapioca-like goo inside a thin wrapper. I would think punching a bunch of rivets through a bag full of pudding wouldn’t work so well.
I have wondered about using neoprene, some left over EPDM rubber I have from the roof on my studio, or even just the blue role of closed-cell poly material that you use between a house’s framing sill plate and the concrete foundation when building a house (i.e. something like Dow Weathermate Polystyrene which is readily available at Lowe’s/Home Depot). I’m not sure if such a thin layer of material would really help prevent heat transfer at the ribs. And even though it’s thin, I’m wondering if it would be a problem (an extra layer of material) between the ribs and skin.
I am starting to think about my battery set up. There are a lot of things to think about (absorbent glass mat vs. other materials, amp hours, 12v vs. 6v, etc.), but it’s hard not to think I might just start with a $79 12V Marine/RV Battery from Costco. The cost just can’t be beat and that battery should be 120ah (other deep cycle batteries in that range go for at least $200). I certainly don’t have $1,800 for a multi-6V Trojan set up right now, so why not just spent eighty bucks to “get by” for a while?
You’re not supposed to use “starting” batteries for powering things in your Airstream (you should be using batteries specifically for “deep cycle” use), but for this price, I can’t imagine not going this route, at least for a while. And I believe these are actually engineered for both deep cycle and cranking/starting, so I should be fine.
I know I have lots more to learn about batteries, etc. and I will be doing a lot of research before selecting and installing all the components of my solar array, but for the time being, it just seems like this battery can’t be beat for the price.
I’ve been thinking about using a utility sink (often referred to as a “slop sink” or “mop sink”) for our Airstream’s shower pan. I was at an architectural salvage place last week, and they had a high-end, black kitchen sink. PERFECT. It looks cool. It’s very sturdy. And it’s a single basin with a kind of “step” for dishes that will now be an actual step!
There are two holes (faucet and soap dispenser) that will either get plugged, or maybe I’ll actually run copper pipe through the holes as part of the shower design.
This “designer” sink obviously looks waaaay better than a plastic slop sink, even though it weighs a bit more (though, that comes with being much more durable than thin plastic). I think having a shallower sink (vs. a utility sink) will be better too. It’s still deep enough for a kid to take a bath, but it won’t be such a pain to climb in.
This “Master To Do List” might be a stupid idea (depressing to look at in a couple of years, when I still haven’t installed a sink!), but it’ll help me keep track of ideas and maybe link to the posts covering these topics.
- Have brakes gone over (before hauling from Indiana to Colorado!) DONE! 10-7-15
- Brake Controller for Tow Vehicle DONE! 10-8-15
- Purchase/install Weight Distribution Hitch (EAZ-Lift? Reese WD Hitch? Husky HD? –Hensley would be great, but it’s just way too pricey for where we are in life)
- Inspect and repair exterior skin leaks DONE! 11-15-15
- Fix Vista Vue Window Leak DONE! 11-5-15
- Clean and coat underside before installing wires/tanks/plumbing and belly pan
- Belly Pan
- Exterior Shower
- Door Lock and Deadbolt
- Microwave/Convection Oven
- Kitchen Sink and Faucets
- Bathroom Sink and Faucets
- Retractable Dining Table (converts banquette to bed)
- Bunk Over Banquette
- Water Heater
- Water Filter
- Waste Tanks
- Fresh Water Tanks
- Interior Skin
- New Rims