Fixing a teenage Airstream

A friend called the other day and lamented the age of his Airstream, just ten years old.  At that point you’re well out of the honeymoon phase, and maintenance becomes essential.  It can seem like you’re constantly fixing up things, in between trips.

That’s happening to us as well.  It’s unavoidable, whether you’ve got a house, boat, car, RV, or marriage.  Maintenance is part of the deal.  My daughter is just 13 years old and she’s already had braces, eyeglasses, and a broken foot. So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that my Airstream needs a little TLC after eight years (Oct 2005-Oct 2013).

I think this is a good problem to have.  You don’t hear a lot about owners of other RV brands fixing up their ten, twenty, thirty, forty, or even fifty year old trailers because they are usually long gone by then.  I like the fact that at eight years, our Airstream is still just a teenager.

That’s in “Airstream years”, which are like dog years.  I figure every year of an Airstream’s life is like two years of human life, making our Airstream the equivalent of 16 human years old.  Most of the elderly Airstreams date from the 1950s, making them 53-63 years old, or 106-126 in “Airstream years,” but almost all of them have been refurbished back to new status by now, which kind of resets the clock.

The oldest un-refurbished Airstream I know is Fred Coldwell’s “Ruby,” a 1948 Wee Wind, and she’s a grand old lady at 65 (or 130 in Airstream years).  You don’t find them like that very often.  Ruby lives in covered storage and only comes out on special occasions.

This week I towed the Safari over to my friend Rob’s house to do some work on it.  My carport is great but I can only access three sides of the Airstream when it is parked, whereas Rob’s driveway has tons of space. I recruited Mike (who previously helped on the flooring replacement and A-frame re-paint last spring) to help with this morning’s two projects.

The first job was the silver rub rail that goes around the lower edge of the exterior.  This is a flexible stick-on trim that fits into an aluminum channel.  After a while the silver goes chalky and then the adhesive lets go.  A piece on the front right stoneguard came loose in Tucson before we launched this spring, and the same piece on the opposite side peeled off on the highway in Ohio last June.  So when we stopped at Airstream in September I bought enough replacement silver trim to do the entire trailer.

While I was there, I had a chat with Kevin, one of the techs in the Airstream Service Center, and he tipped me off on the correct procedure to replace this trim.  First, we swung out the stainless stoneguards at the front of the trailer.  There are three 7/16″ nuts to remove on each stoneguard, and then they swing out on hinges.  (Video of how this works.) This gives you access to the rub rail that goes behind the stoneguards.

Next we peeled off the old trim.  It was old enough that it peeled off easily, and didn’t leave much residue.  Then we cleaned up all the dirt in the aluminum channel with soap and water and a sponge, followed by a little scraping of leftover adhesive.  The final cleaning is done with rubbing alcohol on a rag.

Airstream sells a little bottle of special adhesive primer for about $14 (JPC Primer 94 in a “dauber applicator.”) This stuff preps the aluminum surface for the 3M VHB adhesive that’s on the back of the new trim.  We applied the primer to the cleaned channel, let it dry for five minutes, and then stuck in the shiny new silver trim. The ends were cut with kitchen scissors.  Overall:  pretty easy job, and the results are great.  The new silver trim really reveals how badly the rest of the trailer needs a wash!

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The other job of the day was a bit nastier, replacing yet another Hehr window operator. I’ve written about this job before, so I won’t detail it, except to say that the emergency escape window is even more annoying than the others.  It takes a different gearbox (a “center” operator, part #119-331) and replacing it is just a giant pain.  I needed a special horizontal bit driver and an extra long Phillips bit to get several of the screws out.  You might be able to do it with a regular Phillips screwdriver but I wouldn’t want to try.

Finally, I fixed the MaxxFan that spontaneously de-constructed itself a few weeks ago.  The fix was much easier than I expected, and it could all be done from the inside (avoiding a trip to the roof).  Two nuts hold down the motor and fan assembly. I just removed the screen, unbolted the fan blade, and re-attached the motor.  The fan is fine now but it has always wobbled a bit (the blade is somewhat out of balance) and after inspecting it I decided to order a new one. So that should be coming in the mail next week and will take only five minutes and a 1/2″ socket to replace.

All of this consumed about four hours of the day.  I figure a good Airstream tech would have taken about two hours to do this work, at a cost of about $200.  Doing it myself added to my store of confidence and taught me a few things, and gave me a chance to hang with Mike and Rob, so I figure the $200 savings was just a bonus.

And that’s what I told my friend who called earlier this week about his Airstream maintenance woes.  “Find some people who can guide you, and learn to do it yourself,” I told him. You’ll be surprised what you can accomplish with just a little motivation and a few tools. I don’t like having to go fix things, and I still grumble about it, but once I’ve done it I’m usually glad to have made the effort.  So I don’t fret about the higher maintenance needs of my teenage Airstream.  I hope I’ll still be fixing things myself on Airstreams for many years to come.

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine