Airstream maintenance might seem like something only an RV technician can do, but most routine maintenance isn’t hard, especially if you have the right tools to get the job done. Almost anyone can do the basics with a little instruction.
Naturally, the tools you need depend on the jobs you are willing to take on. For most tasks you can get by very comfortably with just a few tools. You should have a small collection of tools and parts that stay in the Airstream to deal with on-the-road problems. Consider carrying the parts and tools needed to do common maintenance like:
- change a tire
- replace a fuse or light bulb
- disconnect / re-connect the battery
- clean up corrosion
- detect a gas leak and tighten a gas connection
- remove and replace a rivet
- tighten a loose screw
- test a power outlet
- fix a simple plumbing fixture leak
- stop a rainwater leak
- lubricate hinges, latches, and hitch
Surprisingly, you don’t need a ton of fancy tools to do those jobs. Most of them are readily found in hardware stores.
Probably the most useful (and expensive) tool you might need is a cordless drill. Get a powerful one, 18 volts or better. Obviously it’s great for drilling holes if you need to install a new hook somewhere, but you will end up using it the most to raise and lower the stabilizers on your trailer. (You’ll need a socket adapter and the correct size of socket.) This turns a tedious chore into a 30 second non-event. You will appreciate this the first time you set up or break camp in a heavy rain.
The cordless drill is essential for drilling out broken rivets so you can install replacements, so you’ll want a set of drill bits as well. The usual size drill for an interior rivet in an Airstream is #30, or 1/8” but you should get a set that ranges from 1/16” to 1/4”. With a small set of screw bits, your cordless drill can also be used as a high-speed, high-power cordless screwdriver. Owners who have equipped their Airstream with either a Hensley Arrow or Pro-Pride 3P hitch can also use a cordless drill with the 3/4” socket and socket adapter to run their weight distribution bars up and down.
The only other expensive tool you need for maintenance is a good torque wrench (and a 12″ extension & socket), so you can be sure you’ve got the lug nuts tightened properly when you change a tire.
The rest of the tools most people need are pretty simple and not terribly expensive, even the rivet tool used to replace pop rivets. A list of suggested items is below, and you can also check the Airstream Life Store (online at store.airstreamlife.com) as it expands over the next several months.
If you travel for long periods, or if you’ve got an older Airstream, then you’ll want more stuff. The trick is not knowing what to bring, it’s knowing when to stop packing tools. Turning your tow vehicle into a rolling tool box is overkill, and can even be dangerous if you are overloading it with heavy tools you won’t need.
On a long expedition, it might make sense to carry a hard-to-find tool or part, if it’s light or small, but there’s a point at which it makes more sense to find a service center—or just buy the part when you actually need it. This is a judgement call.
You should be prepared for anything that might seriously disrupt a trip and is easily repairable on the road, such as problems with tires, electricity, gas leaks, and water leaks. It’s really frustrating to be somewhere wonderfully remote, like Big Bend National Park in Texas, or the north rim of Grand Canyon, and find you have power problems because of a simple bad ground caused by corrosion—but be forced to leave because you don’t have the tools to find and fix it.
Here are a few more suggestions of basic tools and supplies you should consider carrying in your Airstream or tow vehicle at all times:
Tools for changing a tire. Airstreams don’t come with tire changing equipment or instructions, and the ones for your tow vehicle won’t work. Learn what you need and practice the technique before you hit the road, or ask a fellow rally-goer to demonstrate for you. Don’t forget the torque wrench, tire pressure gauge, and a high-visibility shirt or vest for emergencies.
Silicone spray. Dozens of sticky areas on your Airstream can benefit from a squirt of silicone spray: the awning, hinges, locks, stabilizers, vent seals, window seals, and more.
Hitch ball lube or grease. No one likes a squeaky hitch. Use a heavy-duty grease.
Headlamp. Go hands-free while making repairs, manipulating parts, or searching through supplies.
First Aid kit. Only the Interstate comes with a first aid kit. Buy a pre-assembled kit, or make your own, and be sure it has more than just a few Band-Aids.
Voltage monitor. Low voltage kills air conditioners. Plug it into any interior outlet while you’re hooked to shore power and make sure the voltage is at least 114 when the air conditioner or microwave are running.
Screwdriver set, or combination screwdriver. Did you know that Phillips screws are the most common in Airstream trailers? Stock a couple of sizes, and medium, small and “stubby” flat heads too. One space-saving combination screwdriver provides all you’ll need.
Tape. Pack Teflon plumber’s tape (PTFE), useful for stopping leaks on threaded fittings (choose the blue “Monster” brand), and a small selection of other specialty tapes: electrical, duct, and/or masking as needed. Some available in silver.
A few screws, especially #8 and #10 wood screws for replacing lost screws in furniture and wall attachments. (Some wood glue wouldn’t hurt, either.) Look for an assortment of stainless screws in the boat store.
Rivet gun, and a small handful of aluminum POP rivets: 1/8” aluminum POP rivets (grip range 1/8” —1/4”) for the interior; 3/16” aluminum large flange POP rivets (grip range 1/8”—1/4”) for the belly pan. Replacing POP rivets is easy. Seriously. You can find a top quality rivet gun at store.airstreamlife.com, with instructions on how to use it.
Heavy duty scissors. You’ll find many uses for strong kitchen or utility-style shears, or a retractable safety knife.
Rubber hose washers for fresh water hoses that leak at the fittings.
Wrenches and pliers. Carry a small selection for tightening gas fittings, removing drain plugs, and more. Start with a single adjustable wrench and ordinary pliers, and then add more if you see the need.
Spare incandescent bulbs for interior lighting, brake and turn signals, and clearance lights. If you’ve got a newer Airstream with full LED lighting, you don’t need to carry spares. Some of the LEDs are replaced as whole fixtures rather than bulbs.
Fuses. Assorted 12v automotive-style blade fuses are handy, primarily the yellow 20-amp and green 30-amp fuses. (Check your power converter to see what ratings your trailer requires.)
Sandpaper, emery cloth or a small burnishing tool to remove corrosion on wires.
Electrical tools. Wire stripper/cutter, red and blue butt splices, electrical tape, and butt splice crimping tool—if you might occasionally modify or repair 12-volt wiring.
Old beach towel. Those who’ve read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy know that a towel is about the most massively useful thing you can have—and the best value tool you’ll ever carry in your Airstream. Use it for a pad when kneeling by or laying under the trailer, cleaning dirty hoses and cords, drying tools, etc.
This article is excerpted partially from Rich Luhr’s new book, “Airstream Life’s (Nearly) Complete Guide to Airstream Maintenance,” coming out this August 2015. Pre-order an autographed copy and save $8 by visiting the Airstream Life store and choosing the “Books” category.