Hail Damage on Airstream

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.

—By Rich Luhr, author of Airstream Life’s (Nearly) Complete Guide to Airstream Maintenance, available at Amazon.com and the Airstream Life Store.