One of the joys (expenses?) of owning an Airstream is the opportunity to dream about, buy and install upgrades for your Airstream trailer. Here are 10 of the best Airstream upgrades, ranging from thousands of dollars to less than 20 dollars, that you should consider.
Add Solar Power to Your Airstream
If you are going to do some boondocking or even stay in many National or State parks that don’t have hookups, you’re going to want upgrade your Airstream with Solar power, number one on our list of best Airstream upgrades.
I have to admit, I’m not a fan of the factory installed solar option. For less money if you do it yourself and the same or slightly more money if you pay someone to install it, you can get a better solar installation than the factory installed option. Here are several reasons to consider installing solar as an upgrade to your Airstream.
- Airstream tends to be a generation behind in selecting the best solar panels. This is understandable since they have to plan in advance to build many of these a week, they have to test them for reliability, set up supplier relationships, etc. But you can generally do better selecting your own solar panel.
- The Atkinson PVCM25D solar controller currently used by Airstream in their factory-installed solar installations is a basic PWM controller. The best kind of solar power controller today is an MPPT controller, which allows you to take maximum advantage of your solar panels, and charge your batteries faster. You can learn more about PWM controllers vs MPPT controller from AM Solar.
- The factory pre-wire is done with 10-gauge wire. This works fine for the 160 watts of solar panels that is the maximum that Airstream offers today, but if you later want to add more panels or upgrade to higher wattage panels, you’ll probably have to replace the 10-gauge wire with something thicker.
- The factory install does not provide a battery monitor to allow you to accurately monitor your batteries.
If you decide to do-it-yourself install, you’ll need solar panels, an MPPT solar controller, a battery monitor, a combiner box to combine the cable runs from multiple panels into one cable running in to the interior of the trailer and various cables, connectors and sealant. You’ll also want to upgrade the batteries that come from the factory, either to AGM or Lithium. You may also want to upgrade your inverter.
One additional option: you may want to buy a portable solar panel with an integrated controller, like the ZAMP Solar 200P portable charge kit or the Renogy Folding Solar Suitcase. This will extend your off-grid time, and for more recent Airstream trailers, there is a port next to the hitch where you can plug in directly without any modifications.
Upgrade the Batteries and the Charge Controller
Airstream trailers come with two deep-cycle 80Ah wet cell batteries. These require regular maintenance, and you’ll reduce their serviceable life by discharging them more than 50%. The charge controller that comes from the factory not only works more slowly than a replacement MPPT controller, it can also overcharge the batteries, causing the electrolyte to boil off.
If you have a new trailer, camp for a while with the factory batteries to get a sense for your camping style. If you never boondock and are always hooked up to 30-amp or 50-amp shore power, you probably don’t have to replace the factory batteries until their normal end-of-life. When you store your RV for extended periods of time, you will need a trickle charger or battery tender to maintain or “float” the battery. Battery Minder and Battery Tender tend to be the leading choices. If you want something fancier that will also charge a dead battery, desulfate the batteries and can be used with AGM batteries, C-Tek makes an excellent unit.
If you boondock frequently and/or you add solar, you’ll probably want to invest in number 2 in our list of best Airstream upgrades, new batteries, while also looking into both a battery management system and a charging controller.
You basically have two choices for upgrading your factory batteries: AGM (which stands for Absorbent Glass Mat) and Lithium. AGM is the most cost effective and the easiest to drop-in as a replacement for the factory batteries. A recent review of AGM RV batteries rated the VMAX Solar and Universal Power Group batteries as good choices, but your local auto or marine parts store may also have some good options. A number of people on the Airforums use the Lifeline 220Ah 6V golf cart batteries, wired in series to give 12V. With a modification to increase the height of the battery box, four of these can fit in the existing Airstream battery box and provide significantly more usable power.
If you decide to go lithium, your choices get a little more complex and the initial purchase price is quite a bit higher. You can buy a drop-in replacement or you can buy a bank of batteries and wire them up to provide the amount of Amp hours you’re looking for. You’ll also have to choose between Lithium-Ion and Lithium Iron Phosphate (LiFePO4) chemistries. LiFePO4 is inherently more stable, but built-in battery management systems provide safeguards for many of the potential overheating and other issues associated with Lithium-Ion.
Install a Tire Pressure Monitoring System
If you’re running down the highway, cranking the tunes, and a tire blows on your trailer, will you hear it? If you have a dual-axle trailer, you may not feel the tire blow out, and in the meantime, you may incur damage to your trailer. You’ll also want to know about slow-leaks, as well as under and over inflated tires, which can lead to safety issues, tire wear and reduced fuel efficiency. A good tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS), number 3 on our list of best Airstream upgrades, alerts you to all of these conditions.
Here are some things to consider when selecting a TPMS:
- Are the sensors flow-through or cap-type? Flow-through allow you to add air without removing the sensors, but they are larger/heavier and they restrict the air flow slightly when adding air to the tire. They cannot be used with rubber valve stems. Cap-type sensors are smaller and simpler, but do require you to remove them when you add air.
- Check out the range. If your trailer is under 25 feet in length, you’ll probably be fine. If your trailer is larger, you may need a range booster.
- What conditions trigger an alarm? All TPMS trigger an alarm for a sudden loss of pressure, and most provide alarms for over and under-inflation, as well as temperature. But not all provide an alarm for a slow leak, which can be useful.
- Does the TPMS have a trailer disconnect mode? If you’re monitoring both your tow vehicle and your trailer, this can be useful.
Add a Cell Phone Signal Booster
Staying connected while on the road can be both critical and challenging. In most cases, your best source of connectivity is going to be through a cellular connection rather than a campground’s WiFi network. Many campground’s don’t have a WiFi network at all, and if they do, it tends to be so slow as to be unusable. You want to make sure that you can get as good a signal as possible wherever you are, and that’s why a cell phone signal booster, along with a good antenna, is number 4 on our list of best Airstream upgrades.
If you decide to upgrade your Airstream by buying and installing a cell phone signal booster, I encourage you to start your research at Cherie Ve Ard & Chris Dunphy’s Technomadia site. They have some great free resources and even better resources if you subscribe to their Mobile Internet Afficiandos premium membership. I encourage you to subscribe; the educational material, the equipment reviews and the discounts they’ve negotiated with manufacturers are easily worth the yearly fee.
Add a WiFi Booster
In addition to adding a cell phone signal booster, you may want to upgrade your Airstream with a WiFi booster to grab WiFi in the event that you can find good WiFi at a campground. Again, Cherie and Chris over at Technomadia review the latest gear and can make specific recommendations for a WiFi booster, number 5 on our list of best Airstream upgrades.
Convert your Lighting to LED
Newer Airstream trailers have LED lights throughout and they can reduce the amount of battery drain substantially. If you have an earlier model Airstream that uses halogen or incandescent bulbs, replace those energy suckers with LEDs, our 6th recommendation of best Airstream upgrades. Two popular sites that carry a wide selection of LED plug replaceable lights are LED for RVs and 1000bulbs.com. In either case, you may need to get out your manual or the parts list for your particular model and year in the Airstream document archive to determine which bulbs you have and need to replace.
If you have a newer Airstream that already has LED lights installed, there is one that you may not have considered: the light over your range. Even in newer Airstreams, that light bulb is a halogen unit, and it draws quite a bit of power. You can find an LED replacement here.
Upgrade your Shore Power Connection
The standard shore power connection that comes with your Airstream is a design that has been around for decades. Most of the time, it works fairly well. You do have to ensure that you have the right alignment when you attach the shore power cable, and it’s easy to strip the threads accidentally as you attach the cable. Also, because there is limited contact area in the standard design, the connection can run hot whenever you’re pulling a lot of power, say when you’re running your air conditioner on a hot day. If you’d like some evidence of this, check out this video from James over at the FitRV.
For this reason, 7th on our list of best Airstream upgrades is to replace your shore power connection with the Smartplug Power Inlet and matching connector. The Smartplug has several advantages:
- It runs cooler and is much less likely to overheat
- It is easy to attach as it only goes on one way and you don’t have to examine the prongs, orient the cable and attach. You’ll really notice this when attaching to shore power in the dark.
- It locks the cord to the inlet so that someone stepping on the cord doesn’t inadvertently disconnect it or reduce the electrical contact by pulling it partially out.
- It is weather resistant
It’s fairly easy to install, designed to fit into the same opening and attach to the same wires as the factory-installed shore power connector. If you’re handy, you can probably install it in under 30 minutes. It took me more like 45 minutes, but I’m not particularly handy with anything electrical.
Add a Tankless Hot Water System
If you’ve ever run out of hot water in your Airstream, you’ll want to consider our 8th recommendation for best Airstream upgrades: replace your Airstream water heater with a tankless hot water system like the Truma AquaGo. In addition to providing continuous hot water, these units can also save propane because they don’t have to keep water hot. In many cases, they are also quieter.
Truma AquaGo comes in 3 models:
- Basic – this model basically has an on/off switch, and when you switch it on, cold water will flow for a while before you start getting some hot water
- Comfort – this model has two modes, eco which acts like the basic model, or comfort, which maintains water at 102°F and delivers hot water more quickly. If you go winter camping, this model also has freeze protection, using propane to keep the water above 41°F regardless of the outside temperature. By the way, Truma also has an add-on to the system that will provide freeze protection using an electrical connection rather than propane. This can be useful if your winter storage is unheated and subject to below freezing temperatures.
- Comfort plus – this model circulates hot water throughout the pipes of the system to ensure that hot water is available instantaneously at any faucet or shower head.
One other feature that owners like about the Truma AquaGo is the built-in winterizing valve, which makes it very easy to winterize. Truma AquaGo can only be installed by authorized dealers. You can located a dealer on their web site at https://www.truma.com/us/en/service/truma-service-center.html
Add a Composting Toilet
Once you can produce enough power through solar panels to cover your energy needs, the next resource that is most likely to limit your boondocking time is water. Toilets use a fair amount of water and they also fill up the black tank. 9th on our list of best Airstream upgrades, add a composting toilet. It doesn’t smell and it’s better for the environment. Composting toilets decompose human waste by creating the conditions for micro-organisms to break down the waste and turn it into fertile soil.
Add a Low-Flow Shower Head
Last, but certainly not least on our list of best Airstream upgrades, replace the shower head that comes with the Airstream with a low-flow model with a cutoff switch will also help you save water and extend your boondocking time. Many people in the Airforums use the Oxygenic low-flow shower heads, but I’ve also heard good things about the High Sierra model.
Best Airstream Upgrades that Didn’t Make the List
I have intentionally left off what many consider to be one of the biggest and best Airstream upgrades: upgrading your tow vehicle. While upgrading your tow vehicle can certainly improve your Airstream camping and driving experience, technically it’s not an upgrade to the Airstream itself. Several other upgrades almost made the top 10: permanent winterizing kit, a ductless heater, MicroAir Easy Start and the LevelMate pro leveling system.
What upgrades to your Airstream trailer are your faves?