Of the three major systems in your Airstream (water, electrical, gas)—which is the one most likely to damage your Airstream?
Electricity can shock you and propane can explode, but of the three systems, seemingly mild-mannered water is the culprit in most Airstream damage. Water leaks will slowly and insidiously soften and eat your Airstream—even Airstreams with the newer composite floors.
I've talked about rainwater and plumbing leaks previously, and you may want to refer back to those for specific information if you're having a problem right now. But if you're not having a problem, let's make sure you never do.
The way to stay away from water-related trouble is to occasionally inspect and maintain the plumbing system. It's easy. As I've written in my book The Nearly Complete Guide to Airstream Maintenance, inspections require almost no tools and anyone can do them.
Here are the essentials of maintaining and inspecting the water system.
Routine maintenance of the water system comes down to three major things:
- Keep the black water tank happy
- Sanitize the fresh water system
- Winterize as needed
- Add an appropriate amount of tank chemical after every campsite dump or trip to the dump station. There are many brands of tank chemicals and you'll find them at places such as RV stores and Wal-Mart.
- Don't flush things that you didn't eat previously–except toilet paper. That means no pre-moistened wipes (even if the package says they are "flushable"), no feminine hygiene products, and nothing made of cloth.
- Don't skimp on water when you flush.
That last one is particularly important. The toilet is not the place to try and use as little water as possible, such as when you are boondocking. If you don't use sufficient water when you flush, solid waste can build up and ultimately create a thick or semi-solid pyramid down there. I've heard woeful tales of this problem too many times, and the cure is messy and expensive.
One more clarification related to flushing: no, you don't need to buy special RV toilet paper. Regular brands of TP won't clog the system, as long as you use enough water when you flush.
You'll find a bit more detail about this in The Newbies Guide To Airstreaming (which you get with the purchase of a new Airstream or can buy on our store).
Another maintenance tip for the maintaining the water system is to replace your water filter (if you use one, or if a filter is built into your faucet) as recommended by the manufacturer. Old filters will slow down the flow of water and eventually won't do much to improve the taste of your water either.
The procedures for sanitizing and winterizing the water system are not complicated, but they do require more detail than I can cover in this blog. Both procedures are outlined in your Airstream Owner's Manual and The (Nearly) Complete Guide to Airstream Maintenance. You can also find these procedures online.
Inspecting the water system is mostly a matter of checking for leaks. Big leaks will generally reveal themselves quickly, but a very slow drip might stay hidden inside a cabinet where you don't notice it.
So take a moment to look inside your kitchen cabinet with a flashlight and a piece of paper towel. You might need to remove some drawers to get a good look. The flashlight will reflect off water droplets, and the paper towel is a great way to detect wetness in places where you can't see or reach.
Most leaks happen at fittings, where two pieces of the PEX piping (usually blue or white plastic tubes) meet. Focus your attention on those spots and where other things join the plumbing, like the water pump, faucets, toilet, city water connector, etc. For tips on how to get access to those things, see my video "6 secret access points for plumbing and repair."
Another common leak point is the connections on the drain plumbing (picture below). Those white or black fittings sometimes work loose during travel, but they're easily hand-tightened. (Don't use a tool.)
You should also inspect the water heater periodically, by opening the cover on the outside of the Airstream. If you have a 2020 model year or earlier, you probably have an Atwood or Dometic water heater with a 6-gallon tank. On these, you should look at the Pressure/Temperature valve and the drain plug to see if they show signs of leaking (see circles in the photo).
The Pressure/Temperature valve is a safety device that is supposed to let water come out if the tank pressure is too high. It will sometimes drip a little bit if you've just turned on the water heater and nobody has run the hot water yet. Running the hot water for a couple of seconds will cure that.
But if it drips all the time, you may need to go through a simple procedure to replace the air gap, or replace the valve. Both procedures are outlined in the maintenance book, as well as the procedure and tools needed to properly replace the drain plug.
Check the exhaust flue and burner tube for bug nests, spider webs, leaves, or anything else. It should be nice and clean, otherwise turn the heater off and remove the debris.
If you have a 2021 or later Airstream with a Girard tankless water heater, your routine inspection is even easier. Just check for debris, and look at the flame when the heater is running—it should be blue. There's no drain plug or P/T valve to service on this type of heater, which eliminates your need to routinely inspect those things.
See how easy it easy to keep an eye on your Airstream's plumbing system? Hardly any tools other than your own eyes and a flashlight or headlamp are needed. Look around once in a while, and you may someday catch a small problem before it becomes a big one.