The Danger That Lurks… Airstream and Aluminum Wire

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People new to the world of vintage trailers often ask me if a particular trailer looks like a “good one”. Sometimes the trailer is a good one, sometimes it’s a trailer that looks like a good one but is really a shell on the verge of imploding on itself. Most are somewhere in between.

One of the trailers we are working on is a 1966 Airstream Safari. This trailer came to us to be gutted and turned into a mobile boutique trailer. At first glance the trailer really looked solid, however once we started removing the furniture and the laminate plank floor that covered, or more accurately hid, the plywood floor below, it became evident that this trailer, while having a great body, was in dire need of a lot of attention. Hidden below the plank flooring were areas of rot from where the windows have leaked over the years. And as is typical for mid to late 60s Airstreams, the floor in the rear of the trailer was shot. Not a big deal, plywood floor replacement is something we do on a regular basis. The surprise was that Airstream ran the ac power wiring for the refrigerator through a seam in the aluminum. No strain relief, no protective grommet, just the jacketed 10/2 w/ ground wire rubbing against the sharp aluminum edge of the interior skin. Granted, the wire had not shorted – yet; there is no way to tell how long the circuit would have remained intact. None the less, this was a hazard waiting to happen. A good example for thoroughly going through the systems on these old trailers and not just assuming that because everything works and is presentable that it will be safe and dependable; emphasis on the word ‘safe’

As a postscript to this hazard is another fact that every mid to late 60s Airstream owner needs to know if they are not already aware. Airstream used aluminum wiring for ac and dc voltage circuits starting in the mid 1960s. You can determine if your trailer has aluminum wire by reading the jacket of the wire – it will tell you the conductor sizes and if it is aluminum will have the notation AL. Airstream used 10/2 with a ground on the ac wiring circuits and 10/2 on dc circuits. Neither wire is ideally suitable for use in a travel trailer. The ac circuits are the primary concern. If you can’t rewire the trailer then I would recommend you purchase new duplex wall outlets that are designed for use with aluminum wire and replace all of the wall outlets. It would not be uncommon to find wires that are nearly burned in two at the outlet or insulation on the hot conductor that is discolored from heat. Also, I would make every effort to replace all of the higher load circuits, such as the air conditioner circuit, with copper wire. And lastly, I would look at the connections at each circuit breaker making sure they have not been overheated and are not loose.  For good measure I would dip the end of each wire in Noalox to help prevent the bare aluminum wire from oxidizing. Proper wiring design and techniques are crucial for a safe trailer.