When you know it’s a bad idea

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The forecast for the next few days is grim. Lows forecast to be something between -8 and -4 (-22 to -20 celcius) depending on the source. But we’ve decided to stay put instead of heading somewhere warmer (Branson, MO in particular). We’re not sure this is a great idea but the roads are dicey. Pick your poison.

Cold weather is a problem in an Airstream. Assuming you have money to burn (on propane), the issue is not comfort. You can keep an Airstream as warm as you like I suppose.

The issue is water. Ultimately water has to come in and it has to leave.

For a while you can live in a closed system. The Airstream has a fresh water tank and both grey and black holding tanks. Two people, living glamorously, can go for a day on the fresh water tank and about the same before needing to dump the grey water. You can typically go for several days – about four – before emptying the black water (sewage) tank. There are extreme-boondockers who can turn a day into a week but we’re not interested in navy showers.

So what? The furnace ductwork in the Airstream has been designed to heat the tanks – fresh water, grey and black. So, theoretically at least, by burning propane you can prevent those tanks from freezing. Our experience in single digit temperatures confirms this.

The difficulty then is bringing in fresh water and eliminating dirty water in sub-freezing temperatures. These are actually two separate problems.

Inbound water is the easier of the two problems to deal with by far. Assuming the campground keeps the water supply turned on, you can ensure the water pipeline remains open by using a heated hose from the spigot to the trailer and a combination of heat wrap/insulation on the spigot itself.

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If we’re only staying a night or two, and temperatures rise above freezing during the day, we’ll usually just fill our fresh water tank and disconnect from the spigot overnight. No big deal and quicker than bothering to insulate the spigot.

Unfortunately outbound water is not an easy problem to deal with. Since the tanks themselves are theoretically heated by the furnace, the main problem is the exposed drain pipes. These are made of some sort of plastic and always freeze. There is a danger of them becoming damaged as a result, although we have been fortunate.

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When (not if) these pipes freeze you must resort to a hair dryer, heat gun or similar. We come at it from both ends and put boiling water down the sinks/toilet at the same time as heating from the outside.

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Ideally though you want to prevent the drain pipes from freezing in the first place. There are a few options here.

First you can go all out, skirt in the bottom of the trailer with some insulating material and add a heat source. ok if you are situated permanently but not really an option for streamers on the go.

Second there are some interesting options using heating pads or crafting a light-bulb based heating contraption between the dump valves.

Third, you can attempt to fill the drain pipes with anti-freeze. Since anti-freeze is denser than water, if you dump anti-freeze into the tanks it should, theoretically, settle at the lowest point (the exposed drain pipes), keeping the water itself in the heated area.

The third option is how we do it. After emptying the tanks we put three gallons of anti-freeze into the black and two gallons into the grey. Airstream suggests one gallon each. We’ll have a real test tonight.

– Anthony, Pomona State Park, Kansas. 25 degrees.

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