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Old 10-17-2013, 11:38 AM   #1
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New Braunfels , Texas
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Newbie Shopping Used Excellas

I know to search topics like this but was hoping for some advice when shopping a used Airstream.

Checking exterior seals for leaks and inside the exterior storage areas and pressing floor areas for soft spots seem to be common suggestions, but could anyone elaborate for me?

Additional things to keep an eye out for? And what is considered a major PITA or mistake when shopping a used 'Stream? And what is generally a tolerable flaw (dents, peeling clear coat or scratches, for instance).

We've found a '94 Excella that looks good and the price is in our range. We realize there will be things that need to be tended to.

Any help would be appreciated.

Thanks in advance,

Andy and Nancy

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Old 10-17-2013, 03:00 PM   #2
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Newbie Shopping Used Excellas

Greetings Andy and Nancy!

Welcome to the Forums and the world of Airstreams!

Originally Posted by NASL View Post
I know to search topics like this but was hoping for some advice when shopping a used Airstream.

Checking exterior seals for leaks and inside the exterior storage areas and pressing floor areas for soft spots seem to be common suggestions, but could anyone elaborate for me?
Moisture infiltration is the enemy when it comes to the life expectancy of an Airstream's floors, particularly if the coach happens to have oriented strand board/wafer board rather than plywood. Moisture infiltration can originate from numerous sources. An penetration to the aluminum skin requires sealant such as Vulkem/Silka-Flex/Alcoa Gutter Seal . . . and any poorly maintained penetration seal becomes suspect for a leak. Moisture can travel many feet from its origin before it appears in the Airstream's interior, but the critical areas to check are all points along the exterior wall that can be accessed. Your are looking for evidence of moisture identified by staining as well as softness (an awl can be used as a probe). Areas below windows or near access doors need particular attention as they are where leaks often begin.

Originally Posted by NASL View Post
Additional things to keep an eye out for? And what is considered a major PITA or mistake when shopping a used 'Stream? And what is generally a tolerable flaw (dents, peeling clear coat or scratches, for instance).
There are a number of issues to be concerned with when considering a 20 +/- year old Airstream. Among these are the major appliances as well as condition of skin/chassis/etc. The following are items that may be issues with an "older" Airstream:
  • Plasticoat/Clearcoat: A twenty year old or older coach is likely to have at least some issues with its coating. Generally, the coatings fail from the top down and can be identified by a "white/chalky" appearance of the skin where the coating has started to fail. The coatings can be stripped an the skin polished, but it is a very labor intensive operation that becomes costly if farmed out to a professional. A professional refinish of the exterior skin can cost between $150 and $250 per linear foot depending upon extent of work required and the professional who is doing the work. This operation has been accomplished by a number of do-it-yourselfers here on the Forums so you can find a variety of threads on the process.
  • Exterior Skin Condition: Exterior skin repairs are not simple and require a degree of specialized skill to be successfully completed. Small dents and scratches are overlooked by many owners as blemishes that demonstrate that the coach has traveled. Deep dents, scratches, tears, etc. require panel replacement (preferred by many enthusiasts) or panel overlays (viewed as patches by many enthusiasts).
  • Axle(s): The Dura-Torque axle(s) have a finite lifespan, and age (at 20 years +/-) becomes an issue as does wear. The rubber rods in the Dura-Torque axles age much more quickly in a coach that doesn't see regular use as the rubber takes as set and looses its flexibility There are a number of threads on the Forums that deal with inspecting axles as well as axle replacement.
  • Frame Condition: This is a factor that is a little difficult to assess due to the aluminum bellypan, but there are clues to the condition that can be gained through observation. The exposed frame rails at the rear bumper, in the wheel wells, and the hitch will give some idea if there has been a history of permitting rust to take over the painted surfaces. You can also rap along the frame rails with your hand or a soft rubber mallet while listening for metallic clinking that may indicate rust spalling of the frame where it is hidden (this is not concrete evidence, but can be a "rough indicator").
  • Major appliances can also be a concern, often due more to age than use:
    • Air Conditioners utilized in RVs tend to have a life expectancy of around ten years with anything beyond ten years being considered exceptional service. The Armstrong Bay Breeze air conditioners utilized on Airstreams through some point in the 1970s or early 1980s are something of an exception to this rule of thumb as they were built with commercial grade components that can still be replaced by a technician who is accustomed to working with commercial cooling equipment. A new air conditioner typically costs between $750 and $1,250 depending upon manufacturer, size, and options chosen.
    • Refrigerators. While an ammonia absorbtion refrigerator has, in theory, an almost indefinite life; in practical use something between 10 and 20 years is considered a good lifespan for the Dometics typically utilized in Airstreams. As with so many things in our RVs, the RV absorbtion refrigerators cost between $800 and $2,000 depending upon Manufacturer, size, and model selected.
    • Water Heaters: The typical modern RV water heater has a lifespan of between 10 and 15 years. A replacement water heat typically costs between $700 and $900 depending upon Manufacturer, size, and model selected.
    • Furnaces: More often than not, the RV furnace ages out before it wears out. Heat exchanges are the most frequent issue where the failure is due to rust producing pin holes that permit carbon monoxide to enter the living area. It seems that ten to fifteen years is a typical life expectancy for an RV furnace. An RV technician can often assess the condition of an RV furnace for a modest fee.
    • Range/Oven: The range/oven is one of the few items that can last for much of the coach's life. I continue to receive good service from the original range/oven combinations in both my 1978 and 1964 coaches. The weak spot on most of these units is the thermostat for the oven.
    • Water Pump: While a comparatively low-cost replacement item, it seems that the typical modern RV water pump has about a ten year life expectancy. On older Airstreams where a PAR (Peters and Russell) water pump was standard, the pump could last the life of the coach with regular maintenance and an occasional rebuild. Both my 1964 and 1978 continue to utilize PAR water pumps.
    • Univolt/Power Converter: Airstream tended to utilize power converters (up until comparatively recent years) that weren't kind to the coach batteries (caused electrolyte to boil under regular use). Unless the power converter is known to be a multi-stage charger with battery maintainer properties, the usual advice is to consider a new converter as a near requirement. New multi-stage converters with battery maintainer features typically start at about $275 and go up depending upon Manufacturer, size, and options chosen.
    • Toilet: While this may seem an odd item to look at, it is something that can be objectionable on an older RV. RV toilets are typically plastic (china models are available, but weren't necessarily installed at the factory), and staining as well as age discoloration can be a problem. It can also be difficult to find replacement parts for RV toilets that are more than ten years old, particularly the parts that may leak water. A new plastic RV toilet typically costs around $275 but can be more or less depending upon the Manufacturer and model chosen.
  • Waste Valves: There are typically two waste valves on most Airstreams. One is mounted on the black water tank and the second is mounted on the gray water tank. These blade valves can be rebuilt or replaced if they happen to leak. The seals on these valves will fail over time, and either rebuilt or replacement will be required . . . with the choice being at least in part based upon the difficulty of accessing the valve . . . readily accessed valves are often rebuilt while difficult to access valves are often replaced (dropping part of the bellypan may be required on some coaches to access the valves).
  • Waste Tanks: While relatively trouble-free, waste tanks can be damaged by freezing, road contact, or road debris kicked up by wheels. Repairs or replacements for damaged waste tanks can be expensive not only due to the cost of the parts, but the cost of labor as well since significant disassembly can be required to complete a repair/replacement. This is an unusual condition to find in a used Airstream, but something to check for particularly on a coach showing significant wear in other areas.
  • LP Tanks: LP tanks utilized on Airstreams are often Aluminum, and they are well worth maintaining. The initial tank certification is good for either 10 or 12 years after which inspection and recertification must be completed on a regular basis. Tanks that have not been recently recertified may need to be retrofitted with OPD Valves and recertified . . . a process that can cost between $50 and $100 for a pair of tanks (be sure that the technician doing the replacement knows the dip tube length difference between steel and aluminum tanks).
Originally Posted by NASL View Post
We've found a '94 Excella that looks good and the price is in our range. We realize there will be things that need to be tended to.
A tool that may help with your inspection/decision is the "Volunteer Inspector Checklist" that is referenced along the right hand margin of the Forums portal or homepage.

Good luck with your investigation!


Kevin D. Allen
WBCCI (Lifetime Member)/VAC/Free Wheelers #6359
AIR #827
1964 Overlander International/1999 GMC K2500 Suburban (7400 VORTEC/4.11 Differentials)
1978 Argosy Minuet 6.0 Metre/1975 Cadillac Eldorado Convertible (8.2 Liter V8/2.70 Final Drive)
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Old 10-17-2013, 05:19 PM   #3
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Wow. That was a very comprehensive answer to the age old Airstream question. Thank you for that. I wish I had that when we bought our first AS. But either we were lucky and the seller was very straight with us. That first one had all systems in working order and we put a lot of miles on it over 4 yrs as we did some upgrades. Now to the posters question regarding what's tolerable on the outside. Your putting out the cash so you have to stand back and take a look at the AS and decide what you can accept. We all have different opinions but you will be the one that has to look at it. Skin replacement is expensive if you need to have it done but it's not beyond the do-it-yourselfer. If your handy it much like working on your house. Satisfy yourself that the biggies are in good order and work on the rest while you enjoy your trailer. Don't be too fussy with an older unit and you'll be fine. There's a lot of support here on the forum. GO FOR IT
Roger in NJ

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