7 simple answers to exterior cleaning questions

All three of our 2023 trips have seen pouring rain, extreme wind, and a lot of dust. And last week we had a “once every two years” Tucson weather event–snow!–while the Airstream sat uncovered in the driveway.

Needless to say, our trailer is filthy.

We’re planning a proper spring cleaning next week, after returning from Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, which is almost guaranteed to be dusty. That got us thinking about the exterior cleaning questions people often ask. 

Here are 7 of our favorites:

1. What’s the easiest way to wash my Airstream?

Take it to a truck wash that uses soft brushes and appropriate cleaning products.

A truck wash will set you back about $40-$50 but it’s worth it for the convenience. Blue Beacon and the like are good options.

2. If I do it myself, which exterior wash and wax products do you recommend?

Any good quality automotive wash will do. Some Airstreamers swear by certain brands but we’ve never found much of a difference as long as you don't use substitutes like dishwashing detergent.

For waxing, any natural or synthetic wax made for painted vehicles is fine. We recommend polymer waxes for at least the front dome because they seem to make bugs stick less, making the next cleaning easier.

You can purchase automotive wash and wax at an automotive store, Wal-Mart, and other retailers. If you’re looking for tips and the process of how to wash the Airstream yourself, you can find those in The (Nearly) Complete Guide to Maintaining an Airstream.

3. How often should I get my Airstream professionally re-coated, treated or polished?

If your Airstream was made after 1999, probably never. (Despite what you may read on the Internet.) Since that year, Airstreams have been delivered with a fluorocarbon clearcoat that’s applied to the aluminum sheets. 

That type of clearcoat is extremely durable and will last for decades. Unless you’ve been full-timing for many years or you’ve let your Airstream bake uncovered in the desert sun for decades, it will most likely last until you sell the Airstream. We don’t recommend full body, clearcoat “restorations” or treatments for the typical Airstream owner, because they are rarely needed.

If you own a pre-1999 Airstream, the answer varies. Airstreams made in the 1970s and 1980s have a “Plasticote,” which will peel over time. Most people just live with this “sunburned” look because the fix is to chemically strip it all off and either polish it yourself (labor intensive) or have it professionally recoated (very expensive).

If you have a vintage Airstream made in the 1940s-1960s, it has no coating at all. Polishing the aluminum is an entirely different topic, better covered in vintage trailer blogs.

4. Can I use a solution of vinegar and water, Windex, or other common brand window cleaners to clean the front window stone guards?

No. The front window stone guards are made of plastic, not glass. Only use cleaners approved for use on plastic. Using vinegar or ammonia-based products will create permanent stains and streaks. 

5. What’s a safe product for removing road tar, tree sap, and dead bugs?

Travel enough miles and these things are likely to stick to your Airstream’s exterior, which makes them too hard to clean off using a regular automotive cleaner.

The good news is that any solvent-based cleaner that is approved for removing road tar on painted vehicles will work for tree sap and bugs, and it won’t hurt the clearcoat. Light mineral spirits, WD-40, or denatured (“rubbing”) alcohol are ok too. And so are automotive products specifically made to remove bugs, sap, and tar. You can find them at most parts stores.

When using solvent-based products, make sure to let them soak in and work their magic before wiping them off with a cloth–always in the direction of the aluminum “grain.” Use a light touch. Rubbing too hard before the debris loosens may scratch the clear coat. Rinse the solvent with vinegar and water, wash normally, and follow with a protective polymer-based paint care product to restore protection. Do not use ordinary wax, as it tends to build up.

6. I’ve been camping at the beach. Should I wash the salt off my Airstream after I get home?

Yes—as soon as possible.

If the Airstream has been parked near salt water or been subjected to salty roads (like during winter travel), you must take care to clean it completely and promptly. If you don’t you’ll be at risk for filiform corrosion which creates “spidery,” white lines near seams, lights, and bumpers. Filiform corrosion is not a good thing, and once you’ve got it, you cannot easily get rid of it.

So, after you get home after a salty-aired trip, take the Airstream through a truck car wash, or at the very least, hose it down thoroughly, including the entire body, hitch, A-frame, wheels, and brakes. 

7. What’s the best way to clean the rooftop solar panels?

Even a single leaf or thin layer of dust can substantially impact the efficiency of solar panels, so keeping them clean is an important maintenance step. Any product that works on glass is ok for use on solar panels. Even rinsing them with plain water will help improve their efficiency.

Use extreme caution any time you get on the roof of your Airstream. 

Working on the roof is extremely dangerous. Never get up there when it’s wet and never stand on the end caps. We recommend standing on a ladder and reaching the solar panels using a long-handled brush. It’s also best to have someone standing on the ground spotting you, just to be safe.

For more details about cleaning and maintaining the exterior of an Airstream, consider the new, 2nd edition of The (Nearly) Complete Guide to Airstream Maintenance.


Jeffery Hammonds

Jeffery Hammonds

Thank you, as always, for your expert advice. This is my manner of maintaining the outside of our Airstream between waxings: When it rains I put a wash/wax soap in a bucket, apply to the surface, let the soft rain water rinse it off, and when the sun reappears I have a shiny Airstream and a smiling owner.

Philip Stack

Philip Stack

Hi, quick question about waxing the clear coat on our 2017 23’ Fly.Cl.
When we bought it at Colonial RV, they recommended using Walbernize wax for the best protection. Since then, I’ve read that, as you say, any car wax for painted vehicles is as good. Would you agree?
Thanks for your reply.
Phil Stack

David Byrnes

David Byrnes

When backing the AS into its parking place, I got too close to a building roof support that had a small piece of nail sticking out on the AS side! It was part of a challenging and difficult back-up procedure that was also rushed! My communications with my spotter suddenly “went sideways” and I ended up with a small 1 inch scratch – enough to get down to (not through!) the raw aluminum.

My reason for writing this up for you is that when I contacted several RV shops seek advice on repairing the scratch, I quickly learned that knew nothing about caring for an AS surface. I called AS Ohio for technical support – they were great – they told me to only use a special small pin point clear paint applicator “clear coat acrylic paint” and carefully cover the scratched area – then let it dry. NOTHING else should be applied to the scratch, ie., no sanding!!!!

I contacted AS Adventures Northwest in Portland and purchased the applicator as recommended by the Ohio rep. The applicator is a product from the Ohio Center, I learned!

I look at the scratch area when hooking up as a reminder to take your time when parking!!!!

I hope this “experience story” can be processed in a way that will help other AS owners know what to do when light scratches happen to their AS’s.

Terry Barnhart

Terry Barnhart

Good article. We’ve been in the Tonto National Forest for the past six months as campground hosts. Can’t wait to clean the dust.

Any suggestions for cleaning the sail switch?



What about the 90’s?

Cheryl Toth

Cheryl Toth

Rob – Sorry to overlook the 90s! In that decade, the name “Plasticote” changed and the formula changed a bit. But the bottom line is that Airstreams produced from 1999 and backward to the point when they had not coating at all were treated with a coating that is going to fail in the way Plasticote does.

Cheryl Toth

Cheryl Toth

Terry – This blog only covers exterior cleaning. The sail switch is located inside the furnace and is a service item; it’s not part of routine DIY maintenance like we’ve covered here.

Cheryl Toth

Cheryl Toth

Philip – Yes, as we said in the blog, any wax for painted vehicles will do. We don’t recommend a specific brand because there are many options out there. Walbernize is one of them.

Cheryl Toth

Cheryl Toth

Jeffery – we love this laid-back and practical approach!

Cheryl Toth

Cheryl Toth

David – Wow, what a story! Thanks for sharing it. When something like this happens, it’s helpful to let other Airstreamers know about it.

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published