Smart storage tips when you don't winterize

What if it's winter, but you don't want to winterize?

This may seem like a riddle, but it's actually a common challenge for RVers who live or travel in areas where year 'round camping is possible, like the Gulf Coast and the Southwest. Between trips, you may not want to go through the chore of winterizing just to get through a few freezing nights.

One of our blog readers sent in this comment:

Despite wintering in AZ, there are still overnight freezing temps! In your book, The (Nearly) Complete Guide to Airstream Maintenance, you mention “field winterizing”. Perhaps this is obvious, maybe disconnecting water hose & keeping the furnace on, but is there anything else you might do to tide the trailer over for a night or two in below freezing temps?

First of all, if you're actively using your Airstream, you don't need to do anything special to get through a freezing night. The furnace (and electric tank heater, if equipped) will keep the plumbing from freezing. If you're comfortable, the plumbing will be comfortable.

If you travel with a cheap vinyl water hose, it will be damaged by freezing, so it has to be disconnected and drained each night. A better option is the Ultimate RV Water Hose, which won't be harmed by freezing.

If you're out of the trailer or motorhome for a few days and the furnace is turned off, it's a different story. Without the furnace running, some of the plumbing could freeze during a cold snap, and that could cause damage.

For example, our Airstream sleeps in a storage facility for most of the winter, and we pull it out and use it all winter long. It's typical to get a few nights between December and March where the overnight low drops into the "hard freeze" range. But winterizing and de-winterizing between every trip would be a huge hassle, so we use several tricks to sneak past the cold.

When do you need to worry?

In light freezes, you usually don't. For example, in our area the daytime temperatures are nearly always comfortably above freezing, so the trailer warms up in the sunshine and stays warm-ish (at least on the inside) through the night.

A couple of hours during the night dip that dip to temperatures of 29-31° F might put some frost on the outside, but it's not enough time for the interior plumbing to freeze. The danger ends with the dawn, as most winter days in Arizona are sunny and warm quickly.

So if you're trying to decide whether your rig is going to freeze, consider how long the temperatures will be below freezing, and also where it is stored. A low spot tends to collect cold air, and can be freezing when the "official" temperature is higher. If your storage spot gets frost on nights when nearby areas get only dew, that's a strong hint.

Another major consideration is whether you're storing indoors or outdoors. A building (even an unheated one) will trap heat and likely keep your Airstream safe during brief freezing spells outside.

Consider a space heater

We recently left town for two weeks during the chilliest time of year, with the Airstream staying in storage. I was worried about a cold snap hitting town while we were gone, so I put an electric space heater in the Airstream. 

Not everyone can do this, of course. If you don't have an electric outlet available, forget this approach. (You can't run a space heater off the inverter—the batteries will die very quickly.)

Since we have a power outlet available, a thermostatically-controlled mini heater was just the ticket. I set it to keep the temperature at 45°, so it only ran for a few hours each night.

If you do this, be sure to put the heater on the floor, at least 3 feet away from combustible materials. The heater should have a tip-over switch that deactivates it, and you should not use an extension cord. You can get other space heater safety tips from Consumer Reports.

To ensure heat reaches the plumbing, open the cabinet doors beneath the kitchen and bathroom sinks, the bathroom door, any "secret" access doors that reveal plumbing, and the shower door. If you're not sure where these access points are, we shot this video a few year ago, showing where many of them are located. 

When using a space heater, I bring the Airstream home and park it in the driveway so that I can plug it in and monitor it daily. This is important. A space heater is a temporary work-around. It won't be enough if a hard freeze persists for hours, and there are certain risks. The circuit breaker might trip, for example.

(If you're wondering about using the heat pump instead, it won't work. The type of heat pump installed in an RV can't do anything once the air goes below freezing.)

Use the furnace 

The furnace is better than a space heater, because in most Airstreams some heat is ducted under the floor directly to the holding tanks. The downside of the furnace is that it chews through propane quickly.

If I'm not able to use a space heater, I sometimes will leave one propane gas tank valve open so that I can remotely turn on the furnace when needed. 

Yes, I said remotely.

I can activate the furnace from anywhere, thanks to the brilliant Micro-Air Digital Thermostat. With a cellular hotspot running inside the Airstream, I can connect to the thermostat and check the temperature from my mobile phone.

The other morning I woke up at 5:00 a.m wondering if the Airstream was OK in the cold, miles away in storage. In just a few seconds I was able to see the interior and exterior temperatures at the Airstream, using the Micro-Air app. If it seemed dangerously close to freezing, I could then activate the furnace—without getting out of bed at home!

This assumes that at least one gas valve is open, of course. For added safety, I've installed GasStop valves on each tank. With GasStop, I can quickly check the propane system for slow leaks before putting the Airstream away. Also, if I leave a valve open and a rodent chews through a propane line while the trailer is in storage, the gas will automatically shut off.

Two more nice things about the Micro-Air:

  1. I can see the interior temperature whether I'm using the furnace or not. So if an electric space heater is running in the Airstream, I can monitor its performance and make sure it hasn't tripped off.
  2. I can set temperature alarms (high and low) to alert me on my phone if the interior temperature is approaching freezing.

The monitor is easy to read and the programming and set up are straightforward.

Micro-Air Easy Touch digital thermostat for Airstream and RV 

When in doubt, winterize

The workarounds in this blog aren't meant to be used in long freezes. When the daytime temperatures in your area stay below freezing, and you're not running the furnace, you'll have to winterize. If you do need to winterize, check out The Simple Guide To Winterizing an Airstream.

1 comment

Doug Dynes

Doug Dynes

Don’t forget the tankless water heater! This has an “FD” mode for freeze deterrent, which activates when it gets cold (below 40F?). Your 12V system and, I believe, the water heater must be turned on for this to operate. When my outside temp gets below about 35F at home, then I turn on the water heater for the freeze deterrent mode to be active. It does use a little propane, but much less than the furnace.

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published