Renovating our Vintage Airstream Electrical pt.1

Renovation our vintage Airstream is certainly a labor of love. It’s not always easy and sometimes pretty frustrating, but all in all it has been a blast.

As in most RV’s, there are two types of electricity. The first, is much like your home electricity. You plug something into a outlet, and it has electricity. You know that because you get a electric bill each month that tells you  how much you use. This is called AC power. Your home get’s it’s power from the power pole and comes into a circuit breaker box.

The other kind of power is DC power. This is electricity that you would find in your car. You open up your car door and the dome light comes on. Or you plug something into the cigarette lighter and charge your phone. Most cars have a fuse box that operate Turn Signals, Head Lights, Radio, and all the other electrical in your car. As you know, you can turn on these lights without the car running. You also know, that if you keep lights on all night, your car battery will be dead. Of course, when you start your car, your Alternator charges your battery and all your lights run off that alternator when your car is running. As long as your Alternator is working, your battery remains charged.

Having said ALL THAT. RV’s use both AC and DC. So when we got into the electrical part of our Airstream, we had some work to do. The first thing we wanted to tackle was the DC wiring. We literally had to pull every wire that was associated with the Battery that runs the DC. RV’s run DC for: Interior lights, Furnace, Hot Water, and Water Pump. Newer RV’s even have more to run off of batteries. Ours were a mess.

A vintage Airstream Argosy has color coded DC wires that run to different parts of the camper. PINK, YELLOW, PURPLE, and WHITE.  Each color goes to a different circuit that runs lights, water pump, etc. This is where the fun starts. In our Airstream these colored wires ALL run to the battery which was in the battery box located inside. (they all had a door on the outside also. These wires were 40 years old and had to be replaced. So we pulled out every single wire and traced every single circuit to find out where they went.

PINK – Furnace, Hallway Lights, Front Lights, and Porch Lights

YELLOW = Water Pump, Upper Fan, and Hallway Lights

PURPLE = Hallway Lights, Bathroom Lights, and Bedroom Lights

WHITE = Ground Wire

Wires we completely had no intention of keeping were Radio Speaker Wire, Thermostat Wire and Antenna Wire.

We found that the wires ran all the way to the front of the Airstream, then turned around, and ran all the way to the back again. It really looked complicated when we first started figuring out what wire went to what. But then again, it was only 3 different circuits. We did NOT have a fuse box for the DC wiring which ended up being a good thing. It helped us learn and re-build a better system. Some people keep it, but later realize they need a new one.

The biggest help to us was to plan what lights we were keeping and what lights we wanted to add. All the Hallway lights were replaced with LED lights. The Bedroom lights were replaced (with a little creativity). The bathroom lights were replaced, and we had to add a wire for our composting toilet fan. We kept the lights in the front over the couch, the porch lights, and the switch to the water pump.

The new batteries were moved to the front of the Airstream where the Hot Water Tank used to be and all the new wired led there. They were all put behind the inner skins. We attached the new Fuse Box to the New Battery Box. (see pics below)

All of the 12 volt switches were replaced. The old cigarette lighter plugs were replaced with new DC plugs (just like your car) Every single light has a LED light. Some of the old light fixtures we were able to keep and replace the bulbs with LED ones. Again, it really helps to have a plan before tackling this. In the end, we put a Battery Cut Off switch on our battery box, so when we leave the Airstream, ALL DC power is cut off from the battery.

Electrical can be tricky, so make sure you consult with a qualified Electrician if you don’t feel comfortable with it.

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