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How to Install a New Airstream Rooftop Air Conditioner AC Unit

Updated on July 21, 2017
Randy Godwin profile image

Randy is a lifelong lover of the outdoors and especially camping. This article is intended to help the RVer save money and time on repairs.

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Why Buy a New Airstream Rooftop AC?

Your Airstream rooftop AC has seen its best days and you are ready to replace it with a new unit. The newer rooftop units are more efficient and do a better job of cooling your Airstream than the older models ever did. This article is intended to help you replace the old rooftop cooling unit yourself with very little effort on your part.

The Airstream travel trailer in this article is a 1986 Airstream Sovereign with an old Coleman Mach rooftop air conditioner. The air conditioner had given good service over the years, but the fan motor was giving problems. We decided replacing the fan motor would cost too much money when we could buy a new unit for a little over twice the price of that work.

Even if we replaced the fan motor, the AC compressor was old and could malfunction at any time, and if it did, we would have to spend more money on repairs than a new rooftop unit would cost. So the obvious solution was to install a new cooling unit on the Airstream Sovereign travel trailer.

Choosing and Buying a New Airstream AC

We chose to go back with a Coleman 13,500-BTU rooftop AC because it had the same overhead clearance as the previous Coleman unit. Also, it came complete with the ceiling assembly and didn't require any other parts, unlike some of the other units made by Carrier and Dometic. It was the best rooftop air conditioner for the money among those we researched, and since it was similar to the unit we already had, we figured replacement would be easier.

Other fine units are made by Carrier and Dometic, also well known for their efficiency and reliability. The choice of make and model is yours. As they are all installed similarly, this article will work just as well for all of them.

The old unit is ready to be replaced
The old unit is ready to be replaced | Source

Removing the Old AC

Because of the shiny aluminum skin covering most Airstream travel trailers, it is very important to use proper support and padding while replacing the rooftop unit, to prevent damage to the roof covering. This includes removing the old unit carefully and cleaning the roof thoroughly before installing the new one in your Airstream.

Be sure to disconnect the electrical power from the trailer before removing the old unit. Remove the old ceiling assembly and disconnect the main electrical line from the AC unit. If you are hesitant about doing the electrical connections yourself, have someone experienced do this for you.

There are only three wires to disconnect and removing them should pose no problems for you at this time. Remove the four bolts used for attaching the old rooftop unit to the ceiling assembly. After you remove the AC shroud by loosening the four nuts holding it in place, the old rooftop unit can be carefully removed and lowered to the ground.

Removing old ceiling assembly
Removing old ceiling assembly | Source
Removing retaining bolts from ceiling flange
Removing retaining bolts from ceiling flange | Source

Rooftop Cleaning and Preparation

Using the putty knife to loosen the old AC gasket seal
Using the putty knife to loosen the old AC gasket seal | Source

In some cases the Airstream AC gasket has been treated with a sealant, perhaps several times over the many camping seasons. These sealants usually cause the old rooftop AC units to be stuck in place which requires using a thin putty knife to separate the old gasket from the Airstream roof. Carefully slide the putty knife beneath the old gasket until the unit can be easily removed.

Cleaning the A/C attachment area
Cleaning the A/C attachment area

Remove any lingering roof coating adhesive with a strong solvent, being careful not to let it discolor the area outside of the new gasket contact area. Check for any jagged edges or rough spots which could cause the gasket to allow moisture to seep through. This is a very important step to prevent leaks around the new rooftop AC unit.

Installing the New Air Conditioner

New rooftop unit atop the Airstream
New rooftop unit atop the Airstream | Source

You are now ready to transport the new unit to the rooftop of your Airstream travel trailer. Remove the new protective shroud first, to make the unit easier to handle.

Unless you are very strong you will need some help getting the unit up to the roof. Be very careful if using ladders, as it is easy to lose your balance while lifting the new air conditioner.

Situating the new unit correctly requires some help, so that you don't have to go up and down the ladder several times to check both the inside and the rooftop while you are aligning the new unit. If you loosely connect the four retaining bolts through the ceiling flange, you can move the new rooftop unit around until it is evenly spaced in the 14-inch-square duct hole in the Airstream roof.

Attaching the retaining bolts through the ceiling flange
Attaching the retaining bolts through the ceiling flange | Source

Once you have the new unit in the right spot you can tighten the bolts, which compresses the new gasket and insures a watertight seal.

If you purchased the optional heating element for your rooftop AC, proceed to install it according to the enclosed directions. This is a simple plug-in assembly for electrical connections.

Situating the duct and attaching the control wires
Situating the duct and attaching the control wires

Connect the Airstream line electrical wires to the new AC unit by using wire nuts and replacing the cover of the junction box. The ceiling assembly is usually attached by four screws to the ceiling flange. Install the new rooftop AC shroud with the four retaining nuts. Reconnect the power supply to the Airstream, and the job is finished.

The attached RV AC ceiling assembly ready for the filter cover
The attached RV AC ceiling assembly ready for the filter cover

Using and Maintaining Your New Airstream AC

Test the new unit to ensure everything is working correctly with no circuit breakers kicking off. Now you are ready to stay cool for many seasons to come while enjoying your classic Airstream travel trailer. Good luck on the installation and congratulations on the money you will save by installing the rooftop unit on your Airstream yourself.

If you do annual maintenance, such as cleaning the coils and oiling the AC fan motor, your unit will efficiently cool your Airstream travel trailer for many years of camping enjoyment for you and your future grandchildren.

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    • profile image

      Kyle 3 weeks ago

      Thanks for helping keep $500 in my wallet!! Really appreciated. :-)

    • Randy Godwin profile image
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      Randy Godwin 2 years ago from Southern Georgia

      Hello Jim, I assume this is an older AC unit if the ceiling assembly is riveted onto the ceiling, so no, you cannot replace only the upper part of the unit. And besides, a new unit will normally come with the ceiling assembly included in the price.

      A 14 inch hole is standard in most RV applications but yours, being an older model, may be a bit different and may have been modified for some reason or another. You'll just have to measure it to be sure.

      About the thermostat wiring, you have two options if you want the heat strip in the new AC. Get a unit with manual controls mounted on the AC itself, or install a thermostat compatible with the new AC unit. I cannot say how difficult running the wires for the thermostat may be, but might be able to use the existing wiring.

      Thanks for the question and I'm sorry for the delay in responding to your question. I'm presently enjoying a 2 month camping trip myself so I'm kind of lax about checking my messages and comments. :)

    • profile image

      Jim Holway 2 years ago

      Randy. I have a 1969 Sovereign. The ceiling assembly unfortunately is riveted into the ceiling (looks like you had 4 screws to remove for the removal shown in this article). There is also a circulation fan at the bottom of the ceiling assembly. Do I need to drill out all these rivets and pull this out. Or do I just leave this in place and work from the top of the trailer to pull out the existing AC. When I pull this all out will I have a standard 14 inch hole (seems bigger based on what the existing ceiling assembly looks like). And will I also have to replace the existing (original I assume) ceiling assembly or can I leave it there and just purchase and install the upper unit? I just have AC now. If I was to get heat with the new AC would I need to install a new thermostadt and would I need to run new wiring for this or could use the original thermostadt wiring. Thank you. Jim (holway.jim@gmail.com)

    • Randy Godwin profile image
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      Randy Godwin 3 years ago from Southern Georgia

      Glad to help, Jimmy. Sometimes we just have to bite the bullet if we have older RV equipment. Thanks for the question. :)

      RG

    • profile image

      Jimmy 3 years ago

      Randy, thnx and your advice was right on target. Will get new Ac ASAP. This was original ac. A dinosaur at that.

    • Randy Godwin profile image
      Author

      Randy Godwin 3 years ago from Southern Georgia

      Yo Jimmy, use a dull putty knife or anything thin enough to break the seal free. Sometimes one finds where the last guy used a sealant of some sort to ensure a good waterproof seal. Not necessary in most cases. let me know if I can further assist you in any manner and thanks for the question.

      Randy

    • profile image

      Jimmy 3 years ago

      My ac unit not removed so easily, suggestions? I own a 1975 Land yacht. Is it the seal, more effort needed to remove this unit? Mucho Thnx, I love working on the restoration tasks.

    • Randy Godwin profile image
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      Randy Godwin 6 years ago from Southern Georgia

      Hi Lowell,

      If the AC is a roof mounted model, as in most cases, the battery does not control the AC unit. Your problem sounds like the compressor is not functioning properly.

      Apparently, the compressor is trying to run but cannot. This would cause it draw more amps, thus making the lights dim. An amp meter is needed to see if the compressor is pulling more amps than is required, as indicated on the compressor itself.

      If the compressor is indeed bad, it is often better to replace the entire unit because of the expense of installing a new compressor. I hope this isn't your problem but it sure sounds like it.

      Thanks for your question. You might check the capacitor to be safe before giving up on the compressor.

      Randy

    • profile image

      Lowell 6 years ago

      Randy, I have been told that the Airstream trailers must have a battery installed in order for the air conditioner to work properly. Isa this true. Mine blows just fine but the compressor does not kick in. The lights and such go from bright to diminished also like it is not getting enough power. I use a 10 ga. cord.

    • Randy Godwin profile image
      Author

      Randy Godwin 7 years ago from Southern Georgia

      Sorry Gary, but your link gives bad vibes when clicked on! But I will repeat your question for you!

      Gary asked : "Is there a chart or table which gives the roof cut out size for both the airstream and the AC unit? I do not want to do any cutting or additional bracing."

      The standard size hole required for a rooftop AC is 14" square. This is the same size as the existing hand cranked vents in most Airstream travel trailers.

      This means a new rooftop AC unit may be installed in these pre-existing vent holes. All that is required is for a 110 volt electrical line be supplied for the power.

      In other words, no need to make a new duct hole if a vent is already available. Thanks for reading!

    • Randy Godwin profile image
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      Randy Godwin 7 years ago from Southern Georgia

      You are probably correct, Suzi. But it shouldn't be too difficult to snake a wire between the hollow walls of your Airstream. You probably already have a 14" X 14" ceiling vent in the roof anyway. A rooftop A/C unit will fit right in. A small 12-2 wire is all that's required to furnish electrical power

      Your Airstream is a classic and is well worth updating and using. Good luck!

    • profile image

      Suzi 7 years ago

      Well, it's a 1965 Airstream TradeWind, so I'm guessing it's not likely that the wiring is there.....

      That's disappointing.

    • Randy Godwin profile image
      Author

      Randy Godwin 7 years ago from Southern Georgia

      It depends, Suzi. If the camper is fairly new the wiring may already in place. But in most older models the wiring must be put into place. This is accomplished by snaking the wiring through the walls and ceiling or by running the wiring on the inside walls and ceiling to the correct location.

      A special channeling made for covering this type of wiring can be purchased at most Lowe's or Home Depot building supply stores.

      It really depends on the construction of your particular camper which method of wiring is used. I hope I helped you with your question and thanks for reading!

    • profile image

      Suzi 7 years ago

      Say you've never had an AC unit in the camper. Is there wiring in place in the ceiling just in case you might want to install a unit, or do you have to get the wiring up there somehow?

    • Randy Godwin profile image
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      Randy Godwin 7 years ago from Southern Georgia

      The gray duct is cut to fit, Darin! It serves to both intake and circulate the air. In some cases there is a bracket used for securing the cut end through the ceiling vent. If not cut to fit, it may cause restriction to the air flow. Thanks for viewing my article!

    • profile image

      Darin 7 years ago

      How does the gray duct that is hanging down in your last picture fit in. Does it lay towards the front or the back, do you cut it to fit? I just let it go towards the front of the unit and most of the air is blocked coming out the back. I assume this is the intake.

    • Randy Godwin profile image
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      Randy Godwin 7 years ago from Southern Georgia

      I hate installing ceiling fans much more than replacing these rooftop AC units, Kaie! The hardest part is getting the new one on the roof. Don't give up! Thanks for your time!

    • Kaie Arwen profile image

      Kaie Arwen 7 years ago

      :-D I still can't install the ceiling fan that's been sitting in my garage since last summer............... I CAN"T DO THIS!!!!!!!!!

      I could make sure it needs a few extra repairs though........... that, I am good at.

      Thank you for trying to make it clear; I'll think of this like I think of my kids at school.............. if you can reach just one, it's all worthwhile........ so for you, if you can teach just one......... you've done a great thing here!

      Kaie

    • Randy Godwin profile image
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      Randy Godwin 7 years ago from Southern Georgia

      Thanks Aaron! I try to make it as clear as possible for those who are not experienced in such repairs.

    • profile image

      AARON99 7 years ago

      An eleborately explained hub from all aspects. Well done. Enjoy.

    • Randy Godwin profile image
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      Randy Godwin 7 years ago from Southern Georgia

      Actually, it is a piece of cake! One of the easier repair jobs.

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      You make it sound so easy!

    • Randy Godwin profile image
      Author

      Randy Godwin 7 years ago from Southern Georgia

      Yes HH, one of the easier Airstream repair jobs. Thanks for the comments.

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 7 years ago from London, UK

      Mmmm interesting and thank you for sharing. It is amazing how easy and simple it is.