Vintage travel trailers are an excellent way to connect to the past while enjoying the great outdoors. One might be drawn to vintage trailers because of memories camping with their family in an airstream or traveling to see the national parks—toting a trailer behind the family station wagon. Vintage travel trailers are packed full of charm and classic features that often evoke nostalgia. No matter the reason, that vintage polished aluminum airstream is certain to turn heads cruising into a state park for the weekend.
There can be a sense of security found in traveling away from home in a vintage trailer. Perhaps they just like that vintage look. Regardless, restoring vintage travel trailers has become a passion for many. The restoration process often involves gutting out old trailers to install better insulation, flooring, electrical, and making sure it’s watertight.
During this process, restorers may be disturbing dangerous materials such as asbestos, which was often used in vinyl tiles and insulation materials due to its strength and heat resistance. Asbestos can easily become airborne during the demolition process, where it can be inhaled or ingested. If this happens, it can become lodged in the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart, and cause serious health problems like mesothelioma.
Many do it yourself enthusiasts may not be aware of these potential hazards and should educate themselves on not only the dangers of asbestos exposure, but how to identify asbestos containing products and protect themselves against it. Restoration should be a fun process. Simply knowing what hazards to watch out for will protect you and your loved ones while you restore the vintage trailer you’ve always dreamt of.
Identifying Asbestos in Vintage Trailers
There are numerous items that can contain asbestos in vintage trailers. Some of these materials include insulation, vinyl tile, and brake linings. If you have a vintage RV, there are several car parts that could contain asbestos as well. Some parts such as the hood liner, various gaskets, and clutch plates could have been made with asbestos.
Many travel trailers are insulated to help regulate the internal temperature. Asbestos was often used in insulation materials due to its superior heat resistant properties prior to the partial ban in 1987. Not only was it used for pipe wrap insulation, it was also used in some loose-fill insulation. More often than not, a batt style insulation—a type that generally didn’t contain asbestos—was used in making your vintage trailer. However, insulation of any kind should not be inhaled, and it’s best to keep it off your skin. Treating any insulation as if it contains asbestos is the safest option when doing a demo on your trailer.
One product that is probable in containing asbestos in trailers made before 1987 is vinyl tiles. Due to the high tensile strength of asbestos fibers, it made an excellent additive for tiles. This helped to ensure vinyl tile could withstand the continuous flexing of travel, as well as humidity and temperature changes trailers often endure. There are a few ways to identify asbestos tiles. If the tile in your trailer is 9” by 9”, they most likely contain asbestos. Tile manufacturers have since switched all production to the now common 12” by 12” tile so that asbestos tiles would be easily distinguishable. However, some asbestos tiles, less commonly, were 6” by 6” and 12” by 12”. The best course of action is to have the material tested before moving forward.
Many travel trailers utilize drum brakes to assist vehicle braking power while towing. This is most common for tandem axle trailers with a weight rating of 3500 lbs or more. On older trailers, especially those that have been sitting for extended periods, the brakes will need to be changed. Asbestos was often used—and sometimes still is—in brake shoes. If you decide to redo the brakes yourself, precautions should be taken. There is no way to visually inspect brake linings for asbestos. Brake dust typically collects in the bottom of the brake drum, and can contain asbestos that would easily become airborne. Carefully remove the brake drum and do not blow the dust out with compressed air. One way to safely remove the dust is to wet it down to be wiped out. A vacuum should only be used if it’s outfitted with a negative pressure enclosure and HEPA filter (chances are DIYers aren’t going to have this available).
Protecting Yourself Against Exposure
If you are going to do the demo work on your vintage trailer, you should be prepared to properly protect yourself against exposure to asbestos. Not only is asbestos a hazard during demolition, other contaminants can be harmful too.
If you’re unsure whether your trailer contains asbestos, and don’t want to risk testing it yourself with an at-home test kit, pay an abatement professional to test the material of concern. If your trailer does have asbestos take that risk seriously. If you can’t create a negative pressure chamber with a HEPA filter, it may be best to have an asbestos abatement professional demo the trailer for you. It will give you peace of mind that you and your family won’t be exposed.
If you do decide to undertake the demo yourself there are a few things you should do. As mentioned above, create negative pressure within the trailer using a high quality HEPA filtration device (you can rent these at your local equipment rental). When removing tiles and insulation, wear a tyvek suit and high quality organic respirator. An N-95 mask will not prevent the inhalation of asbestos. It is very important to make sure that the respirator used will appropriately protect you from asbestos exposure. If possible, leave the tile in place, and always wash yourself down immediately after leaving the work area. Remove the tyvek suit immediately after leaving the trailer as well.
Bag any asbestos containing material, then double bag that material after leaving the work area. Federal guidelines for asbestos disposal require bags to be a minimum thickness of .06 milliliters. There are specified dump sites for asbestos materials and these should be utilized to avoid contamination in landfills and health risks for sanitation workers. If you don’t have the means to safely remove asbestos, then you should leave it to a professional.
Once you’ve safely removed and disposed of any asbestos containing materials, you’ll be ready to begin your restoration project. Play it safe with asbestos and other hazardous materials, so you can rest easy knowing you’ll have years of enjoyment in your newly rebuilt vintage camper.