How Do RV Water Heaters Work?

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Hot water out on the open road is one of the great luxuries of RV camping. Enjoying the great outdoors, camping alongside friends and family, and then coming back to camp for a hot meal and a hot shower. That’s part of what makes RV-ing so appealing – but how does it all work?

There are three options when it comes to heating water in your RV. You can use propane which fuels a pilot light; electricity with the flick of a switch; or heat from the RV’s engine.

RV water heater design overall is fairly simple and has remained mostly unchanged over the years. However, each method of heating water in an RV comes with its own pros and cons. Understanding how your own water heater works and how to keep it running efficiently will make sure you continue to camp with all the luxuries of modern camping.

Types Of RV Water Heaters

There are three sources of heat for RV water heaters: propane, electric, and heat. Propane is the original style, electric is often considered to be the simplest, and heat to be the most economical.

Propane (LP) Only RV Water Heater

Propane water heaters have withstood the test of time. They will run under even the harshest camping conditions as long as there is propane in the tank and some 12v available in your camper’s batteries.

Propane water heaters run just about the same way in your RV as they do in a house. Ignite the pilot light with a spark, and that flame will heat the water in the tank. In RVs, these tanks are usually in the 6 to 10-gallon range.

Water heaters powered by propane don’t rely exclusively on propane. They do require enough power from the 12v battery power from the RV to operate the safety switches which detects gas leaks and failed ignition.

Propane water heaters are the best choice for RV-ers who prefer avoiding campgrounds and towns and who opt for camping in the boonies. Since propane water heaters require only a minimal amount of electric power from the battery to run, they’re the best option for those staying off-grid for their trip.

Hybrid Gas Electric RV Water Heater

While gas-powered water heaters are the classic option, most modern campers have a combination of gas and 120v electric-powered water heaters. They might have a higher cost upfront, but they’re the most versatile option.

These hybrid water heaters allow you to use both gas and electric elements while also heating the water.

However, hybrid water heaters take more time to warm up. They also use a significant amount of electricity, so if you run your electric water heater and another electric appliance, you may trip a breaker.

Tankless RV Water Heater

Tankless water heaters solve the problem of running out of hot water during a long shower. With other RV water heaters, you’re looking at a 6-10 gallon tank. Compared to the standard 40-gallon tank found in most homes, an RV water tank is quite small.

However, tankless water heaters work by running water through the heated pipes of the RV. This means, as long as you are running your RV or just recently parked, you’ll have an endless supply of hot water…until the pipes cool.

If you parked a while ago and haven’t run your RV, chances are you’re looking at a lukewarm shower.

In addition to this shortcoming, they’re also harder to maintain, more likely to have low water pressure, and more expensive. That being said, if you like long, hot showers while you’re out on the road, the tankless option might be the best option for you.

How To Use And Maintain Your RV Water Heater

Keeping an RV water heater up and running is one of the simplest chores RV owners have. Whether you’re new to RV-ing or just new to maintaining your own water heater, here are a few things to keep in mind.

  1. If you have a RV water heater, it is probably manufactured by Atwood or Suburban will likely manufacture your RV water heater. These water heaters are reliable and replacement parts are readily available. Girard is the go-to manufacturer for tankless water heaters.
  2. Don’t forget to empty the water heater during the winter. The last thing you want is for water in the tank to freeze and damage your water heater.
  3. Just like your home water heater, you can adjust the temperature of your RV water heater.
  4. Keep an eye out for insects. They like to build nests in water heaters when they’re not in use, so be sure to clean your water heater when camping season comes around.

Are there any add-on options that can improve my existing water heater?

MotorAid is a nice additional feature for an existing water heater. It recycles engine heat by circulating it around the tank while the RV engine is running. This means that once you’re parked, that hot water will be ready for you.

How do I know which water heater is best for me?

A hybrid gas-electric water heater is great if you usually camp on a grid, like in a campground or in town. If you prefer boondocking, a gas-only water heater is not only reliable but also affordable. However, if you are a full-time RV-er or road trip with an RV full of people, a tankless system is the most reliable way to ensure no one in the group has to take a cold shower.

In Summary

RV water heaters are some of the simplest and most reliable parts of an RV. They are easy to maintain and don’t require massive amounts of fuel or power.

If you enjoy camping in the great outdoors but still want all the creature comforts of home, then your RV water heater is going to be your best friend. Regardless of where you camp or how you camp with your RV, your water heater will help you feel like you’re home.

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