RVing 101 Guide: Water Heaters

A brief guide on RV water heaters for beginners

RVing by the water

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If your RV has plumbing, chances are you have a water heater. The RV water heater will be smaller than the unit you have at home or in your apartment, but it works the same. It heats water so that you have access to hot water for everything from showers to washing your hands to doing the dishes.

All RV owners should know these basics when it comes to their RV water heater as this comes in handy whether you’re cooking, cleaning, showering, or more on the road.

RV water heater
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RV Water Heaters 101

The first thing to know about RV water heaters is that they’re powered by propane. Unless you’ve invested in a tricked-out class A motorhome, motorcoach, or luxury RV, you’re going to be using propane with your water heater and other appliances.

Most RVs use anywhere from a six-gallon tank to a ten-gallon tank depending on the size of the unit. Some water heaters work only with propane; others work with propane and electricity hook up. Refer to your RV’s manual to determine the power source for your water heater.

Most RV water heaters use a pilot light. Some models may come with direct spark ignition. If you have the latter installed in your RV, you’ll use a switch inside the RV or trailer to turn on the water heater once parked. If you use the former system, you’ll need to light the pilot light of the water heater after parking and leveling your RV or trailer.

Like your water heater at home, there are built-in safety systems to ensure that the water doesn’t get too hot or that pressure doesn’t build up. Make sure to refer to the instructions that came with the recreational vehicle on your unit’s water heater to ensure you know what measures are in place and how to deal with any safety issues that occur for your specific model.

Pro Tip: The hotter you like your water, the more propane you’ll use to heat it. Try and find a moderate water temperature, a bit cooler than you’d enjoy at home to save on propane costs during a trip.

Before Your RV Water Heater’s First Use

Before using your RV water heater for the first time, you want to make sure it’s filled with enough water. Again, refer to your manufacturer’s guidelines for how to fill and maintain the water within the unit.

For most RVs, the following steps can be applied to RV and trailer water heaters:

  • Check the water heater bypass valve.
  • Open it up and let the water flow into the primary tank.
  • Now, connect your RV to a nearby water outlet and use the onboard pump to start pumping water.
  • Turn on the hot water tap.
  • Water will begin to flow through your lines into the heating tank.
  • Fill it to its fill line and then your water heater will be ready to go.

Pro Tip: Again, check with your manufacturer’s instructions on how to fill the specific water heater for your RV or trailer before using it for the first time.

When not in use, make sure to drain your water heater, especially for winter and if putting the motorhome or trailer in storage for the off-season. If you fail to do this, you may end up with mold, mildew, and having to replace your water heater early.

RV Water Heater Maintenance

Like most of the components of your RV or trailer, they need little maintenance if you inspect, clean and take care of them on and off the road. Your water heater is no different.

  • Depending on the type of water heater you use, you may need more than once a year cleaning.
  • Make sure your water heater is part of your regular RV maintenance schedule and whenever you take your rig to the shop, have them look at it to ensure it’s in working order.
  • When winterizing your RV or trailer, you should always drain the water heater of all water and ensure its lines are cleared. You’ll follow the same steps for all the lines in your RV or trailer to ensure your water heater is ready for winter or a long stretch of being parked out of use.

Pro Tip: If you're not confident you can maintain your RV water heater, consider taking it to your RV dealer or a repair shop and let them take care of it. Make sure to do this if you notice any issues or yearly before you start traveling for the year.

Now, you know everything you need to take care of your RV water heater and ensure it stays functioning on and off the road.