RV Water Heater 101: What You Need to Know

Derrek Sigler
by Derrek Sigler

Your RV water heater is important for your comfort and enjoyment when you’re out camping. Keeping it in peak condition is not only important for comfort, but also your safety. Here’s what you need to know to enjoy hot water while in camp.

Many RVs are equipped with a water heater of some kind that provides hot water for sinks and showers. Just like the water heater in your home, sometimes these units need maintenance, repair or replacement. An RV water heater is basically a smaller version of a home heater, with tanked water heaters and tankless, on-demand water heaters available. Let’s run through some common questions and solutions that you should know to get the most enjoyment from your RV water heater this season.

What do I do if my gas RV water heater won’t light?

This is probably an issue with the pilot light or ignition won’t spark. This can happen if there is dirt or soot build up on the ignitor, or if there is a gas-flow problem. You can clean the ignitor with a toothbrush and baking soda, but if there is an issue, replacing the ignitor is cheap and easy to do.

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What do I do if there seems to be a gas issue?

If there is a gas flow issue, that is more serious. The first thing to do is make sure your gas is shut off. You don’t want to mess around with gas. As long as the connections look good, and the best way to check this is with some soapy water in a spray bottle. You spray the water on the connections and if it bubbles, there is a leak. Assuming no leaks, the gas valve might need to be replaced. A valve costs a little more, but is not as expensive as a full-blown RV water heater replacement. Plus, it adds a little peace of mind.

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The thermocouple can also be the culprit. It’s another cheap and easy replacement. Just be sure that all connections are safe before using. That soapy water concoction works wonders for seeing if there are leaks anywhere.

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What do I do if my RV water heater starts making a lot of noises?

First things first, stop using it immediately! The usual causes for noises are from buildup, both from lime scale or mineral deposits, or from soot on gas heaters. To fix this issue, there are a couple of ways to go. First things first, you need to completely drain your tank. Then you should flush it with a mixture of water and either vinegar, hydrogen peroxide or bleach. Be careful and only use ONE of these. After it’s flushed, if there is still an issue, you can go to something stronger, like CLR. Just remember that you’re going to have to flush it again several times to ensure that all the cleaner solution is cleared before you use the hot water heater again for use while camping.

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Anode Rods

While you’re at it, if there is any build-up in the tank, you should replace the anode element. These break down over time and cause part of the build up inside the tank. Going to a magnesium anode can prolong the life of your water heater. If you have smelly water, aluminum/zinc rods are a better choice. The best thing is, the rods are cheap, so replacing them often saves you more money in the end and makes for a more enjoyable camping experience.

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What do I do if my electric water heater isn’t working right?

Electric RV water heaters have some of the same issues as gas. The biggest culprit is mineral build up and you can go through the same steps for cleaning the tank out as you would for gas. The best thing to do for the performance of your water heater is to replace the heating element. Thankfully, again, this is a cheap and easy fix, as most just simply screw in. Make sure the tank is empty and the electricity is turned off before you do it.

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What if I have to replace my RV water heater?

Is you have to replace your RV water heater, it’s not the end of the world. In fact, it’s not as expensive as you might think, and all you really need to know is what size unit do you need to put in. Gas water heaters that run off your RV’s LP propane tanks run less than $400 on average and can be replaced with moderate mechanical ability in an hour or so.

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Electric RV water heaters give you more options, especially if you’re looking to make a change to your RV layout, or if your RV doesn’t have a water heater to begin with. There are multiple options for tankless electric water heaters, but we’re partial to the Bosch unit because it is so easy to install and use. All you need to know is your wattage rating, which you should have in your RV owner’s manual. These heaters are used in cabins and even in houses, so they are solid and reliable.

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What water heater options do I have for my RV?

One of the things we get asked a lot about RV water heaters is, what if I don’t have one in my RV, like with certain expandable trailers, or if I’m not comfortable using the one in my RV? There is a great option for you with a portable RV water heater unit. Camplux makes a water heater unit that can be mounted or even made portable to runs off your LP tank. It even includes a shower head, so you can use it as a camp shower. We’d suggest a camp shower tent if you’re outside, but hey… no judgements.

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