RV Water Heater Maintenance: The Ultimate Guide

When living in your home or apartment, there are a few things you start to take for granted. Having hot water all the time is one of them. Hot water heaters for RVs changes your mindset because it's no longer a set it and forget it type of appliance. I'll go over all the things you want to look for in your rv water heater to make sure you're not stuff with no hot water.

What Types of RV Water Heaters are There?

There are a few different types and two major brands of hot water heaters. You likely have an electric, propane, or combo type of water heater. These are great to accommodate when you are hooked up or when you are boondocking. Usually the combo version will automatically switch between the electric and propane like your refrigerator does.

Your water heater will likely be either a 10 gallon water heater or a 6 gallon version. We have a class C so our rv water heater is the smaller, 6 gallon type.

With a 6 gallon water heater, you’ll want to take your showers quickly and efficiently and save your longer showers for when you are at an RV park and can use their bathrooms. We’re pretty efficient with our showers because we have a shower head that we can turn on the water, adjust the temperature and then the shower head has a knob to shut off the water while you are washing your hair. The point with the knob is to allow save water without making you redo the hot/cold knobs every time. You can just set it up and keep the same temperature throughout the shower.

The two main water heater brands are the Atwood water heater and the Suburban water heater. Check yours to see which one you have. You should also have a pile of owner’s manuals for all your appliances on your RV. These manuals come in handy when you have to troubleshoot an issue or when doing maintenance on your RV

How Do RV Water Heaters Work?

The quick and easy explanation to how does and rv water heater work is that you have the control panel for your rv system and you can turn the rv water heater switch on. This fires up the propane line to the water heater that heats the water in the tank. If you have an electric rv water heater, then you have electric elements similar to an electric stovetop where the element heats up the water because it’s getting hot as well.

All the water heaters have a fixed thermostat that turns off the heating component to the water heater when it reaches a certain temperature. With the combo setups where you have propane and electric, you’ll also have two separate fixed thermostats that deal with each of them. Fixed thermostat means that there is no way to adjust the temperature for the hot water heater.

How to Light RV Hot Water Heater

Luckily many of the rv water heaters come with remote switch and electric starter so you just hit the rv water heater switch on your control panel and it should come on automatically.

Older models can have a manual lighting switch where you have to use a match to light it, but none of the newer models require this anymore.

Turn on the Switch and you’ll initially see a red light come on. This is a good sign showing you that the water heater ignition switch is activating, but then the light should go out. However, if the red light comes back on, it means that the water heater didn’t light. Try it again by turning it off, wait a few seconds, then turn it back on. This starts another lighting cycle If it lights, the Red Light will not come back on, if it does not light, the Red Light comes back on. Turn it off, wait a minute and turn it back on. This will start another lighting cycle to turn on your water heater.

If you try to turn on your water heater and it seems like nothing happens, think about when you last used it. If you had it on recently and turned it off, the water might still be hot on the tank and turning on the switch doesn’t do anything because the fixed thermostat is still registering the water as hot enough to not turn on.

When you turn your water heater on, it will take it about 20 minutes to heat the 6 gallon rv water heater and you can choose to keep it on all the time or only turn it on when needed. We tend to just turn it on when we need to wash dishes or take a shower. Our biggest reason for this is because our 6 gallon hot water heater only runs on propane so we don’t like wasting the propane gas just to have it on.

Conversely our friend with an electric water heater keeps hers on the whole time while she’s camping somewhere. She has a combo water heater where she can heat it with propane if she’s boondocking or keep it turned on the whole time while on shore power and she’s running 120V AC switch.

RV Water Heater Maintenance Ideas

As I stated before there some extra things you have to do with your RV water tank that you don’t have to worry about with a home or apartment water heater and there are times when you want to perform some maintenance on the water heater. One of the things you want to do at least annually, more if you live fulltime in your RV is to drain your rv water tank.

Draining the tank removes all the build up residue that months of using it at various campgrounds and the calcium buildup can bring. It also allows you to check the anode for the tank. By and large, the anode will corrode before the tank does. This is by design to keep your tank from eroding first. If the anode erodes first, then you can replace it and work to keep your water tank clean.

If you don’t live full time in your RV and you live in a cold area, then you’ll want to follow some steps to winterize your rv water heater. Here are some great steps to winterize your water heater.

RV Water Heater Troubleshooting

In future post, we’ll dive deeper into some rv water heater troubleshooting topics, but for this part there are a few popular issues and simple solutions that we can cover now.

My Water Heater Won’t Come On- As I stated earlier, sometimes the water might be hot enough because you had it on recently so when you go to switch it on, nothing happens. Check to make sure you don’t already have hot water in the tank.

A few other things to check is if you are level. Many tanks are sensitive to level and the propane pilot light will likely not light if it’s tilting over

My Water Doesn’t Get Hot- This video describes how you can actually have open valve that combines the hot and cold water. Check your outdoor shower and your bypass valve to make sure you’re not doing that.

Here is a video that outlines this issue:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IsiXaMEneaY

Hot Water Pressure is Low– If your cold water pressure is fine, but the hot water is just trickling, then you’ll want to check your anodes or your rv water tank for debris in there. Oftentimes, the tank can get build up of various calcium deposits from the different water sources we connect to while on the road.

Here is a great video showing you how to drain your water heater and clean it out of any debris that might be clogging your hot water heater.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FetCP9Bi22g

Leaking Pressure Relief Valve- This is actually what we are dealing with now. Water leaks out from the tank area when we turn on the water heater. This is likely due to a faulty valve and you can just get a replacement valve to fix the leak.

Final Word on RV Water Heater

Since a faulty water heater was one of our first issues when we started traveling in an RV, I wanted to make sure I setup a massive guide of sorts to help others keep their rv water heater functioning properly.

It’s really an easy task but one that you have to stay on top of with the maintenance schedule or being willing to getting a little dirty or wet when troubleshooting. Luckily a non working water heater won’t leave you stranded on the road, just a little smelly.

Have a question about RV water heater? Leave a comment below ? I’m happy to help you with answers on your RV Living Now journey!

13 thoughts on “RV Water Heater Maintenance: The Ultimate Guide”

  1. My rv has been having this same issue. I had no idea that bugs could actually nest inside the tube. I would love to avoid any big repairs so I’ll look more into having that cleaned. Thanks for sharing this.

    Reply
  2. These are some awesome tips about maintaining and fixing my RV water heaters. RV water heaters is common for them to go out quickly if you are not maintaining it. The other month we went on a vacation trip and that’s when I found out that my RV water heater didn’t work. It’s always you least suspect when it will go out it seems like. Thanks for posting this article, it’s taught me a lot of how to maintain the heater.

    Reply
  3. we live full time in our rv and so far have only turned our gas on to heat water when we need it, is it best to only heat it when we use it, or can we let it stay hot all the time? we have power issues at our current location so we dont use the elec. option only the propane, but feel i may be wearing it out turning it off and on every other day or so, for up to an hour each time..

    Reply
  4. I have an Atwood pilot lite hot water heater it turns off be fore.the water get hot even the pilot for out I have new thermocoupler an gas line is there a remote for this hwh?

    Reply
    • why doesn’t my pilot lite on Atwood gas water heater stay on i have a new thermocoupler drained tank cleaned the pipes I called AmeriGas they came out but there is a gauge on top of there gas tank that says remote ready could it b accessed by a crazed neighbor

      Reply
    • Hi Jo,
      If it’s really low, then the water heater won’t work. For the water heater to work, it needs 11 Water Column Inches of propane pressure. You typically can only test that with specialized tool. But check to see if your furnace or something else that requires propane is working ok. This can help troubleshoot if it’s low propane or an actual issue with the water heater.
      If you can, also try filling up the propane tank to rule that out.

      Reply
  5. My grandparents are planning on buying a new RV, and they asked if my husband and I would like their old one. I’ve been reading up on what is involved with the maintenance, so learning about the water heater is really helpful. I think turning off the water heater when you aren’t using it sounds like a good way to conserve the propane gas. How often do you need to refill the tank? I’m wondering if it would be helpful to pay for regular propane deliveries.

    Reply
  6. I have a 6 gallon Atwood hot water heater propane only. The tank kicks on periodically to keep the water hot. I’m having a problem with only getting about a gallon of running hot water before it turns cool. Any suggestions on what the problem could be.

    Reply
  7. I was asked the following question which I’m not real sure what he’s referring to

    “So it appears I over loaded my trailer and damaged the binzendorfe (spelling?) valve
    and possibly may need a new Johnson rod
    Any suggestions”?

    Can you please help me understand?

    Thank you!
    Yvonne

    Reply
  8. It’s good to know how water heater maintenance can increase water pressure. My wife and I have been experiencing low pressure in our camper. I will be sure to talk to a water heater repairman to see what our options are.

    Reply
  9. It’s good to know more about RV water heaters. I like how you said that propane and electricity are typical for these units. From what I’ve heard, propane is the best choice for when we put a new one in our RV.

    Reply
  10. I want to make sure that my RV has hot water. It makes sense that I would need to get the right kind of water heater for it! I’ll make sure that I get a professional to install it for me, since they would be able to do it right.

    Reply

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