All About Your RV Water Heater

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After a long afternoon of driving on the road or hiking in the woods, nothing feels better than having a nice, hot shower in your RV bathroom. One of the best parts about RV camping instead of opting for a tent is that you get to use your own shower at the end of the day. Of course you won’t find unlimited hot water and those little bottles of shampoo and conditioner that you would at a hotel, but it certainly beats schlepping through the woods to the communal toilets at a campground. To get that life-giving hot water flowing into your bathroom, you need to have a functional and well-maintained RV water heater on board. These are LP-supplied units are relatively simple to care for, and they come in standard versions on most modern motorhomes and fifth wheels. They’re generally 6 gallons, but you can also upgrade to a 10-gallon heating system if you have the special and financial means.

In this free lesson, RV expert Dave Solberg walks you through a quick overview of the typical RV water heater, discussing their main components and functionality. You’ll learn how the usual water heater operates, and discover what to do if your unit needs troubleshooting. With Dave’s handy advice, you’ll never find yourself up the creek without hot water!

The Basics of the RV Water Heater

If you are unfamiliar with the standard water heater on board most RVs, allow Dave to briefly talk you through the basics. Much like a regular house version does, a smaller scale RV water heater is filled with cold water, which it then heats up to a boiling point to send to your bathroom and kitchen faucets.

It consists of a tank to hold the water and keep it at an elevated temperature, in addition to the heating system, which is in charge of actually firing up to raise the temperature. The switch for the water heater is on the inside of your vehicle, but the ignition system can be located in a compartment on the exterior wall of the passenger side.

Modern RV units utilize easy-to-operate direct ignition systems, which means the heater will kick itself on when the water temperature drops too low. All modern units have self-regulating temperature censors, so you don’t have to worry about turning the system off and on when not in use.

However, if you have a smaller or older model, your RV water heater probably uses a pilot light and manual ignition that you’ll likely have to go outside and ignite by hand. If this is the case for your heater, the process is quite easy, but if you encounter any issues there are plenty of handy user guides available on the Internet. You can also consult your appliance’s manual.

Additionally, Atwood water heaters have aluminum tanks that act as anode rods, thus the situation is a bit different for these.

Other Things to Consider

Now that you know the essentials about your onboard RV water heater, Dave has a few extra expert tips for operating and maintaining your specific unit. First he talks about the importance of inspecting your water heater occasionally to ensure it’s in proper working order. A couple minutes of your spare time once or twice per year will guarantee you get the longest lifespan out of your heater and will have to dip into savings one less time! The same goes for other water and air conditioning units on your RV.

It’s also very important to keep in mind several safety aspects in relation to your RV’s water heater. Most notably, you should always be sure to keep your hands, feet and other body parts away from the exhaust vents on the exterior of the water heater compartment. Kids and curious uncles, too, steer clear! This also applies to furniture and camping accessories, especially those that are flammable. The unit gets very hot, so rule #1 is don’t touch!

That’s pretty much all you should need to get started. This lesson and Dave’s expert advice ought to be a sufficient introduction to your RV water heater, tank, and ignition system. By the end of the video you will have learned about the two basic types of tanks available today, including their installed anode rods, plus a breakdown of exactly how the system typically works if it’s functioning correctly.

Safety tips are covered, as well, since the water heater compartment door is positioned outside for easy access and it can emit a large amount of heat when the system is working. As with other appliances that reach high temperatures, be sure to shut them completely off before conducting any maintenance or repair.

If you’re in the market to replace or upgrade your water heater, Dave will teach you about the typical tank sizes available from multiple manufactures today, as well as the methods of heating the water itself using either LP gas or electricity. As previously mentioned, don’t hesitate to consult online guides or discussion boards if you run into any issues with your unit or you’re unsure whether there is, in fact, an issue.

Where to Turn for Help

RV Repair Club has countless instructional videos about water system and appliance maintenance taught by some of the most experienced RVers in the business, so please take a look through our archives; you’ll almost certainly find a video that answers your questions or points you in the right direction. We have an extensive catalog on the benefits of appliance upgrades, and even a series of videos on appliance inspection and troubleshooting.

Most importantly, don’t hit the road before conducting a thorough checklist on all of your vehicle’s operating and appliance systems. Trust us, there are few things more upsetting than reaching your campground several hundred miles away from the nearest certified RV technician only to discover your RV water heater or other vital appliance is on the fritz! Take the proper precautions, and we guarantee you’ll have an unforgettable time exploring this beautiful country of ours in your RV. Fond memories, great times, and safe travels: that’s what we’re all about at RV Repair Club!

Discussion
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15 Responses to “All About Your RV Water Heater”
  1. ony Matthews

    I have an Atwood 6 gal water heater. The water heats up in LP mode only, does not work in electric mode, any suggestions?

    Reply
    • Customer Service

      Thanks for visiting the RV Repair Club and the opportunity to assist with your water heater issue. To provide more specific information I would need the model and year of your Atwood, however here are some basics to start with. Check the 120v circuit breaker at the distribution center. Next, check the fuse at the module board on the water heater. There should be a plastic cover over the board and an in-line fuse. You would also need to verify 120-volt power coming into the module board. If all of these are good, you probably have a heating element that has shorted. Again, I would need the model and year to verify the resistance required for that unit.

      Reply
  2. tony

    hot water works ok with electric but I try gas it will ignite burn for a few seconds and shut off. then I get a red light inside by the switch

    Reply
    • Customer Service

      Hi Tony. Thanks for visiting the RV Repair Club site and the opportunity to assist with your water heater issue. The first thing you need to check is the actual flame that starts for the 5 or so seconds. Is it a nice steady blue or jumping around with orange? It could be too much air coming in through the inlet tube which can be adjusted in or out. Next, make sure you have water in the tank! If not, the tank gets too hot and a sensor will shut it off. If it’s working on electric, that’s probably not the problem. It sounds more like the ignitor is not communicating with the module board telling it that the flame has ignited which would send a signal to shut down and the light would come on? You should clean all the wire connections and the ECO (emergency cut off) as well with scotch brite or sandpaper.

      Reply
  3. Dan

    Have a Suburban SW6D water heater. It ignites and starts up, run for a few minutes then shuts off. Any idea why it won’t keep running?

    Reply
    • Customer Service

      Hi, Dan. Thanks for visiting the RV Repair Club site and the opportunity to assist with your water heater issue. The first thing you need to check is the actual flame that starts for the 5 or so seconds. Is it a nice steady blue or jumping around with orange? It could be too much air coming in through the inlet tube which can be adjusted in or out. Next, make sure you have water in the tank! If not, the tank gets too hot and a sensor will shut it off. If it’s working on electric, that’s probably not the problem. It sounds more like the ignitor is not communicating with the module board telling it that the flame has ignited which would send a signal to shut down and the light would come on? You should clean all the wire connections and the ECO (emergency cut off) as well with scotch brite or sandpaper.

      Reply
  4. Paul Brown

    I have a 92 ATS Vagabond, I live in this RV. Lately I have noticed that the hot water is a little rusty, Is there any way to fix this?

    Reply
    • Customer Service

      Hi, Paul. Thanks for visiting the RV Repair Club site and the opporutnity to assist with your rusty hot water. I would start with checking the campground source and installing a filter. Next, if you have a Suburban brand water heater, check your anode rod. Otherwise, use a little CLR to try and flush the water heater tank out. Then rinse well after letting it set for 24 hours.

      Reply
  5. Tom Wenzler

    I have an Atwood 6 gallon LP water heater. I bought a kit to add an electric element. I looked it over but can’t seem to be able to find a flat spot on the heater to install the control unit. Any tips?

    Reply
    • Customer Service

      Hi Tom. Thanks for visiting the RV Repair Club site and the opportunity to assist with your water heater retro question. To provide more specific information about mounting the aftermarket system you purchased, I would need to know the make and model. Most of the conversions that I have seen use a rod which replaces the original drain plug? Trying to find a flat spot on an RV water heater would be difficult as most of the tank is covered in insulation?

      Reply
  6. STEPHEN

    The plastic plug broke off at the head in my water heater. How do I get the rest out.

    Reply
  7. rogerwstephens

    I have an Atwood 6 gallon gas water heater manufacture year 2000. The heat ignites properly and has a good blue flame. The flame burns for about 10 minutes and cuts off, giving a red light vs. green inside the RV. The water is hot, but the unit does not start back automatically. I have to manually restart the unit. I replaced the thermal cut off and that did not fix it. Contacts all look clean/good. I’m thinking it might be the circuit board. Any ideas?

    Reply
    • Customer Service

      Hello,

      If you are able to turn the system off and then back on and it starts the cycle over again, I would suspect that is the board as well. Make sure you have good voltage at the water heater, voltage drop can cut it out too. If the water is hot, the thermostat could be turning it off. It won’t turn back on until the temperature drops. If it doesn’t turn back on I would start with the board.

      I hope this helps!

      Dan
      RV Repair Club Video Membership

      Reply
  8. Cindie

    With plumbing parts they say turn the opposite direction.. With the anode I cant get it out, do I turn counter clockwise to remove it or not?

    Reply
    • Customer Service

      Hello Cindie,

      If you could provide the make and model I could tell you for sure but I have not come across one that is left hand threaded. To loosen a Suburban, it is turned counter clockwise. Those have the tendency to rust and can be very stubborn. You can try spraying it with PB Blaster and see if it helps break away the rust. If it can’t be removed we have a video that can help explain how to repair a broken drain plug.

      Thanks,

      Dan
      RV Repair Club Video Membership

      We’d love to have you be a part of our community. We are convinced you will enjoy the benefits of becoming a member and having access to the best instructional how to videos and professional tips. We would like to offer you a special promotion for your first year membership.
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