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Camping in an RV is not exactly roughing it. Sure, you don’t have all of the comforts of a brick-and-mortar home, but you still want the convenience of hot water when you need it and not have to rely on inconsistent campground bathrooms.

Hot water may be something you take for granted…until it’s not there. Because of this, your RV’s water heater is important. Understanding the type of water heater in your RV and how to keep it running smoothly is key. Alternatively, if you need to install one, knowing the basic of the type of water heater to put in your RV will save you time and money as you shop around.

Gas or Electric?

Depending on your energy needs, RV water heaters come in both electric and gas forms with various tank capacities and recovery rates to choose from.

These generators typically use a pilot light; however, some models use direct spark ignition (DSI) technology and turn on automatically upon pressing a button on your RV’s dashboard. They make for great options when boondocking or staying at campsites that lack electricity.

LP Gas Only

These RV water heaters work much like traditional gas tanks: hot water is delivered through an electric pump when the switch is turned on and an LP burner ignites to heat it. While this type of unit consumes more propane, they’re ideal for camping trips where access to shore power or generator power may not be readily available.

Troubleshooting an RV water heater is typically straightforward for common issues like low water pressure and tripped high-temperature limit or emergency shut-off switch, however, in certain instances, professional help might be required such as when the ignitor does not light.

LP Gas/Electric Hybrid

RV water heaters with dual fuel capability are designed for use when you want both propane gas and electricity available at your campsite for hot water production. Unlike traditional propane units, these RV heaters don’t require a pilot light; instead, they rely on small sparks generated from 12V power sources to ignite their burner and warm your tank.

These RV water heaters typically feature a 6-gallon tank but can also come equipped with additional tanks if you require more hot water for your trip. Electricity is often preferred over propane because it takes much less time to heat water quickly while being safer if living off the grid. However, for camping areas without access to electricity, a hybrid water heater that uses both methods may not be the optimal choice.

Pilot Ignition

RVs equipped with this type of water heater utilize a standing pilot to ignite a larger burner when heat is required, with the control valve managing the flow of propane gas between these components.

Once a gas switch is switched on, a small spark from the hotplate ignites first the pilot flame and then the larger burner. Once at the desired temperature, gas flow is shut off through the control valve and the flame extinguishes.

This system can help RVers save energy costs but requires manually starting up your water heater at campsites with electricity. Luckily, this process takes only minutes and patience should always be exercised as working with propane or natural gas could pose risks for both you and your RV.

Direct Spark Ignition

Direct Spark Ignition models of RV water heaters have quickly become one of the most sought-after and advanced forms. Simply flipping a switch will allow you to heat your tank of water with propane gas without using a long utility lighter to manually ignite a pilot flame or worrying about inclement weather conditions.

If your DSI RV water heater fails to start when turning on its propane or electric power, first check that its power button is set in the “on” position; otherwise, replacing its switch may be a simple solution.

If your DSI RV water heater utilizes an electric element, verify that its switch(es) are activated and that 120 volts AC are present using a safe volt Ohm meter. Lowering the temperature setting might also help resolve any problems; otherwise, it might be time for a replacement of the electric element.

Tips for Choosing Your RV Water Heater

Now that you are familiar with the basic types of RV water heaters, it’s time to decide which is right for your RV. If you are in the market to buy a new one, here are some considerations:

  • Water storage capacity: Most RV water heaters hold anywhere between 6 – 10 gallons of water. But 16-gallon heaters exist; typically, these mix hot and cold water when you turn on the faucet, thus making more warm water available.
  • You may also want to consider more expensive tankless RV water heaters that move cold water through a heating element, as opposed to simply storing hot water.
  • Size of the water heater system: Before you start shopping, check the size of the opening in your sidewall. Take note of the height, width, and depth of the space. This is important to ensure you don’t purchase a tank that is too big to fit.
  • Protection from rust and corrosion: This is probably the worst enemy of water heaters. Protect it from the elements by ensuring that the tank is lined with glass or outfitted with an anode rod.

Understanding these components of your RV’s water heater will extend its life and save you a ton of money. And remember that when you’re not using your RV to drain the water heater tank. During winter and non-use, you can also winterize the water lines with anti-freeze. Just be sure to thoroughly flush them out during de-winterization.

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