RV Water Heater Maintenance

Having hot water is one of the most luxurious differences between RV camping and tent camping. As with most RV appliances, your water heater needs regular maintenance to function correctly. Haven’t checked yours in a while? Don’t panic. Harvest Hosts has a simple guide to maintaining your water heater. Yours will be back to tip-top shape in no time.

Basics

In order to be able to maintain your water heater, you must first understand how this appliance works. On the most basic level, RV water heaters function similarly to those in traditional homes. A heating element heats the water in the tank. Then, when you turn on a hot water faucet, hot water is pulled from the tank and comes out of the faucet or shower. As hot water is pulled from the tank, cold water is pulled back into the tank and continues to be heated. If your RV water heater is switched on, it will continue to heat water if you are actively using hot water, or if the temperature of the water drops below the default temperature setting.

Most RV water heaters run on either electric or propane, and most can utilize both electric and propane at the same time to increase the amount of hot water produced. Most RVers prefer to use electricity to heat their water in order to conserve propane. 

The most popular manufacturers of RV water heaters are Atwood (now Dometic) and Suburban. Unlike other RV appliances, there are some major differences between the two brands. Suburban tanks are made of porcelain-lined steel. They also include an anode rod that helps eliminate rust and deterioration of the tank. Atwood (Dometic) water heaters are made of light-weight aluminum tanks and do not have an anode rod. Another increasingly popular choice among RVers is the switch to a tankless water heater. These eliminate the need for a tank (which frees up that extra weight) and provide on-demand hot water. 

General Maintenance

Most RV water heaters require some sort of general maintenance to prevent deterioration due to build-up. You must always consult your manual before beginning any maintenance and always ensure the power to your water heater is off by flipping the breaker switch. If you are removing your drain plug, anode rod, or attempting to drain it, the water heater must be off and cooled down. The water also needs to be off. Most water heaters have a pressure-release valve that needs to be opened as well. If you do not feel comfortable performing this maintenance, feel free to take your RV to a mechanic for its routine tune-ups. 

Remove the anode rod (if applicable)

Suburban water heaters intentionally use anode rods to prevent rust and corrosion from attacking the tank. Instead, they attack the anode rod. These need to be replaced every 1-3 years depending on how often the tank is used. If you check your anode rod and notice that it’s heavily corroded, then it’s doing its job of protecting your expensive tank. Most anode rods can be removed with the correct size socket. If you’ve never removed your or yours happens to be extra-rusted, then you may need a torque wrench with an extension to help break the seal. 

Flush it out twice a year minimum

Flushing out your RV’s water heater is very important to remove a buildup of minerals, such as calcium. If you regularly use your RV, then we recommend you flush your tank abut four times per year. If you store your RV for the winter, then you can perform this task before you winterize your RV. Check out our handy blog post on winterizing your RV.

When flushing your water heater tank, you must first take out the drain plug or anode rod to drain out all of the water. Do not do this until the water in your tank has cooled. Then, use a water heater rinser or city water supply to flush any loose debris in your tank. After all the water and minor debris has drained out, reinstall your anode rod or drain plug.

The next step requires the use of a winterizing kit for the most efficiency. Using your winterizing kit, put 3-5 gallons of white vinegar directly into your water heater. The size of your tank will depend on how much vinegar will be required. After adding the vinegar, fill the remainder of your tank with water and allow it to heat up. Let this mixture heat for 8-12 hours, and then turn off your water heater. Allow this mixture to cool overnight. 

The next morning, remove your anode rod or drain plug and drain the mixture. Use your water heater rinser or city water supply to, once again, flush your tank. You should see a considerable amount of debris this time. Put your anode rod or drain plug back in. The final step is to fill your water heater with water and then turn on all faucets and showers to empty out the last of the vinegar. When the water no longer smells of vinegar, you’re all finished. 

Check the electric heater element

Before attempting this step, read your manual and check to be sure you are not voiding the warranty. Checking the electric heater element is a little more involved than checking the anode rod. You must remove the LP gas burner tube and some wiring to reach it. Consider consulting a YouTube video for directions for your specific model. If checking on this element does not void your warranty, consider checking it periodically for any signs of corrosion. Most RVers try to perform this step one or two times per year. 

Check the vents regularly

This is something small that you can examine weekly or monthly, depending on how often the RV is used. Check around your water heater for venting. Wipe it down and check for any debris build-up. 

Clean out the burner tube

If your RV’s water heater utilizes propane, then it has a burner tube (sometimes called a flue tube). The propane enters this tube and, when lit, creates heat. If your RV has been in storage or your water heater hasn’t been used in a while, use a can of compressed air or a brush with nylon bristles to clean out the burner for debris, bugs and nests, or spider webs. If there is any debris in the tube, this can start a small fire and blow your thermal cut-off. Then, your water heater will not operate on propane or electric until this part has been replaced. This small step can save you time, money, and prevent you from taking a cold shower.

As far as maintenance goes, RV water heaters are just like many other appliances in your RV. This appliance is particularly painful to live without, so be sure to maintain and take care of it. If you take care of your RV, then it will take care of you!

When was the last time you maintained your RV’s water heater? Do you have any other tips for us? Let us know in the comments below!

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