Think back to the first moment you opened your eyes this morning. What did you do next?
If you’re like most Americans, you probably stretched, yawned… and honestly, pressed the “snooze” button. But after that, you likely got up and went to the bathroom, where you found hot water flowing out of your shower and tap with the simple turn of a handle.
From getting ready in the morning for washing your dishes after your evening meal, having access to hot water is a big deal. It can mean the difference between a miserable, chilly shower and relaxing cleansing ritual, and it makes washing your hands and dishes more pleasant and more effective, too.
The good news is, if your RV has a plumbing system at all, it very likely already has a camper hot water heater installed. But understanding and maintaining this important piece of equipment is, well, important — as anyone who’s ever run out of hot water halfway through washing their hair can tell you.
In this post, we’ll walk you through what you need to know to keep your RV’s hot water flowing, including how your camper hot water heater works, where it gets its energy from, and how to keep yours working well for many camping trips to come.
RV Hot Water Heaters: The Basics
Before we dive into how your camper hot water heater heats your water, let’s take a step back and consider the water system as a whole. Although we’ve already written a deep dive post going into all the nitty gritty on how your RV’s plumbing setup works, it’s worth doing a brief refresh in this post, too.
Just like your sticks-and-bricks home, you’ve probably noticed that your RV has kitchen taps, bathroom taps, a showerhead and a toilet — all of which pump fresh, clean water through (at least, in the best case scenario!). That water comes either from a city water hookup or out of your freshwater holding tank, which is accompanied by two other holding tanks below your coach: the grey water tank (which holds wastewater from the sinks and shower), and the black water tank (which holds… well, you know.)
Your RV water heater is situated along your fresh water line to heat the water that comes out of the appropriate “hot” taps, which you’ll be quite thankful for when you’re taking a shower or hoping to heat up your hands after a long day out in the cold. Your water heater may run off of propane or electric, and in some cases may even heat up through the running of your engine, which is super nifty if you’re in a big Class A motorhome and a passenger wants to wash their hands after a pit stop.
Some of the most common RV water heater brands are Atwood and Suburban, though Girard also makes some newfangled tankless water heaters for RVs as well — which we’ll get into in more detail in just a little bit. As far as hot water heater tank accessories, you’ll likely want a blow out plug to make winterizing your RV easier, and you’ll occasionally need an anode rod replacement, which helps protect your RV’s water heater from rusting. That’s important for extending the life of your heater… and given how expensive they can be to replace, extending its life is pretty important!
Hot Water Heater for Camper
What else do you need to know about your RV hot water heater?
Well, for one thing, the tank size is likely considerably smaller than the one you’re familiar with at home. That’s really important if you’re traveling with a big family or you like to take long showers, because you might need to recalibrate your schedules (or shorten those leisurely bathtimes) unless you want to find yourself standing under cold water.
While the tank sizes vary, they tend to be between 6 and 10 gallons, though some are as small as 4 (perhaps found in a small travel trailer hot water heater) or as large as 16 (in a tricked-out, sizable Class A). A small home heater might be between 40 and 50 gallons… so as you can see, it’s a considerable difference!
Either way, if you do find yourself needing to replace the hot water heater for your camper, you’ll want to do your due diligence and make sure the new unit is the same size as the last — otherwise, it might not fit. That is, of course, unless you’re upgrading to tankless, in which case you won’t have to worry about tank size (or running out of hot water, actually).
RV Tankless Water Heater
So what’s the deal with RV tankless hot water heaters? Who makes them, and how can you get your hands on one?
Just like in a sticks-and-bricks home, tankless water heaters for campers are just that: tankless! That means you don’t have to worry about the tank size not matching your rig or running out of hot water while you’re showering, so long as you’re hooked up to a city water source. That can be a really big deal, especially for full-timers or those who are traveling with multiple children; it can be really difficult to eke out enough hot water for everyone with a traditional RV hot water tank unless you’re turning off the tap while you soap up, etc, which might be fun while you’re camping… but isn’t so fun when your RV is your full-time home!
Along with endless hot water, tankless RV water heaters also allow you to custom set your water heater temperature, which can be really nice if your electric water heater leaves you with showers that are either boiling lava hot or freezing cold. Of course, all that luxury isn’t cheap — they run around $1,000. That said, a traditional 10-gallon hot water heater could cost as much as $800, so it might be worth the upgrade! (Do keep in mind that they may use more propane than a traditional water heater, however.)
RV Propane and Electric Water Heater: Maintenance
So if you’ve got an RV electric water heater on board, what are the steps you need to take to ensure it stays running strong for many years of camping to come?
For one thing, your RV water heater does need to be cleaned, just like all the other parts of your system. If you’re not comfortable flushing and cleaning it yourself (there are a variety of great videos on YouTube), you can also add it to the to-do list next time you take your rig to the repair shop for routine maintenance.
As mentioned above, your RV hot water heater — just as standard home heaters — has an anode rod, which helps cut down on the corrosion caused by the heating processes. Making sure to replace this rod regularly is an important part of any RV hot water tank maintenance program.
Finally, what’s to be done when Jack Frost comes calling? Although you want to get RV antifreeze into your tubes, tanks, and pipes, you don’t want it going into your RV’s hot water heater tank! That’s why it’s important to flush the tank and blow it out before going through the winterizing process. All the critical details on how to winterize your rig should be in your owner’s manual, though we’ve also written about it here.
Having hot water available for showers, dish washing, hand washing, and more is just one of the many attractive aspects of RV camping. And if you’re new to the world of motorhome and travel trailer camping, renting a rig on the peer-to-peer market at RVshare is a great way to experience the lifestyle affordably, without making a big commitment.
For one thing, our campers come in every shape, size, and footprint you can imagine — so if you’ve got your heart set on an Airstream or a Casita, you’ll have the chance to get what you want. It’s a lot harder to find anything but a factory-floor motorhome at the big box agencies, since those are the easiest for a beginner to start up and go.
Along with variety, our fleet of privately-owned campers brings affordability and authenticity, too. When you rent from a regular RV owner, you’re putting money directly back into the camping community… and since they don’t have to foot the costly overhead of running a business, those owners can usually afford to list their rigs at a fraction of the price you might find from the commercial guys. It’s a win-win situation!
Check out the RVshare listings in your area today to get started on the adventure of a lifetime.
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