Winter camping is completely possible in an RV. Not only that, but with your RV furnace you can stay nice and warm in your motorhome or travel trailer, no matter where you roam. This is great because it means you don’t have to stop your RV adventures just because the cold weather blows in.
Whether you’re looking to replace or repair your RV furnace or just want to know more about your camper heater, we’ll go over everything you need to know about propane and electric RV furnaces, including the pros and cons, how they work, and troubleshooting steps to take. Learn how to use and maintain your RV propane furnace or RV electric heater effectively.
Things to Know About RV Propane Heaters
So far, you know how your propane RV furnace works and how much propane it might use while you’re out camping in cold temperatures. This is enough to get you started, but there are a few other things you may want to know about propane heaters before heading out on a winter camping trip.
1. Safety First
Because a propane leak can be deadly, it’s important to invest in both a carbon monoxide detector and a propane detector. Keep these up and running by checking the batteries often and replacing them as neeeded.
2. RV Furnace Cycling
An RV furnace will take a few seconds to turn on after the thermostat is switched to the “on” position. Once it does come on, you can expect to wait another 15–30 seconds before the flame ignites and warm air comes through the vents. You’ll also hear the blower run for several seconds after the desired temperature has been met and the flame goes out. This is normal operation and not a cause for concern.
3. Dusty Smell
If you detect a dusty smell coming from your vents, there is no need to worry. This is just the burning off of dust, dirt, and debris collected in the vents and ductwork.
4. Propane Smell
The smell of propane, on the other hand, can be a sign of an issue. If you smell propane, check first that you aren’t running low. A nearly empty tank can cause this smell. If that isn’t the problem, it’s time to stop the flow of LP gas, open the windows and doors for good ventilation, and carefully inspect for propane leaks.
5. Air Flow
Airflow is necessary for your RV furnace to work properly. Therefore, it’s incredibly important to keep your RV propane heater vented to the outdoors and ensure the air intake is unobstructed. Additionally, vents should be kept uncovered while the furnace is on.
6. LP Gas Regulators
All RVs come equipped with LP gas regulators. These wear out over time and must be changed out periodically. A bad regulator can cause problems with your camper heater propane supply, so this is a bit of maintenance you’ll want to make sure to keep up with.
To check your regulators, start up the furnace and look at the flame in the burner. It should be blue with no yellow. If this isn’t the case, you may have an LP gas regulator on the way out.
7. Soot Around Vent
Soot around the furnace exhaust vent suggests an improper mixture of fuel and oxygen, resulting in fuel remaining unburned. This is likely an obstruction to the oxygen supply to the burner. Check for and remove any obstructions and adjust the airflow to the burner flame.
Things to Know About Electric RV Furnaces
Now that you have a good understanding of RV propane furnaces, it’s time to discuss the RV electric furnace.
1. They Require Electricity
There are a few different types of electric RV heaters, and each type works a bit differently, but one thing remains the same: They all require electricity to work.
2. Ceramic Heaters
Ceramic heaters are small space heaters that work by using electricity to heat a heating element and then using a fan to push air over the element in order to warm it. The warm air is then blown out into the RV.
3. Radiant Heaters
Radiant heaters are another space heater option. These work by using electricity to create heat within the heater (often heating an oil inside) and then radiating that heat out into the surrounding area. We appreciate radiant heaters because they are quiet, but they don’t always warm the air as much as ceramic heaters.
4. Heat Pumps
Some modern RVs come equipped with heat pumps from the factory. These literally pull the heat from the air outside and carry it into your home. Unfortunately, heat pumps can only work in temperatures over 40 degrees (°F), but they are a good option for chilly nights that don’t dip below 40.
RV Furnaces: Propane vs. Electric
There are two main types of RV furnaces: electric and propane.
The vast majority of RV furnaces are propane. Therefore, if you’re wondering, “Does an RV furnace run off propane or electric?”, the answer is almost certainly propane.
That said, electric RV furnaces are available as an alternative. These climate control systems can help you stay warm and cozy in your RV even in cold climates, without burning expensive and fume-emitting propane. Not only that, but in some cases they’re cheaper and more efficient to run, and they also make great after-market additions if you’re traveling in an RV that doesn’t have an onboard propane-powered furnace for whatever reason.
While traditional RV furnaces do not run on electricity alone, an increasingly high number of RV owners are opting to replace their propane-fueled heaters with ones that run on alternative fuel sources—or at least add in some additional heating options. The aforementioned electric RV furnace is the most commonly used alternative.
How Does an RV Propane Furnace Work?
An RV propane heater is a forced air heater. What this means is that when the air in your RV falls below the temperature on the thermostat, hot air is forced through the vents and into the living space. That hot air is created using a flame fed by propane and forced out of the vents in your rig by a blower fan. This keeps your RV nice and toasty, and because the hot air is moving through ductwork under the floor, it also helps keep the pipes and tanks from freezing.
Besides the thermostat, flame, and fan, the system also consists of a circuit board, sail switch, safety limit switch, ductwork, and a set of intake and exhaust vents. That’s it! The simplicity of this system is beautiful because it works well and remains solid during trips down the road while remaining relatively easy to repair.
We also appreciate that a propane RV furnace can be used without electric hookups, meaning it’s perfect for boondocking. Yes, RV propane furnaces do need electricity for the ignition and to power vent fans, but a simple 12-volt house battery will allow you to run these functions. Plan to boondock for more than a single night? In that case, it’s a good idea to have at least two 12-volt batteries as well as a solar setup or generator for recharging the batteries as needed.
How Much Propane Does a Camper Furnace Use?
Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell exactly how much RV furnace propane your unit will consume, as there are several variables that must be taken into consideration, including the temperature outside, how warm you like to keep it inside, how well your camper is insulated, and the specific unit you’re using. However, we can tell you that the average propane camper furnace uses around a third of a gallon of propane when running continuously for an hour.
That is quite a bit of propane, so you should definitely stock up when prepping for a big winter camping trip in order to ensure you stay warm the entire time.
RV Propane Furnace – Pros and Cons
Chances are you already have a propane-powered heater on board your rig. So what’s wrong with holding on to what you already have? Honestly, in some ways, a propane furnace is a great gadget to have on your side. Still, it does have some drawbacks too. Here are the pros and cons of propane RV heaters.
Pros of Propane RV Furnaces
- Familiar and Reliable: The average user will find the system familiar and convenient. Simply set the thermostat to your desired temperature and relax while the gas does the rest. The familiarity of this technology comes from years of use, and with those many years comes a degree of safety and reliability that, in some cases, may outdo that of an electric RV furnace. Simply put, the technology has been tried and tested for years to be as safe and effective as possible.
- Efficient: Propane is a high-energy fuel that provides excellent heating performance, making it effective at quickly warming up the RV even in cold weather.
- Good for Boondocking: Propane furnaces operate independently of electrical power, allowing RV owners to rely on them even when they are boondocking or camping in areas without electricity.
- Widely Available Fuel: Propane is widely available at gas stations, RV parks, some hardware stores, and elsewhere, making it convenient to refill the fuel tank during travels.
- Lower Electrical Load: Propane furnaces consume less electrical power compared to electric furnaces, which can be advantageous for RVs with limited battery capacity.
- Uniform Temperatures: In addition, most RVs that come with a built-in propane heater incorporate a system of ducts placed throughout the vehicle. This means a propane heater usually provides for uniform temperatures throughout an RV. For most users this is a positive, but others might prefer their heat to be more localized in case, say, you prefer it cooler than your friends or family members.
Cons of Propane RV Furnaces
- Space- and Time-Consuming: Carrying propane tanks means having to allocate storage space and potentially dealing with the hassle of refilling or exchanging tanks.
- Creates Combustion Byproducts: Propane combustion produces carbon monoxide and water vapor, necessitating proper ventilation and carbon monoxide detectors in the RV for safety.
- High Running Cost: The cost of propane can vary depending on location and demand. This makes it more expensive than other fuel sources in some regions. Additionally, propane is always more expensive than the electricity that is included with many campsites, making an electric furnace for RV use the least expensive option for many.
- Noisy: Propane furnaces can be noisier than electric furnaces due to the operation of the blower motor and combustion processes.
RV Propane Heater Troubleshooting
Having trouble with your RV furnace not working? Not to worry—whether you have a Suburban RV furnace or an Atwood RV furnace, propane RV heaters tend to be relatively easy to fix, meaning you might be able to take care of the issue yourself.
First things first, knowing the answer to, “How does an RV propane furnace work?” is helpful when troubleshooting, so be sure to read that section above before pulling out the toolbox. Once that’s read, grab your tools and read the sections below to find the solution to your problem.
When the Motor Won’t Run
If the heater is turned on and the temperature in the rig is definitely below what the thermostat is set to, you should hear the blower motor kick on, even if you have a problem with propane delivery. If you don’t hear the blower motor, you have some sort of electrical issue.
In this case, the first thing you’ll want to do is check the furnace fuse. If it’s blown out, a simple fuse replacement should solve your problem and get you up and running again. (Though you will want to investigate the cause of the blown fuse if it blows out again after replacement.)
If the fuse isn’t the issue, you’re looking at a problem with the thermostat, module board, the motor itself, or—if you have an older RV—the small relay fan that some older models have. Unless you have experience working with electricity, this is the point when you may want to call in a professional.
When the Motor Runs, but Nothing Else Happens
If you hear the motor start up but there are no other noises, and nothing else happens after that point, you likely have a failed sail switch. In some cases the switch is simply stuck, and working with it a bit will fix the problem. In other cases, the switch will need to be replaced entirely.
Another issue that could cause a running motor with no other noises after would be a bad high-temperature relay. You can check for this problem by testing the voltage on the lead board from the high-temperature relay.
When the Unit Won’t Light
If your blower motor is running and you hear the clicking of the igniter and the clunk of the gas valve, you’re looking at an entirely different set of potential problems. These include things like bad igniter placement, a bad gas valve, and the most common issue of all: bugs.
Yes, you read that right. You see, bugs really like to make themselves at home in the gas tubes and combustion chamber. Cleaning these things will often solve your problem entirely, making it a great place to start.
RV Electric Furnace – Pros and Cons
There may be many different types of electric heaters for RVs, but the pros and cons of electric RV heaters are pretty much the same no matter which version you choose. Let’s review the most important pros and cons so you can make an informed decision when choosing between electric and propane heat for your RV.
Pros of Electric RV Furnaces
Clean-Burning — In contrast to their gas-powered counterparts, electric RV heating systems are all clean-burning and operate on peak efficiency.
Usually Cheaper to Run — Relying upon electricity to heat your RV will often be cheaper than using propane, but that depends on the specific regulations of your RV site. Sometimes sites provide power for free. Other locations will charge an incremental cost per day, so you’ll have to calculate the comparison in pricing—perhaps based on RV sites you visit regularly—to decide which saves you more.
Heat Specific Areas — Electric furnaces are often very specialized in the area they heat—like a fan, but venting hot air instead of cool—so you needn’t waste energy warming your entire cabin when you only need the heat in one specific area.
No Fuel Refills — If you’re heating your RV using electricity, you will find you end up refilling your propane a whole lot less. Not only is this easier on your wallet, it also means one less camping-related chore to do.
Cons of Electric RV Furnaces
Overheating Possible — The portable boxy design—almost the polar opposite of the duct design of propane heaters—has its drawbacks as well. Often these boxy electric heaters have built-in safeguards to prevent overheating or tip-overs. But they can happen. Thus, there’s a risk of burns caused by carelessness, which wouldn’t be a risk with a standard propane-powered furnace.
Noise — Noisiness may also be a concern (though propane-fueled heaters aren’t silent either), though this depends upon which model you purchase. Read product reviews to find out what other users think.
Difficult to Use While Boondocking — Since you need a good amount of electricity to run them, electric RV heaters aren’t great for boondocking unless you have an enormous battery bank and solar setup, or you plan to run a generator the entire time.
Won’t Heat Underbelly — Electric heaters will not heat the underbelly of your RV the same way your built-in RV furnace will. This means that even when the inside of your rig is nice and warm from space heaters, the water lines may freeze if you don’t make an effort to warm them in some way.
Can I Convert my Gas Furnace to Electric?
Hoping to add an electric RV furnace to your RV? You’re in luck, as there is a way to do this and it is just amazing!
The RV Comfort Systems’ hybrid heating unit allows campers to go from gas to electric heat at the flip of a switch. The unit is mounted directly to the existing RV furnace and employs heating coils that warm the air, then push it throughout the RV’s duct system.
Electric Furnace for RV Models
Don’t think the hybrid heating unit above is for you? Looking for other options? Here are some other ways to heat your RV using electricity.
The most popular option is to pick up a few simple ceramic space heaters to add heat to your RV. We like this option because it allows campers to maintain the option of propane heat while making use of campsite electricity when it is available. We also appreciate that it is an inexpensive upgrade and doesn’t require any major modifications to the RV.
Some ceramic heater models will boast about high or maximum efficiency, but this is meaningless. All electric heaters are 100% efficient, so check the specs for more meaningful information on the heater’s performance, like the wattage. Most ceramic heaters have a wattage somewhere between 500 and 1,500 watts. Obviously, a 500-watt heater will take longer to heat a smaller area than more powerful competitors, but it’s also less likely to trip the breaker at the power pole, something many RVers have trouble with.
Ceramic electric heaters will rarely cost more than about $100 each. A few well-rated options include the 1,500W Lasko heater (with 900W low-heat and fan-only settings), their 1,500W oscillating tower heater, and the Vornado vortex heater.
Portable Radiant Heaters
Another portable electric option is the infrared heater, or radiant electric heater. These heaters glow red while in use, emitting an infrared heat absorbed by a body without significantly heating the surrounding air.
These models, which can be easily found in online stores, are great for focusing heat and they make no noise. Most of these models boast a 1,500W output. Try the Dr. Infrared Portable Space Heater for a little bit over $100 if you think these benefits are worth the extra cost.
Electric Wall Heaters
If portable heaters aren’t your thing, you may choose to install an in-wall electric furnace like the Cadet Com-pak wall heater. The model sells for more than $100, making it more expensive than a portable heater.
The benefit is that you can install multiple vents throughout your RV to replicate the results of a ducted propane system if you desire. That said, you may need to check with a retailer or manufacturer to find out if you have the space to install their systems.
RV Furnace FAQS
Still have questions about RV furnaces? Below are some of the most frequently asked questions on this topic. We’ve provided answers to each so you can head into your winter camping adventures with confidence, knowing everything you need to know about RV heaters.
How long will my RV furnace run?
An electric RV heater will run for as long as you have electricity available.
If you’re plugged into shore power, your RV battery will not die. If you are not hooked up, you can count on a 100-amp-hour lead acid battery to give you about 12 hours of furnace run time before it reaches 50% capacity. These batteries are not supposed to be drained beyond 50%, so you will need to seek out a way to charge at this point.
As far as propane RV furnaces go, you can count on these to run for as long as you have propane and battery power available.
A 20-pound propane tank holds about 4.6 gallons of propane, and as mentioned above, an RV furnace eats through about a gallon every three hours. This means you can run your furnace for about 13 hours on a single 20-pound propane tank.
How do I know if my RV heater is gas or electric?
Generally speaking, RVs come equipped with a propane furnace when they leave the factory. Some do also include an electric heat pump and will include an electric heat option on the thermostat. That said, even those units with heat pumps will have a propane furnace as well. Unless some significant changes were made to your RV before you bought it, you can pretty much count on having a propane furnace.
If you still aren’t confident your RV furnace runs on propane, start it up and listen. You should hear a fan kick on and then you’ll hear the flame light. Since an electric heater has no flame, this is a clear indication that you are working with a propane heater.
Can you leave an RV furnace on overnight?
Some people worry that running their RV furnace overnight is unsafe. Don’t be! It’s perfectly safe to run the RV furnace while you sleep. Just be aware that if it is very cold or if your propane levels are low, you could very well run out of fuel before morning, meaning you’ll wake up to a very cold little home-on-wheels.
That is pretty much all there is to know about RV furnaces. Good luck in your search for the perfect heater, and may all your cold-weather travels be warm and cozy inside your RV!
Looking for more information on the systems in your rig? Perhaps you’d like to learn about your RV propane water heater or your RV air conditioner? We’ve got all the info you could need right here on the blog!
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