RV Heaters – All You Need To Know

RV Owners

Winter camping is completely possible in an RV. Not only that, but with an RV propane heater, you can stay nice and warm in your motorhome or travel trailer, no matter where you roam.

Looking to replace or repair your RV propane furnace? Just want to know more about your camper heater? In this article, we will discuss everything you need to know about RV propane heaters. Let’s dive in!

How Do RV Propane Heaters Work?

Let’s begin with the basics by asking, “How does an RV furnace work?” Actually, the answer is simpler than you might imagine.

An RV heater is a forced air heater. This means 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 is also comprised of a circuit board, sail switch, safety limit switch, ductwork, and intake and exhaust vents. That’s it! The simplicity of this system means it works well and remains solid during trips down the road while remaining relatively easy to repair.

What is the Best Propane Heater for an RV?

Those looking for a ducted propane RV heater option should look into the Suburban or Atwood models. These are well-known, durable, and well-made units that last for years. That said, they are pricey, and most RV owners will also have to pay to have one installed.

Prefer to skip that huge price tag entirely? There’s the option of using space heaters instead. Both electric and propane space heaters are less expensive.

  • Electric heaters are great for saving money if you’ll be camping somewhere with electric hookups included in the camping fee.
  • Propane space heaters are better for boondockers and use less fuel than a big RV furnace. However, space heaters will not keep the pipes and tanks in your RV warm, meaning those are more likely to freeze in super cold weather. Condensation and moisture are two important drawbacks of propane heaters in a small space, so you shouldn’t be using these as main sources of heat. 

Some of the best space heaters for RVs include the following:

How Much Propane Does an RV Heater Use?

Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell exactly how much RV furnace propane your unit will consume, as there are several variables to consider. 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.

Of course, the amount of time your furnace runs in a day will vary based on the outside temperature, the temperature your thermostat is set to, and how well your rig is insulated.

a Class A motorhome

RV Propane Heater Troubleshooting

Knowing how a propane furnace works Is helpful when troubleshooting!

When the motor won’t run:

If the heater is turned on and the temperature in the rig is below where the thermostat is set, you should at least still hear the blower motor kick on. If you don’t, you have some sort of electrical issue.

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.

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.

When the motor runs, but nothing else happens:

If you’re hearing 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 is a bad high-temperature relay. You can check for this problem by testing the voltage on the lead board from the high-temperature relay.

Assess the Fan Functions

What if the fan is running, but there is no heat? The furnace has an internal flow switch, otherwise known as a “sail switch.” The sail switch is an on/off switch, which when there’s not enough airflow, will stop the furnace from igniting. The fan will run, but there will be no heat. The sail switch can malfunction, or just go bad. If there’s bad return airflow or not enough venting, the furnace won’t light due to this switch. A sail switch has also been known to stick occasionally.

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.

Yep. Bugs really like to make themselves at home in the gas tubes and combustion chamber. Cleaning these areas will often solve your problem entirely, making this a great place to start.

Check Your Propane

If the furnace runs, but you aren’t getting any heat, check to see if the propane is turned on. If the furnace still doesn’t run, try lighting a stove burner. This will ensure the stove is getting propane.

If the pilot won’t light, check to be sure you have propane. One other RV heater troubleshooting tip is: check the thermocouple. Be sure it is clear of any spider webs or insect nests. The thermocouple needs to be in the correct position in the burner to work correctly. If the thermocouple is bad, remove it and buy one exactly the same as the one you are replacing. The thermocouple is an easy and inexpensive repair. The cost to buy a new one is about $10.00.

The thermocouple is a bimetallic sensor whose electrical resistance changes with temperature. The change in resistance is detected by the control system, to ensure there is a flame before it opens the main gas valve.

Scope Out the Vents

If you see soot on the outside of the RV by the exhaust vent, check all vents. The soot is telling you there’s improper combustion, which is leaving unburned fuel as it is venting. It should be burning somewhat clean, and it is not normal to see soot on your exhaust vent.

outdoor RV storage

Things to Know About RV Propane Heaters

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.

#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. Airflow

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 you’ll want to keep up with this maintenance.

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.

RVs covered in snow

Catalytic RV Heaters – Important Facts To Know

We all like to stay warm during the cooler months, particularly when traveling in an RV. The best way to do this is with a catalytic RV heater. It can be used by a variety of RV travelers, in any type of recreational vehicle – whether you’ve got access to electricity, or not!

Here are some important facts to know about a catalytic heater for your RV.

Catalytic Heaters Require No Electricity

You don’t even need an electrical connection to run a catalytic heater. Instead, they run on low-pressure propane and have a safety shut-off valve to prevent accidental fuel discharge. If you run out of propane, all you need to do is take your cylinders to your local refill station (or purchase some new ones) and voila – you’re good to go!

Catalytic Heaters For RVs Consume Propane At A Slower Rate

Catalytic heaters run on low-pressure propane versus the high-pressure that a furnace uses. In fact, they are known to be 99.98% efficient, whereas a common RV furnace may waste up to 45% efficiency. No one wants to risk a flat RV battery while trying to stay warm!

Allow Additional Oxygen To Enter Your RV When In Use

Since an RV catalytic heater uses a heat-producing catalytic reaction instead of an open flame, it is safer than other types of RV furnaces. However, there are still some safety practices to follow. Since catalytic heaters consume oxygen, without sufficient ventilation in your RV, they run the risk of causing asphyxiation. Always crack open a window and ensure a vent is open to allow for additional oxygen inside.

Modern catalytic heaters are also created with a low oxygen sensor. When the oxygen level drops below a certain level, the flow of propane is shut off and the heater extinguishes itself.

There Are Two Types of Catalytic RV Heaters

You have two popular options when it comes to a catalytic heater for your RV. They are a portable space heater or a permanently mounted catalytic heater. Portable catalytic heaters use a throw-away propane canister or are connected to a standard portable refillable propane tank via an extension hose.

A permanently mounted catalytic heater, on the other hand, is plumbed directly into your onboard propane system. Some of the most popular brands of catalytic heaters include Olympian, Mr. Heater, Scott Can, and Coleman.

Follow Your Manufacturer’s Instructions For Usage

Even if you’ve used a different brand of catalytic heater before, it’s best to be safe, rather than sorry. Always follow the product manufacturer’s recommendations regarding usage and take note of anything you shouldn’t be doing. It’s also important that only adults operate the catalytic heater, rather than children.

Look For Tip-Over Protection

We know catalytic heaters don’t have an open flame like some other types of RV furnaces, but many portable models still contain a tip-over shut-off function. This allows your heater to shut off if it’s not in an upright position, preventing any accidents before they can occur.

Keep Combustibles Away From Your RV Catalytic Heater

They may be one of the safest methods of heating, but you’ll still need to keep combustibles (such as aerosols, petrol, paper, etc.) away from your heater. You don’t want these flammable materials to heat up, since this could result in an explosion or fire.

When Not In Use, Keep Your Catalytic Heater Covered

There will be periods of time when your catalytic RV heater isn’t in use, particularly over the warmer months or when your RV is in storage. Covering the RV prevents dust particles from entering the system, preventing them from causing the catalytic heater to produce higher amounts of carbon monoxide.

a large Class A motorhome

Which Electric RV Heater is the Best

If you want to use electric space heaters, you may be wondering which option is best. After all, there are hundreds of options out there, and picking just one or two can feel incredibly overwhelming.

When it comes to RV electric heat, you have a choice of a radiant or convection heater. When used properly, both are fine options. However, it can be difficult to use radiant heaters correctly in an RV due to space constraints.

Therefore, we highly recommend sticking to a convection heater, and of the types of convection heaters out there, we recommend ceramic heating elements over coils.

Best Electric Heater for RV

There is not a single best portable electric heater because everyone wants something a bit different from their RV portable heater. However, we have compiled a list of our favorites so you can pick the one that best suits your needs.


This sturdy electric heater for an RV is the perfect choice if you’re looking for something that will last for years. Besides its durability, this heater also boasts a safety shutoff in case the unit overheats or tips over. Additionally, it consumes very little energy for the amount of heat it emits.

Lasko Designer Series Ceramic Oscillating Heater

Want something that’ll deliver warmth to all corners of your RV? Of all the portable RV heaters on the market, this one is the best at spreading heat evenly, thanks to its oscillating function. On top of that, this heater can also be controlled using a remote, making it easier to keep your home-on-wheels comfy and cozy.

Lasko 754200 Ceramic Heater

Those looking for something simple and affordable will appreciate this model. This small RV heater is quick to warm up on a cold night, and gets the job done without breaking the bank.

Pelonis Oscillating Ceramic Tower Heater

Another great option for those looking for the best portable heater for their RV is this classic heater. It’s simple and straightforward to use, and the durability can’t be beat. It’s also pretty small, meaning it’s easy to store once springtime rolls around, something that’s always a bonus in a small space.

Dr. Infrared Heater Portable Space Heater

As far as electric RV heaters go, this is one of the fancier models out there. The tiny heater uses two types of heating elements to ensure your space gets nice and warm quickly and stays that way. The fact that it has a thermostat is especially handy, and we love the way it runs completely silently.

The Best Outdoor Heaters

When the weather cools off, many people begin winterizing their RVs and heading inside for the long winter. However, this doesn’t have to be the case. Fall and winter camping can be an absolute blast, especially if you have the right tools.

One of the best tools for cold-weather camping is an outdoor space heater. These little devices will keep you toasty warm, so you can continue enjoying the great outdoors without feeling uncomfortable.

Of course, you will want to purchase a good patio heater, and considering how many different types there are on the market, picking one can feel a bit overwhelming. Lucky for you, we’ve already done the legwork. Below, you’ll find all the information you need, including a list of the best outdoor heaters on the market today.

Different Types of Outdoor Heaters

Portable Heaters

While we’re calling the heaters in this category “portable heaters”, others might refer to them as tent heaters or personal heaters. No matter what you call them, the heaters in this category offer heat for your campsite in a small, but usually powerful package.

Portable heaters can be electric or propane. If you’ll be camping with electric hookups, an electric heater isn’t a problem, and might even be a benefit, as you will save money on propane.

Propane portable heaters can be used even when no electricity is available. The radiant heat offered by propane outdoor heaters can also often be more effective than electric heat, easily offering heat to one or two people when outdoors, or heating the inside of a tent or RV in no time.

Mushroom-Style and Pyramid-Style Propane Heaters

These are much larger than the portable styles mentioned above. If you won’t be moving your rig much, one of these types might be the best heater for you.

Both mushroom and pyramid-style heaters are very tall—they’re often used at restaurants—and they use propane to fuel a flame and create heat. Mushroom-style heaters use a “mushroom hat” to spread that heat. Meanwhile, pyramid heaters contain the flame in a glass tube and radiate the heat from there.

These types of heaters are very effective, with the mushroom-style throwing off a bit more heat but concentrating it to a smaller area, and the pyramid-style offering a safer option.

Tabletop Heaters

Tabletop heaters are a mix of a portable heater and a mushroom-style heater. As the name suggests, they sit on a table, heating those sitting around it. They attempt to do this by spreading heat using a “mushroom top” like the mushroom-style heater.

The problem with this is that, for the most part, the heat gets pushed down rather than out, leading to warm food but chilly diners.

Tabletop heaters come in both electric and propane models.

Heat Lamps

The final option is a heat lamp. These can be on a stand or hung from a ceiling. In the case of camping, you’d want the stand option.

Heat lamps tend to use electricity and are shaped much like the mushroom-style heaters mentioned above, leading to some of the same problems with how the heat spreads. That said, there are some models that are made a bit differently, allowing heat to spread more evenly.

In any case, this is not our first pick for most camping trips. Heat lamps are awkward to move, require electric hookups, and don’t offer as much heat as other options out there.

sunrise at an RV campground

Do Outdoor Patio Heaters Really Work?

Some people doubt that outdoor patio heaters actually work. While it is true that an outdoor heater won’t keep you as warm as you might be indoors snuggling under a blanket, they do offer enough heat to take the bite out of a chilly night and ensure everyone is relatively comfortable.

Can I Leave my Outdoor Heater Outside?

Lugging a heater in and out throughout your camping trip may sound like a bit of a chore. For this reason, many people wonder if they can just leave their outdoor space heater out in the elements. It depends.

For the most part, propane heaters can be left outside in the sun and even in light rain. However, leaving a heater outside for a long period of time will cause it to deteriorate more quickly. It makes sense to move your propane outdoor heater under some sort of covering if possible.

What about electric patio and garden heaters? Well, as you might’ve guessed, heaters that use electricity should not be left out in the rain. Water and electricity simply don’t mix well, and leaving your electric outdoor space heater out will almost certainly damage it.

Top Outdoor Heaters

Below are our reviews for a few of our favorite patio heaters.

Mr. Heater MH9BX Portable Buddy Heater

The Mr. Heater Portable Buddy Heater is our favorite all-purpose heater by far. It can be used outdoors or in a tent or RV, spreads heat evenly, and has a wonderful safety feature that causes the heater to shut off when tipped.

This heater uses about one pound of propane to run for 3 hours on high heat, or 6 hours on low. While it’s made to use small, one-pound propane bottles, an adapter is readily available that allows the heater to be used with larger bottles, meaning more heat for a longer period of time.

Hampton Bay 48,000 BTU Stainless Steel Patio Heater

Finally, there is the Hampton Bay 48,000 BTU Stainless Steel Patio Heater. This beauty is much bigger than the other heaters mentioned, making it ideal for those who plan to remain in the same campsite for longer periods of time. It offers a ton of heat and is perfect when you wish to entertain several people at your site.

This heater uses standard 20-pound propane tanks and is weather-resistant. It doesn’t have wheels like some larger heaters do but is easy enough to move from place to place.

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