An RV water heater is one of the many features RV's are equipped with to make your home-away-from-home comfortable and pleasant. Much like a residential water heater, an RV heater provides you with hot water, and although there are many similarities, there are also major differences.
If you know how a RV water heater works and how to keep it maintained, you'll be a step ahead when something isn't functioning as it should. This guide will help you learn what to look for when you're ready to purchase a new RV or if you are in the market for a new one, we have provided below the best RV water heaters on the market.
There are 3 main storage systems available with RV water heaters. From small water heaters to tankless systems:
- 6 to 10 Gallon Tanks - The majority of heaters have storage tanks capable of holding 6 to 10 gallons of hot water.
- "16-Gallon Heaters" - These units have a 10-gallon tank where water is held at a high temperature. When a hot water faucet is opened, the hot water from the tank is mixed with cold water. The result: The water delivered is at the proper temperature. Since the hot water is mixed with cold water, the 10-gallon tank is capable of delivering 16-gallons of hot water.
- Tankless - These systems deliver hot water within seconds of opening a faucet. When a hot water tap is opened, cold water flows thru the tankless unit to meet the demand. Although often more expensive initially, tankless water heaters (or point of use heaters) are more energy efficient and therefore less expensive to operate since propane is only used when a hot water tap is open. Instead of the water heater cycling on and off whether hot water is needed or not.
RV water heaters have 3 primary fuel options:
- Liquid Propane (LP) - Commonly used with entry level RV's.
- Electricity and Liquid Propane - Most RV's use water heaters that are made to run on both electricity and liquid propane. Each fuel source can be used individually or used together to rapidly bring the water to temperature.
- Motoraid - This sophisticated fuel source uses the RV's engine cooling system to heat the water. When the engine is running the water from the engine's cooling system circulates through the water heater, and in the process heats the water in the tank. When you arrive at your destination, your water is hot!
Your RV water heater can operate in electric mode if you have generator power or 120v shore electricity. However, a substantial draw of 12 amps of electricity is required. If power is limited, you may still want to use LP Gas Mode.
Another consideration is the shore power wiring. Some areas only provide 30A or less. In this scenario you may choose to switch to LP Gas Mode or turn off the water heater temporarily.
Liquid Propane (LP) Mode
Liquid propane water heaters have several different model types, with the main difference in the ignition system. There are 2 main types:
- Manual Pilot Light
- Direct Spark Ignition.
Let's take a closer look at each system:
Manual Pilot Light - The most basic model of RV water heater uses a manual pilot light. The pilot light will need to be manually lit whenever it is extinguished. If the light goes out unexpectedly, there is a safety feature designed to prevent the LP gas from flowing.
The pilot light will need to be lit once the RV reaches it's destination as the flame will be blown out from the wind.
Direct Spark Ignition - The most common RV water heater is the Direct Spark Ignition (DSI) system. Without a pilot light, a signal is sent from the gas mode thermostat to the heater control circuit board. When the signal is received, the gas valve opens and the igniter is activated and produces a flame.
The flame is detected by a sensor which signals the water heater to turn on. However, if the sensor doesn't detect a flame after 15 seconds the gas valve will close, and an indicator light will signal to the user that the heater failed to light.
DSI heaters are designed to operate when the RV is traveling, however, it's important to note, that they will be using fuel during this time. Many owners prefer to wait until they reach their destination before turning on their water heater in order to save fuel.
RV water heaters are relatively easy to maintain, and most owners should be able of doing the work themselves or at least performing preventative water heater maintenance. However, there are many places dedicated to RV repair and maintenance willing to do the work if you prefer.
The anode rod in a RV water heater has the same function as your water heater at home. The sole function is to sacrifice itself in order to protect the steel tank from rust and corrosion. However, there are RV water heater tanks that are lined with glass and don't require an anode rod.
As a general rule of thumb, the anode rod should be checked every year. Some RV owners prefer to change them annually regardless of their condition, but this isn't necessary. Simply inspect it every 12 months and replace it as needed and you should be fine.
Flushing the Tank
Whenever the RV isn't being used, the water heater tank should be drained. In addition, it should be flushed at least once a year. An inexpensive tank rinser wand will allow you to spray water deep into the tank to remove the sediment. Consistent tank flushing will extend the life of the RV water heater.
You'll also need a garden hose and an element socket wrench to check flush tank and check the anode rod. If the anode rod needs to be changed, you'll need to pick up the appropriate size and type for your water heater.
This video will show you how to flush the tank and change the anode rod on your RV water heater.
Watch the Video
Winterizing your RV's water heater is an important part in keeping it in good running condition. When the tank is drained it should be able to cope with weather temperature fluctuations by expanding and contracting without damage.
The water lines will need to be winterized with anti-freeze. These lines are prone to breaking if not properly cared for since they are very thin. Frequently a bypass valve is installed to assist with winterizing.
The purpose of a bypass valve is to keep the anti-freeze within the water lines from entering the tank. Although, many RV water heaters have these valves installed, if yours does not, there are bypass valve kits available.
The video below will show you how to position the valve to bypass your water heater.
If for whatever reason your tank does fill with anti-freeze, take care that it is thoroughly flushed prior to filling it with water for use. Ingesting anti-freeze can be a serious health hazard.
Watch the Video
Cleaning the Burner Tube
The burner tube supplies gas to the burner when the unit is in LP Gas mode. This supply tube should be cleaned every year. Use a can of compressed air and simply spray in and around the burner tube. This task should be done every Spring.
Gas Supply Tube
The number one problem that causes an RV heater not to work is a clogged gas supply tube. If the tube becomes plugged, the gas won't reach the pilot assembly.
The smell of propane attracts spiders and other small insects and they crawl inside the tube to build nests. Simply use a can of compressed air and spray in and around the burner tube. It's a good idea to do this anytime your RV has sat for an extended period of time or in the Spring.
The bypass valve can be tricky and it is also a common source of water heater issues. However, with a little troubleshooting you'll be able to pinpoint the problem.
- Open the pressure relief valve (located outside) to check the temperature of the water.
- If the water is hot - The water heater is working. Check the bypass valve to make sure it is configured properly.
- If the water is cold - Assuming that the water heater has cycled on and off, check the hot water valve. If it's in the off position, the water will not be able to leave the tank.
- If you have hot water, but it quickly turns cold - The bypass valve is most likely still open. The heated water is mixing with the incoming cold water.
Heating element failure is a common "first of the season" problem since it is easy to forget to take your water heater out of winterization bypass mode. If the water heater is turned on, but there isn't any water in the tank, the heating element will fail.
If you notice an unpleasant smell when you run water from your faucets, there's a good chance that the problem is stale water. Although this can happen with cold water, the smell tends to be much worse with hot.
The solution is as easy as draining and refilling your tank.
If you take care of your heater it can deliver hot water for up to 10 years.
Draining, flushing, checking and changing the anode rod are all important parts of a strong preventative maintenance routine.
There's a lot of great RV water heaters available today, both tank-style and tankless. Whichever style your looking for, you shouldn't have a problem finding one that meets your needs.
Here are a few of our top favorites, including our picks for best RV tankless water heater:
At the top of our list is Girard's 2GWHAM. This easy-to-install tankless water heater is a strong competitor to the two leading RV water heater manufacturers in the industry (Suburban and Atwood) and is definitely worth serious consideration.
Girard has been listening! They've taken all of the feedback and not only added features, but also upgraded existing systems to make their next generation heaters even better than their earlier models.
They've added state-of-the-art electronics and components, on-board micro-processor monitors, and a Digital User Control Panel that even alerts you to error codes for easy diagnostics.
This is an excellent tankless water heater and a favorite among long-time RV'ers, and with a maximum temperature of 140° you'll never need to worry about taking a cold shower!
- The brushless motor makes the 2GWHAM tankless virtually silent. Tankless water heaters are typically pretty quiet when they run, but Girard has taken this one to a whole new level.
- Cold weather isn't a problem. Girard's 2GWHAM is made for winter operation and even has built-in freeze protection.
- The on-board microprocessor monitors and tracks the incoming cold water temperature to ensure that the hot water is the exact temperature you desire.
- Start-up time can take a few minutes. But once you've done the initial start-up, you're good to go for the rest of your trip. With a little planning this issue shouldn't be a problem.
Precision Temp RV-550
Precision Temp are the leaders in the RV water heater market for a reason. The RV-550 is an incredible tankless water heater that's both powerful and efficient. Full-time RV's love the reliablity, efficiency, and performance of the RV-550.
If you're looking for performance, Precision Temp's RV-550 is the tankless for you. Don't let it's small size fool you. It may weigh only 32 pounds, but it out performs most other tankless water heaters!
It has a hot water output of 55,000 btu and can deliver roughly 940 gallons of piping hot water on a 20-pound tank of propane.
Regardless of the season, you'll have a consistent temperature of hot water as the unit self-adjusts it's gas usage, by sensing the smallest changes of incoming water temperature and overall water flow.
This RV tankless water heater is made to work in all four seasons, and even has built-in cold weather protection. But if travelling isn't your thing during the chilly months, you can easily winterize the RV-550 until the warmer weather comes.
- Compared to a 10-gallon tank, the RV-550 is nearly half the size, and in addition, it's only a third of the weight!
- With a BTU rating of 55,000 it's over 50% more powerful than the majority of RV tankless water heaters.
- Designed with a true automatic gas modulation, the RV-550 is able to self-adjust the gas usage to incoming water temperatures and variations in water flow. In short, you'll enjoy a consistent temperature regardless of the time of year.
- Power and efficiency comes at a price, and unfortunately, the RV-550 is not inexpensive.
- The sleek, small design may add a challenge to installation. It's designed to replace the majority of 10-gallon water heaters, but adding a couple of brackets should easily fix the problem if it doesn't have a snug fit in your existing space.
Are you looking for a 6-gallon tank water heater with some serious power? The Suburban Sw6De will fit the bill! This heater is both a gas and electric water heater and is easy to install, operate and maintain.
If you're shopping for a tank-style RV water heater, you'll want to check out the Suburban Sw6De. Fueled by lp gas and electric ignition, it's energy efficient and versatile.
With a 6-gallon tank and competitive recovery times, the Sw6De is a top performer within Suburban's line-up.
- The Sw6De is built for fast recovery, in fact, it might even be the fastest in the market! Lock in the gas and turn on the (optional) electric element, and this unit can recover an additional 6-gallons of water per hour.
- The steel tank is porcelain-lined with an anode rod to protect it from erosion, and with proper maintenance, it should last a very long time.
- A copolymer insulation jacket is molded to fit the tank like a glove. Since better insulation means less standby heat loss, you'll benefit from a more efficient water heater.
- Many RV owners have found that electric igniters simply don't last forever.
- The instructions and troubleshooting guides could be more detailed.
The Atwood G6A-7 is easy to install, reliable and long-lasting. This unit was designed to be a replacement for earlier Atwood models, and it even comes with a new door!
The beauty of the Atwood G6A-7 is that it's made as a replacement heater for other Atwood models. For the most part, you can simply pull your old unit from your RV and slide the new one in place. Many RVer's have found this to be a viable replacement for other water heater manufacturer models as well.
- Built with an aluminum clad tank for corrosion protection, there's no need for an anode rod.
- Nearly all of the parts on the G6A-7 can be serviced or replaced from the outside door. This not only makes service much easier, but it also means that repairmen won't need to come inside your coach.
- Easy to install and replaces the majority of earlier Atwood models.
- The pilot light will need to manually lit once you arrive.
Suburban's 5286A is a solid tankless water heater for a reasonable price point. This unit is also known as IW60 Nautilus, and is capable of delivering an seemingly endless stream of hot water.
Whether you're looking to upgrade from a tank-style Suburban water heater or replace a broken one, the 5286A is designed to make the transition easy. And if this is a new installation, it can be installed without the access door.
The modulating combustion system adjusts to propane gas input and provides a consistent temperature with a maximum water output of 130°, not to mention, it can deliver up to 1.5 gallons of hot water per minute.
- Designed with built-in freeze protection for winter operation.
- The 5286A is designed to replace the 6, 10, 12 or 16-gallon porcelain tank models, and the 6 or 10-gallon aluminum tank models.
- This unit uses a state of the art 3-try direct spark ignition.
- The switches, vent caps, and optional door are sold separately.
- It takes approximately 7-seconds from the time the faucet is turned on until the ignition fires.