What to Know About RV Water Heaters

Thinking of adding an RV water heater for your next road trip? Learn all about RV water systems here.

When it comes to RV travel, creature comforts can make a big difference in your overall experience. You’ll certainly notice if your RV lacks sufficient space, heating and cooling capabilities and bathroom basics, like hot water. Traveling with a reliable source of hot water in your home on wheels will make you, your passengers and the RV trip itself so much more fun.

RVs come in a wide range of sizes and levels of fanciness, sometimes including a full plumbing system with taps, sinks and a shower. If your RV has these, it almost certainly also has a built-in water heater. If this is your situation, the information below will help you understand the type of heater you’ve got, how to maintain it and give you important insight when the time comes to replace it.

If your RV is a simpler sort without built-in plumbing but you’re interested in retrofitting a DIY water system, we’ll help you make an informed decision when shopping for your first RV water heater.

What is an RV Water Heater?

Like household water heaters, RV water heaters are devices designed to heat water for use in sinks and showers. They come in two main designs: tank and tankless.

Tank-style heaters heat and hold water in a tank connected to the RV water system, drawing and heating new water as the heater’s contents are drained. Tankless models, also called on-demand water heaters, draw water from the supply tank, heating it instantly before it emerges from the tap.

Both heater types can be powered by propane or electricity, with some high-end RV heaters capable of both. Some heaters are designed with a third system, called Motoraid, which increases water temperature with excess heat from the RV’s engine as it runs.

To save space, heaters designed for RVs are typically much smaller than their household counterparts, especially if they’re tank style. Typical tank-style water heaters for home use range from 40 to 60 gallons. Those for RVs are usually either six or 10 gallons.

How to Choose an RV Water Heater

When shopping for an RV water heater, start by calculating your water needs and budget. A family of four will probably do better with an on-demand heater than a tank style. A couple can likely get by with a less-expensive, 10-gallon tank style unit. Most high-quality RV water heaters range from around $700 for tank style to $1,000 for tankless.

Next, think ahead to where you would like to travel in your RV, and consider whether your destinations have electricity sources for recreational vehicles. If so, an electric-powered (or dual-powered) unit makes sense. If not, start looking at propane- or Motoraid-powered water heaters.

Also, take a good look at the space in your RV. Decide if you prefer a six to 10-gallon tank style heater, or a more compact, somewhat more expensive on-demand unit.

If cost isn’t an issue, on-demand heaters offer unlimited hot water for as long as your gas or electricity supply holds out. Combination heaters, capable of running on electricity or by burning liquid propane, offer the best of both worlds.

RV Water Heater Maintenance and Repair

Keep your RV water heater running well for as long as possible by following a few simple steps.

  • Listen to your heater’s cycle as it works. Unusual noise is often the first sign of a potential problem.
  • With propane-burning heaters, check at least once a year for cobwebs and insect activity in the burner tube, cleaning it when necessary.
  • Tank style units have long cylinders or strips of metal called anode rods inside, designed to attract minerals in the water and keep them from building up in the pipes. These rods should be replaced every two or three years to keep your RV’s water system running cleanly.
  • Even if your water heater seems to be running fine, check for leaks regularly. If something doesn’t seem right, take the RV to a professional service technician.

Here’s how to drain your RV water heater to make sure it operates safely and efficiently.