Understanding Your RV’s Hot Water Heater

Understanding Your RV’s Hot Water Heater

Traveling the country in your luxury travel trailer has many benefits. You get to spend time in nature, meet fellow RVers, and see extraordinary things, all without sacrificing any of the creature comforts. Chief among those luxuries is that with the turn of a tap, hot water flows from your faucet or shower head.

Most of today’s RVs are equipped with hot water heaters so you can take a hot shower after a long day on the trail or do up the dishes without having to boil water over the campfire. But what do you know about your hot water heater other than it makes the water hot? Here, we break down the basics of this RV essential.

Gas, Electric or Both
In general, the hot water heater in your RV works just like the hot water heater in your home. There are two primary fuel sources that your RV can use to run this key piece of equipment – gas or electric.

If your RV water heater uses LP gas (propane), you’ll have to light a pilot light to warm the water to the desired temperature. This can be done either manually with a long match or with automatic direct spark ignition, depending on the model. Similarly, electric RV water heaters need a 120-volt shore power connection or a generator in order to work. The major difference between the two is that gas models tend to heat up your water faster than electric models. In terms of power usage, gas water heaters are also more efficient than electric.

Some RV water heaters, like the one found in every Bowlus Terra Firma or Endless Highways Edition, can run on either gas or electric. This gives you the greatest amount of flexibility when selecting your destination. Propane gives you the freedom to boondock without hookups and still have hot water, and when plugged into shore power, you can save your propane for other uses.

RVs are equipped with one of two types of hot water heaters – they either have a storage tank or they are tankless. Next, we’ll look at the differences between the two.

RV Water Heaters With Tanks
At home you likely have a 40 or 50 gallon water heater, depending on the size of your house. If your RV is equipped with a hot water heater model that includes a tank, it works the same way – it’s just significantly smaller, holding just 6 or 10 gallons of hot water at a time. The heater warms the water in the storage tank to the desired temperature and maintains that temperature for as long as the heater is turned on. Most tank models will come equipped with an anode rod that will help prevent rust and corrosion. Common brand names you’ll see include Suburban and Atwood.

When you use the water in the tank for your shower or to do dishes, the tank refills and the heater kicks on to warm the new water. That means if your teenager uses all the hot water in the storage tank during their shower, you’ll have to wait for the warm water to be replenished before you can take your own, unless you’re into cold showers. If you’re traveling with multiple people who all want to shower in the morning, you may need to conserve the hot water in your tank by having your companions take military style showers. Common practice in the Navy, a military shower means you don’t leave the water running continuously. While it gets the job done, it’s not exactly luxurious.

There are some downsides to using a model with a water heater tank. First, you waste propane keeping a tank full of water up to temperature and ready to go at all times. Plus, if you like your showers on the hotter side, it’s going to take more propane to keep all that water hot. Second, you need to turn the hot water heater on well in advance to give the system time to heat the water in the tank. That leads to downside number three, which is that you’ll likely need to travel with your hot water tank full, adding to the weight of your RV. Even empty, this style of hot water heater is heavier than tankless models, which we’ll look at next.

RV tankless water heaters are becoming more popular in luxury RVs. As the name implies, there is no separate holding tank with this type of hot water heater. Rather, when the tap is turned on cold water flows through a heat exchanger and is heated by an electric or gas heater element (depending on your fuel source). A common brand name seen on tankless water heaters is Girard.

With a tankless model, you have hot water on demand. There is no waiting for the water in the storage tank to reheat between showers or getting the awful shock of running out of hot water midway through your shower. There is also no limit to the amount of hot water you can have when you’re connected to city water and shore power. If you’re boondocking, you’re only limited by the amount of freshwater and propane you’re carrying. Goodbye military showers, hello long, luxurious, steamy showers in your RV!

One of the potential downsides to a tankless system is that because hot water isn’t stored and continuously heated, there’s a slight delay in getting the hot water out of the tap when you first turn it on. While the delay is minimal with most models (typically a few seconds), if you’re boondocking and carefully watching your water consumption, this is something to be aware of.

Bowlus Takes a Different Path
Every Bowlus is equipped with a best in class silent hydronic heating system that serves multiple purposes, including providing instant hot water. We designed our heating system using a top of the line European brand that provides a unit that is both a furnace and water heater all in one. Our unique boiler is powered by propane or 120V if you’re connected to shore power, and the highly efficient system heats your RV’s interior, your water, and your heated floors.

Our environmentally friendly design ensures that you have hot water whenever you need it, without having a storage tank. If you’re running the furnace or have your heated floors turned on, you’ll have instant hot water waiting for you because of the way the system is designed. In the summer when you’re not using the other components of the heating system, you can use the thermostat located in the control panel above the vanity to quickly preheat a bit of water to get your shower started. This eliminates the little bit of wasted water from the delay in the delivery we mentioned earlier, while also eliminating the inefficiencies of keeping 6 or 10 gallons of water hot at all times.

Final Thoughts
To help ensure the longevity of your RV hot water heater, make sure that the outside vent is free from any obstructions like leaves or dirt. Whether you have a tankless water heater or one with a tank, you’ll want to drain your water heater when winterizing your RV, following the manufacturer’s specific instructions. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions when de-winterizing as well, making sure you open any necessary valves. Even if you use your RV regularly, your manufacturer may recommend you flush the hot water heater several times a year, so that’s something else to look for in your owner’s manual.