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If you want to avoid taking cold showers on your next RV trip, then you should get familiarized with your vehicle’s hot water heater, but how do you start it?

An RV is equipped with so many different features and components, which results in all owners needing to go through a learning process when they first get your camper. Starting a hot water heater is not all that difficult but if you want your system to work efficiently, you need to follow the steps properly.

To start a hot water heater, make sure that your bypass valves are disengaged.  For a gas water heater, open your propane valve, determine if there is a pilot light, and then turn on the ignitor switch.  For an electric water heater, connect to a power source and flip your water heater switch on.

Traveling in an RV is a way of life for so many Americans and it is more popular than ever - with recent years showing record-breaking figures for sales and rentals. More folks are hopping on the RV bandwagon because this kind of travel provides the best opportunity to experience the United States. An RV has all of the essential comforts of home to make your travel experience as pleasant as possible. However, much like your own home, you can expect there to be some upkeep and maintenance from time to time. Your rig is equipped with a hot water heater, which is incredibly useful when you are on the road, but it is not constantly heating up water, as this is something that you need to do manually. To help you understand this further, we are going to take a closer look at how to start a hot water heater in an RV.


After extensively researching RV systems and components, I have been able to gather enough information to determine how to start a camper’s hot water heater. My research has shown me that starting a hot water heater in an RV can vary depending on the system that you have in place.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

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RV Water Heater Location

Most common RVs these days have their water heaters located on the side of the vehicle. The heater’s system can be accessed by removing a panel that opens up the components. After opening the panel, you will see a compartment containing the ignition system of your hot water heater.

Depending on the type of RV that you have, the power switch for your water heater may be located on the panel of your ignition system. A lot of modern RVs have this switch on the inside of the vehicle to make turning on the water heater more convenient.

The physical tank of your hot water heater is connected to the end of the ignition system. Normally, manufacturers design RVs to have the tank hidden so that it is out of sight. Most recreational vehicles have their physical tanks underneath a seating compartment.

Do RV Water Heaters Start Automatically?

Virtually all RV water heaters need to be started manually. This is to ensure that your RV water heater does not burn out its element, as this is a common issue if the tank does not have any water in it.

RV water heaters can vary in design - with each type having a slightly different procedure for turning the system on. A lot of new-age RVs make turning on the system as easy as possible by featuring an indoor panel that enables you to turn on your hot water simply by flipping a single switch. This is about as close as you can get to an automatic water heater.

Most standard RVs will have a switch located on the outside panel of the hot water heater, which needs to be manually engaged every time that you want to have hot water. However, older RV campers actually require that you manually ignite your RV water heater’s system with a lighter.

Types of RV Water Heaters

Over the years, we have seen RV water heaters change in style and design. Getting hot water flowing into your RV is easier than ever but the system that you have in place may vary depending on the type of RV that you bought. Let’s take a look at the different types of RV water heaters.

Gas Water Heaters

The most traditional types of RV water heaters are gas-powered. If you have a gas water heater equipped with your vehicle, then you need to connect it to a gas line at a campsite (usually propane). The propane is fed into the system, which can be ignited to start heating up your water.

Electric Water Heaters

The more modernized hot water heaters that we see today rely on electric power. Much like with a gas water heater, you need to connect your rig up to a power source at a campsite that provides electricity. After connecting to the power source, you can engage your hot water heater.

Combination Gas/Electric Water Heaters

If your RV is equipped with a combination gas/electric water heater, then you really have the best of both worlds. This kind of system essentially combines the technology of both methods, which comes with a lot of benefits.

By having a combination gas/electric water heater, you can maximize the amount of hot water that you get out of your system - enabling longer hot showers. In addition, this is a great system to have in place given that you can rely on each power source independently. You may find that a campsite that you are staying at only has gas or electricity for you (not both). With a combination system, you can use one or the other depending on what is available.

Tank Vs Tankless Water Heaters

Traditional RVs have always been equipped with water heaters that were connected to a tank. This tank holds all of your hot water and it is still to this day the most common type of system that RVs will have.

However, we are now seeing an increase in the popularity of tankless water heaters on the market. These systems do not rely on a tank and heat water automatically as it flows through your rig. You still need to turn the system on manually, but a tankless option does give you a lot more freedom with your hot water.

Depending on the size tank that you have in your RV, you may find that your vehicle does not provide a sufficient amount of hot water for your shower needs. A tankless system remedies that by giving you an unlimited supply of hot water to your rig.

Although some newer model RVs come equipped with tankless water heaters, most folks do not have this kind of system installed. This requires people to make custom installations to swap out their tanked system for a tankless water heater, which can become quite pricey - with most people paying anywhere from $250 - $1,000.

For many people, this system is worth it based on convenience alone - especially for RVers who are living in their vehicles full time. In addition, by getting a tankless system, you are also able to save a considerable amount of space in your RV.

Check Water Levels and Turn On Pumps (And Fill the Tank)

The most important thing that you need to do every time you turn on your hot water heater is to ensure that your tank is full. The reason that this is so important is that turning on your hot water system without water can burn out your heating element, which will result in needing to replace it.

To avoid this, always check to see where your water levels are at. If you are camping and have hookups available, connect your rig to the provided water source so that you can pump water into the system. Once your tank is full (or at least has water flowing into it), you can engage your hot water heater.

How to Start a Gas RV Water Heater

There are a number of different types of hot water heaters available for RVs. The process for turning on your hot water heater can vary depending on the kind of system you have in place - with gas being the most common.

1. Check ALL Bypass Valves

If you have connected your rig up to a water source, you may find that water is still not entering your tank, which can result in issues if you turn on your water heater preemptively. The main reason that this is probably occurring is due to your bypass valves blocking the flow.

Head over to your physical tank and take a look at the tubes that are feeding it water. You will see that there are two valves (one for each hose). Disengage the bypass valves and open them up so that water can actually fill your tank.

2. Open Propane

You need to enable gas to flow into your system. Turn the valve of your propane tank so that it can reach your RV’s water heater system. Make sure that you are following the next steps immediately after turning your propane on so that gas is not running.

3. Determine if There’s a Pilot Light

The panel located on the exterior wall of your RV will have the necessary components that you need to turn on your water heater. You want to check to see if the pilot light is turned on by switching the knob over to the indicated position. Once you turn the knob, the pilot light should activate.

4. Turn On the Ignitor and Controller

Most RVs that have gas water heaters can be ignited with a switch located on the exterior panel (without an actual flame). Trigger it and have your pilot switch engaged while you do this so that gas is flowing into the system.

If you have an older RV model, you will need to ignite the system manually. Use a long tip lighter and stick it inside while keeping a safe distance (do not put your face close to the ignitor). As the gas flows through, sticking the flame inside will turn on your hot water heater.

How to Start an Electric RV Water Heater

We are seeing more and more electric RV water heaters these days, as they are very practical and also considerably safer - given that there is no propane involved in the heating process.

1. Check ALL Bypass Valves

Unless you are using a tankless system, you will first need to check all of your bypass valves. When you look at your hot water tank, look for the tubes that enable water to fill your tank.

You need to open these up so that your tank is not bypassed. Otherwise, water may be flowing into your system but not reaching your tank, which can cause problems if you turn on your heater.

2. Find Power Source & Switch

A lot of RV campgrounds are equipped with both gas and electricity. You want to grab the connection for the electric power supply so that you can connect it to your RV.

With your rig powered with electricity, you can now engage your hot water heater. If you have got an electric water heater, your switch will be located somewhere on the interior of your vehicle (check the manual if you are unsure).

Some models have a switch that looks like a regular light switch much like the one in your home - whereas others will have a panel system that has buttons for various components of your RV. Find the switch that has the label ‘Water Heater’.

3. Turn On Power

All you need to do now is flip the water heater switch to turn on the system. If you happen to have a tankless system, then the heating process should be instantaneous. However, if you are running an electric system with a water heater tank, you may need to wait upwards of an hour before your water gets hot. Make sure that you turn off the power of your hot water heater after you are done using it.

How to Start a Combination RV Water Heater

Some RV models are equipped with both an electric and a gas water heater. These are incredibly convenient and enable more versatility for you on the road.

1. Check ALL Bypass Valves

Much like with any water heater start-up, you always want to ensure that your tank has got water in it before you turn on the system to prevent any damage from occurring to your element.

The hoses that are feeding into your tank will have bypass valves that are used to block flow. Turn these valves so that they let water enter your tank.

2. Locate Water Heater Control Panel

If you have got a combination water heater, then odds are that you have a control panel inside of your vehicle. This panel should give you access to engage various components of your rig's features - including your hot water heater.

3. Select Gas or Electric Heat

Open up the control panel and look for the label that is connected to your hot water heater. With a combination water heater, you should have the option to select which type of power source you want to rely on. Depending on your connection, you may find one more advantageous than the other. Simply flip the switch for your preferred power source - gas or electric.

4. Activate Water Heater

With your power source selected, you can turn on your actual water heater. There should be a switch to activate the water heater on the same control panel. All you need to do is flip that switch and your combination water heater will turn on.