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We all enjoy hot water in our daily lives and that should not change when we go camping. That's why Recreation Vehicles (RVs) come equipped with water heaters. In the six RVs I have owned, each had a different type of water heater. And I think it’s fair to say that each type of RV water heater offers its own set of features and benefits.
If you keep your RV long enough, the day will probably come when you decide to replace or upgrade your water heater. It might be that your current water heater went bad, or maybe the tank froze, expanded and cracked because it wasn't winterized properly, or maybe you just want a newer, bigger, better model. Whatever the reason is, it's good to know what types of water heaters are on the market when the time comes to replace it.
The first thing I explain to folks with no experience using RV water heaters is not to attempt to take those long hot showers you are accustomed to at home. The majority of RV water heaters have six-gallon or 10-gallon water tanks that can run cold before that long hot shower is over. The good news is the new technology for RV water heaters provide advanced designs that can prolong those long hot showers we all enjoy. We'll talk more about that later.
There are a couple major manufacturers of RV water heaters like Atwood and Suburban. Both offer very reputable products with benefits for the consumer. The biggest difference is the water heater tank itself. Atwood uses a lightweight aluminum water tank and Suburban uses a porcelain-lined steel water tank with an anode rod to absorb and equalize the aggressive water action common in hot water tanks.
The first travel trailer I owned, many years ago, had a very basic water heater. It works on LP gas and you manually light the water heater using a long match or striker when you arrive at your camping destination. It has a six gallon water tank and takes less than 30 minutes to heat the water. It is a fast recovery water heater and can produce about 7 gallons of hot water per hour. Many of today's entry level RVs come equipped with this type of manual water heater. (more info)
A step-up from the manual LP gas water heater is the LP gas model with Direct Spark Ignition or DSI. What DSI means is, rather than going outside to manually light the water heater with a match or striker you light it from inside the RV at the touch of a switch. It is basically the same water heater, but with automatic ignition. Barring any complications, as long as the LP gas supply is turned on and there is LP gas in the cylinder or tank the water heater will light automatically. (more info)
On our second travel trailer and our first motorhome we had a water heater that featured LP gas and 120-volt electric operating modes. The water heater still had a 6-gallon water tank, but it operated on both LP gas and 120-volt electricity. It was a nice feature to have two operating modes. If we were plugged into electricity and wanted to conserve our LP gas supply we operated the water heater in the electric mode. And when we dry-camped without electricity we used the water heater in the LP gas mode. These combination water heaters are available in both manual models, that you need to light and DSI models that light automatically. I always say you get what you pay for and when the price increases so do the features. These water heaters have more BTUs to heat water faster, recover quicker and produce more hot water per hour. (more info)
Our second motorhome came equipped with a similar LP Gas/DSI/Electric water heater, but it had a 10-gallon water tank. Now the showers start lasting longer and you get a kind of spoiled during your camping trips. These are high recovery, high BTU/hour water heaters. Note: Keep in mind when you use any water heater in the electric mode it will limit the amount of electricity you have to run other 120-volt devices and appliances. (more info)
When I restored my vintage travel trailer I wanted to equip it with all the modern day appliances and amenities found in new RVs. This included an on-demand water heater. Now rather than 8,000 or 12,000 BTUs heating the water you have 50,000 BTUs. On-demand water heaters are extremely energy efficient because the LP gas fired heat exchanger only heats the water when there is a demand. And the hot water supply is continuous. This is about as close to the water heater you use at home that you can get. You just turn the hot water faucet on and mix in the cold to get the temperature you want. As with everything else these added features come at a price, but if you enjoy your long hot showers it may be worth the added expense. The on-demand water heater can be adapted to replace just about any brand of 6 or 10-gallon water heater without major modifications. (more info)
There are other ways to heat the water in your RV like high-end hydronic heating systems that also supply endless amounts of hot water throughout the RV, but that’s another article altogether.
This was just a quick primer on RV water heaters, so you know what choices are available when it's time to replace or upgrade your existing RV water heater. The majority of the water heaters we discussed today can be installed in existing water heater openings with little modification. Talk to the service folks at your local Camping World SuperCenter store about replacing your existing water heater with an upgraded model.
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