Don’t Let your RV Water Heater Freeze: A Costly Mistake

About the Author

Tom Davidock

Tom has been working in the outdoor recreation and environmental fields for over 25 years and writing about for the past 15. Whether it's camping, or RVing, Tom provides first-hand kneowldge of the information outdoor enthusiests need to enjoy adventures on the road. Tom has had his content featured in industry-leading news publications including RV Business, RV News, and Tom is also the author of "Used RV: The Complete Guide for Buying a Used RV."

What happens if you forget to drain your RV water heater for the winter?

Winterizing your RV isn’t just a good idea in areas where temperatures drop below freezing; it’s a necessity if you want to avoid expensive and complicated repairs. If you don’t do it, water will freeze, pipes will burst, and you’ll never make that mistake again.

There are countless resources available online for DIY RV owners. You can also have it done professionally at virtually every RV dealership and service center. Thankfully, it’s a straightforward process and a good thing to learn about, even if you pay someone to do it.

If you want a good overview of how to winterize your RV, Togo RV has a great tutorial to follow.

However, the one step in the process that can easily be overlooked is a critical one- draining your RV water heater! Emptying the water heater tank is as simple as removing the plug from the external access and letting it empty. It is also a great time to replace the anode rod. Much of the winterizing information available concentrates on draining your lines, bypassing your RV water heater, and setting up your pump to fill them with RV antifreeze. While every guide will likely mention draining the RV water heater, it’s easy to overlook this critical step.

What happens if you don’t?

Let me tell you about my experience as a cautionary tale. My RV lifestyle began when I purchased my first (new to me) RV from a private party. Everything with the used travel trailer seemed okay and good enough; I was happy with the deal. The previous owner informed me that they properly winterized it. That sounded like good news, but I didn’t understand what it meant. It was in storage when I inspected it, so I didn’t get a chance to test anything. The price was right, and I was eager to get an RV, so I just trusted that all was good.

Fast forward a week or so later. I picked up the camper and transported it to the campground for my first dry (emphasis on dry) run. When I started the process of hooking everything up for the first time, I was relieved that it was going smoothly. I connected the electric- lights, AC, refrigerator turned on, CHECK! I pulled out the awning: CHECK! I hooked up the wastewater connections: CHECK! I connected the water and faucets; they ran red with Antifreeze: CHECK! All in all, everything seemed okay.

I flushed the antifreeze through the lines and had the water running clear. My RV lifestyle was off to a great start. It wasn’t until a few hours later that I realized that I wasn’t getting any hot water. Assuming I was out of propane, I checked the tanks and stove. Everything was good with them. It took me longer than it should have to realize that I never turned off the bypass valve to the RV water heater. Duh! So, guided by relief, I located the valve and opened it to allow water to flow into the RV water heater.

The Investigation

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I initially thought, wow, that sounds strange. The water was gushing, but I didn’t know how it should sound. I opened the faucet; nothing: no water, no air. I was dumbfounded. I could hear the water running and thought it was simply filling the tank. I waited. After a couple of minutes, still nothing. Determined to solve this problem, I re-checked the valve, tried the cold water, and scratched my head. Next, I went outside to look at the external RV water heater panel.

That’s when I saw it- water pouring from the bottom of the RV all over the ground. Faster than I could say Oh $#!%, I raced to the pedestal spigot, turned it off, and then returned to the subsiding waterfall. Initially, I assumed that I must have done something wrong. It took me a long time to realize that the error wasn’t my doing and there was a problem with the RV water heater. Little by little, I traced all of the lines, looked for broken connections, and inspected every valve.

At this point, I saw something that looked like a malformed piece of foam insulation around the tank. I painfully concluded that I would need to pull the entire unit out. After researching how to do this and getting more familiar with the plumbing, I disconnected everything (electric, propane, water lines) and prepped it for removal. After getting it out, it was clear what happened. The tank burst in what I soon realized was from water left in it over the winter.


The only fix for this was to replace the RV water heater. Sometimes life gives you lemons, and your only option is to eat them. This experience was one of those situations. I absorbed some responsibility for failing to know what to look for when inspecting a used RV. Additionally, I realized, which would be a recurring theme in my RV pursuits, that knowledge is not intuitive. Thankfully, this issue did provide me with invaluable information on RV plumbing and maintenance. I learned how to replace an RV water heater, but it was a costly lesson at nearly $400 for a new one.

I also learned that ice is a powerful force. If you ever left a can of soda in the freezer, you know what I mean. An RV water heater full of water, when frozen, will expand and will split metal. I know that I wasn’t the first to experience this and won’t be the last. Hopefully, if you’re reading this post, it will never happen to you.

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Here you can see the connections (and the split) of the RV water heater

If you need to replace your RV water heater, make sure you find your exact model. While most are similar in size, you will want to ensure that you have the right configuration for electric, propane, auto-ignite, etc. If it’s a suburban model, here’s a link to their products.

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