RV Water Heater Repair and Troubleshooting To Get Your Hot Water Flowing

Table of Contents

RV Roof Repair Man
Learn about RV water heater troubleshooting:

Understanding Water Heaters

Rotten Egg Smell?

Heater Lifespan

Anode Rod Replacements

When it comes to RV water heaters the main thing you need to do for maintenance is to replace the water heater anode rod annually. If you do this you will avoid a expensive replacements that cost hundreds of dollars.

But we'll get to anode rods and other methods to keep your water heater working properly later in this article. First, let's cover some basics that will help you operate your water heater, and move forward in diagnosing and repairing any problems you may have with it.

Understanding RV Water Heaters

Water heaters are found in most all RVs and come in two sizes: 6 and 10 gallons. There are three basic styles to choose from:

Pilot Models

Pilot model water heaters require you the owner to light the water heater pilot when you go camping. This works great and the only downfall is that it's kind of hard to do in the wind because the pilot can be blown out and require relighting. This system requires no 12 volt to operate.

If you have a pilot model and don't want to deal with the wind blowing it out you can retro fit the pilot with a 9V battery operated auto igniter, or an igniter that wires into your 12V system.

Water tanks will develop leaks over time and will require you to replace the water heater. With a manual pilot model, this is a great time to consider upgrading to an automatic system and even adding the 110V option.

Electronic Ignition (DSI)

Electronic ignition water heaters, also known as DSI or Direct Spark Ignition water heaters, are the most common and the most preferred type of water heater. They only require you to flip a switch for the propane to automatically light and turn on and off as needed. The only requirement needed for this system is to have a good, constant source of 12 Volts.

If the ignition system ever fails you will get a red light at the switch telling you there was a problem. Most of the time the problem is that you've run out of propane. Correct the problem and the light resets when you turn the switch off and then back on.

The electronic circuit board will make three attempts at lighting the propane system before the red light becomes solid, indicating a problem. As long as the system is operating correctly the red light will remain off.


The third option of water heaters is 110 Volt and normally comes as a second option along with the propane system.

The nice thing about the 110V option is it can be used to supplement the propane system to heat the water twice as fast because you're using two sources of heat. Or by just using the 110V, you can save on the use of propane.

The circuit breaker for the water heater can be used to control the on and off of the 110 Volts, but some water heaters also have a switch of its own. Atwood now puts the switches side by side and Suburban still has the 110 switch outside behind the access door. On older models the 110Volt switch is located behind the water heater inside, under the cabinet where you would access the plumbing connections.

Precaution: Always be sure the exhaust area is clear. I've seen things like a storage shed or a compartment door that opens over the exhaust, blocking it. Or even your entry door could cover the front of your water heater when it swings out when you open it.

Funny Smell?

If you smell an odor like a rotten egg coming from the faucets, then the water in the heater and pipes has probably been sitting for too long and is stale. It tends to be worse on the hot water side, but don't panic--it's an easy fix. Just turn on the water and let it run until the smell clears.

After you've run the water, don't use the water left in the holding tank because this water will be stale as well. You'll want to drain it and replace fresh again before you use it. This process could take 30 minutes or longer to get it all out. While you're doing that, be sure to keep an eye on your grey water level if the valve is not open on the tank so you don't overfill your tank while running the water for so long.

How long will my water heater last?

I've often been asked what the life expectancy of a water heater is. Most water heaters last more than 5 to 10 years, but I've seen leaks in tanks still under the first year warranty. Water high in calcium or sodium will really damage tanks quickly.

Replacing Anode Rods and Extending Your Water Heater's Life

Anode rods are in some water heaters to protect the tank lining from corrosion, extending its life considerably. Anode rods must be changed every year or more. If you've just purchased a used RV I'd advise you have this done ASAP. Some tanks are glass lined and don't require the anode rod.

To locate your anode rod you need to know the brand of water heater you own, which is very likely to be either Suburban or Atwood.

Suburban water heaters have a place for the anode rod located at the center bottom. You can find this by going to the outside access of your RV.

Atwood water heaters are of the glass-lined variety and an anode is not required.

Outside when you open the access cover to your water heater, you will see a brass relief valve located towards the top. If this ever is found leaking be sure and replace it as soon as you can. The water dripping causes damage and rust to components it's dripping on. Also, never lift the lever on the valve to relieve pressure because once you do the valve will most likely never stop leaking because a small piece of calcium will often get caught in the valve.

There are water heaters on the market now that heat the water as you use it. These are called On-Demand water heaters. If you live in the San Diego area I can personally assist you in finding one, but other than that I would recommend searching the internet for a distributer near you.

I'm more concerned here with you learning about what you have now rather than learning about the newer on-demand water heaters.

If you have any problems or have any questions concerning your water heater please feel free to ask me your questions just below.

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Robbie Warford, San Diego RV Repair

Hi, I'm Robbie. Welcome to Money-Saving-RV-Repair.com!

Like the name implies, this site is all about helping you save money while keeping your RV in tip-top shape--and that is all about you having the knowledge to do so.

I've been a technician in the RV industry for 30 years, operating out of San Diego, California. And let me tell you, I love my job.

But I also love empowering RVers with the knowledge they need to make the right decision on repairs, or to make the fix themselves--and that, my friend, is the reason for this website. I hope you enjoy.

Or, learn more about me, my RV service practice, & this website here.