… and keep it that way by including the water heater in your coach maintenance plan.
By S.B. Jackson
Hot water is a valuable commodity while traveling in an RV. You can ensure it is always readily available by understanding how your motorhome’s water heater operates and performing the necessary upkeep.
The best place to begin is with the water heater system itself. Locate the water heater access panel and the system control valves. An operations manual regarding the water heater tank should have been provided to you upon purchase of the motorhome. If you have misplaced the manual, request a replacement from the component manufacturer or download a copy via the Internet.
Unlike hydronic heating systems that provide an almost endless supply of hot water, tank systems operate in the same manner as a teakettle “” fill it up, apply heat, and wait for the water to warm. In a properly operating tank system, heating the water should take no longer than 30 minutes, which is just enough time to enjoy your morning coffee before jumping into the shower. Since the water heater tank is a reservoir, reserves should be used conservatively during periods of high usage, such as showers, dishwashing, and when doing a load of laundry on a warm-water setting.
Depending on your model of motorhome, water in the tank can be heated using LP gas or electricity. Know which power source heats the water so you can assure there is ample supply. Systems running on LP gas generally have a faster recovery rate. You may be able to simultaneously use gas and electricity for large-volume use. Some earlier-model RVs may use a pilot light system that can occasionally go out and cause the system to fail. If the water heater system relies on a heating element inside the tank, protect the element by turning it off when there is no water in the tank. One additional feature to the system may be a thermostat used to control heating functions. If you find that it is taking an unusually long time to heat water in a tank system that utilizes a thermostat, this could indicate the need to adjust the thermostat.
To prevent the water heater tank from acting like Mt. St. Helens, a pressure-temperature relief valve is installed to automatically open when water temperatures or pressures reach high levels. The valve isn’t designed to erupt large gushes of water, but instead produces slight dripping that is usually controlled by an internal air pocket. If there is excess water at the valve, you may need to replace the air pocket in the tank. Additional bypass valves are installed to allow you the option of closing off the water heater tank from water flow, particularly during winterization procedures when the water heater tank should be emptied.
A good way to protect the interior of the water heater tank is by relying on clean water sources. Use your senses to test a source before filling the tank. Water that emits the odor of rotten eggs, leaves a bitter taste, or appears rusty in color could contain a high mineral content that can cause accelerated scaling on sinks and showers, residual odors, and yellowing of laundry. If you encounter an obviously inferior water source, find a different supply.
Even the best water police will find that over time mineral deposits will build up at the bottom of the water heater tank. At least once each year, remove debris by flushing the tank under pressure. For added assistance, you may want to use specially designed flushing wands available at most camping supply outlets. To promote better water flow while flushing out the bottom of the tank, you can slightly tilt the motorhome using its levelers; however, keep the incline minimal to avoid putting undue stress on the frame or chassis.
Anodes are installed in steel water heater tanks to attract corrosive materials and prevent electrolysis from deteriorating the tank. The anode should be replaced at least once each year. Don’t be alarmed if all that remains of the anode resembles nothing more than a Popsicle stick “” that means the tool is doing its job. When you install a new anode, resist attempts to prolong the life of the replacement part by wrapping it up with fancy mechanical tapes, which would prevent the anode from working as designed and ultimately end up destroying the tank.
Aluminum water heater tanks are constructed from materials that do not require use of an anode, and you may void the warranty by adding the component to your tank. You may look in there and presume the system does not utilize an anode when, in fact, the original anode has actually corroded totally away. If there is any doubt whether the system is designed to use an anode, contact the tank manufacturer.
To service the water heater tank, turn off the breaker to the water heater system, switch off the primary power source, and close the primary LP-gas valve. Allow ample time for water inside the tank to cool. Open the pressure-temperature relief valve. Drain the remaining water in the tank. Frequently clean away dirt and debris around the access panel.
When you are en route to a dry camping destination, remember to fill the water heater tank prior to arriving so you don’t drain the fresh water supply when it’s time to heat water in the tank. To conserve power supplies, keep the water heater tank off until a half-hour before hot water will be needed.
Legend has it that in some Southern states the temperature soars to the point that chickens are fed ice cubes to prevent them from laying hard-boiled eggs. As far as winter is concerned, I’ve heard some places back East get so cold that clocks rub their hands together to keep warm. We can’t do much about the weather, but by taking care of our water heater tanks, we can always assure a welcome supply of hot water for year-round camping comfort.