How to Choose a Water Heater for Your RV 9778

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.

A Primer on the Types of RV Water Heaters

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 of 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.

Let’s Take a Look at the Different Types of RV Water Heaters

6-Gallon Manual LP Gas Water Heater

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)

6-Gallon LP Gas with Direct Spark Ignition

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)

6-Gallon LP Gas/DSI/Electric Water Heater

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)

10-Gallon LP Gas/DSI/Electric Water heater

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)

On-Demand RV Water Heaters

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)

Other Options, Closing Thoughts

There are other ways to heat the water in your RV, such as a travel trailer, 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.

Have any questions or concerns? Leave a comment below!


  1. I purchased a tankless on demand water heater. When it didn’t work properly, I had them send me a second one. Neither worked. I paid $200, so maybe that is what you get for $200. Someone else in the camp grounds had the same trouble with theirs. The trouble we had was, the hot water shuts off for no reason at all…and always when you step in the shower. I had many people looking at it with me. I swore it had a naked skin sensor because it would work fine until I got naked and wet. Shutting the water off and turning it back on would get it going again. Both are going in the junk pile. Looking for an electric tank heater, which is how I came across this site.

    1. My wife MUST have long hot showers. Went tankless and have never regretted it. There is however a learning curse for its use. You must have good water pressure. The most you can stand. If you feel you must have a regulator on your water supply make sure it’s a 50 psi. Turn on hot then add cold to adjust.

  2. I replaced my standard water heater with a tankless it works great! However when dry camping if you turn off the water flow you turn off the water heater at the same time.
    The water heater takes up to one gallon of water about 30 seconds of cold water every time you shut the water off to try to conserve water not really working. I use more fresh water and wast water tank space.

  3. I have a 2003 Cougar 5th wheel trailer and the water heater ( 6 gallon ) is leaking badly but before the t valve on back tank broke I could have water to trailer by turning off water heater but replaced valve and now leaks all the time what is the best option replacing it with same kind or going to on demand water heater

  4. I have a 94 holiday Rambler and the water heater is pouring water out of the release valve. I know it needs to be replaced. My question is are water heaters universal or are there specific ones that go to certain model trailers? Also mine is LP gas and electric, Can I go straight electric?

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