RV Water Heater Works on Propane but not Electric : Troubleshooting Your RV Water Heater

two propane tanks outside an RV trailer

Is your RV’s water heater working with propane but not electricity? Check the power source, heating element, and thermostat if the propane heats but the electricity doesn’t.

It’s a typical problem that can cause distress in your cozy camping plans. But sometimes a simple adjustment or part replacement is what’s needed. This guide will help you understand:

  • Common causes and fixes for electric RV water heater failures
  • Safety precautions when troubleshooting your RV Water Heater
  • Best practices to prevent RV water Heater failures
  • When to seek professional help
shower head in a tiled background

Understanding Your RV Water Heater

An RV water heater is similar to a home water heater system but is smaller and can operate on either propane or electricity. It has the following key components that work together to heat water:

  • A tank to store and heat water.
  • A heating element that uses electricity to heat the water.
  • Burner assembly that uses propane to heat the water.
  • A thermostat that regulates water temperature.
  • Pressure relief valve to prevent excess pressure build-up in the tank.
  • Anode rod that protects the tank from corrosion.
  • Control panel to allow you to switch between propane and electric modes and adjust settings.
  • An ignition system to light the propane burner, either manually or automatically.

If any element malfunctions the RV water heater system may fail to work properly. Depending on the damaged component, you may find that one heating mode is working while the other is not.

For instance, it is common to find the propane mode working perfectly, while the electric fails.

Common Causes and Fixes for Electric Setting Failures

The electric mode of your RV water heater may fail due to any of the following failures:

Electric Element Failure

This is a condition where the heating element cannot generate energy to heat your water due to blowing out.

Cause: The heating element can burn out due to age, sediment buildup, or prolonged operation without water in the tank.

How to diagnose: To diagnose a faulty element, use a multimeter to check for continuity. Follow these two simple steps:

  1. Disconnect your RV from power to avoid any electrical hazards.
  2. Access the heating element and place the multimeter probes on each terminal.

A lack of continuity indicates a bad element.

Fix: To replace the element:

  1. Drain the tank
  2. Remove the old element
  3. Install a new one

Safety Tip: Always refer to your RV’s manual for specifications on the correct element and follow safety protocols throughout the process.

Tripped Circuit Breaker or Blown Fuse

Cause: A surge of electricity or an overloaded circuit typically causes a breaker to trip or a fuse to blow.

How to diagnose: Check your RV’s circuit panel for tripped breakers or blown fuses. A breaker that has moved to the ‘off‘ position or a fuse that shows a broken wire inside or discoloration indicates an issue.

Fix: Reset the breaker by flipping it fully to the ‘off’ position and then back to ‘on’. Replace a blown fuse with a new one of the same amperage.

If the breaker trips or the fuse blows again, you may have an underlying electrical problem that requires professional attention.

Thermostat Issues

Cause: Thermostats can fail due to wiring issues, a malfunctioning heat sensor, or wear and tear.

How to diagnose: To test the thermostat, use a multimeter set to the resistance setting. Then use these three steps in your diagnostics:

  1. Ensure the power is disconnected
  2. Remove the thermostat’s cover
  3. Check for continuity by placing the multimeter probes on the thermostat terminals

No reading means the thermostat is faulty.

Fix: If the thermostat has a reset button, try pressing it. If not or the reset doesn’t resolve the issue, you’ll need to replace the thermostat. Make sure to install the correct model specific to your water heater.

Faulty Electrical Connections and Switches

Cause: Over time, vibration during travel can loosen connections, and switches may corrode or wear out, causing a loss of power to the water heater.

How to diagnose: Inspect all wiring connections to the water heater for signs of corrosion, wear, or looseness.

Also, test switches for continuity with a multimeter to ensure they are functioning properly. No continuity means your switches are damaged.

Fix: Tighten loose connections and clean any corrosion with a wire brush. Replace any switches that no longer show continuity, ensuring that the new switches match the original specifications for your RV water heater.

Contact a professional if you’re not confident performing these diagnostics and repairs. Working with RV electrical systems requires CAUTION and respect for the power involved.

sign warning about high voltage

Safety Precautions When Troubleshooting RV Water Heater Problems

When fixing your RV electric water heater accidents can occur. Some of them include:

  • Fire
  • Electric shock
  • Body cuts
  • Propane leakage

These accidents can be minor causing small body injuries and equipment damage or fatal causing total harm.

Well, some accidents can never be avoided but others can be avoided as they occur due to negligence. Either way, the risks can be managed through the necessary measures.

To avoid or reduce the risk of accidents when troubleshooting your RV water heater, observe the following safety precautions:

Electrical Safety

Disconnect your RV from any external power sources before you start any diagnostics. This isn’t a gentle suggestion—it’s a non-negotiable step to prevent the risk of shock or worse.

Turn off the main breaker in your RV’s electrical panel and unplug from the shore power. If your water heater has a switch, ensure it’s in the ‘off’ position.

Propane Safety

Like RV’s electrical system, take the propane system seriously. Ensure the propane supply is entirely shut off at the tank before you start your troubleshooting procedures.

More than preventing fires or explosions, this step prevents propane inhalation, which can be dangerous.

Personal Safety Gear

Don’t be stingy on personal protective gear. Use safety glasses to protect your eyes from debris or unexpected sparks.

Wear a pair of gloves to shield you against sharp edges and potential electric shocks.

cut wires with a person's hand soldering

Best Practices for Preventing Future Issues

Electric water heater failures can be expensive in terms of repair costs or cozy time you would otherwise spend enjoying camping. Also, they put you at risk of accidents while trying to fix them.

It is not something any RV enthusiast would love to endure twice while enjoying their camping.

So how do you avoid future issues with your RV electric water heater? Well, make sure to observe:

Regular Maintenance Checks

Mark your calendar for regular maintenance check-ups on your RV water heater. It’s not just about responding to problems, it’s about preventing them.

Make a habit of inspecting your water heater’s electrical and gas components periodically. Look for any signs of wear, corrosion, or damage. This routine vigilance can catch small issues before they become trip-ruining problems.

Proper Switching Technique

Always ensure one power source is completely off before switching to the other. This avoids the potential for a power surge or conflict that could damage your water heater’s delicate systems.

Annual Professional Inspections

Even the most diligent RV owner can miss things. That’s why enlisting a professional for an annual inspection is a smart move.

They have the expertise to spot potential issues you might not recognize and can perform any necessary maintenance tasks that might be beyond your comfort zone.

A partnership with a pro such as NW Adventure Rentals can extend the life of your RV water heater and safeguard your travels against unexpected cold showers.

vehicle electronic panel exposed

When to Seek Professional Help

Recognizing when a problem is beyond your DIY skills is crucial for your safety and the life span of your RV water heater.

If you’ve gone through the troubleshooting steps and your water heater still favors propane over electric, or if you encounter complex electrical issues, it’s time to call a professional.

The value of professional repairs is their expertise. NW Adventure Rentals technicians can diagnose issues that aren’t immediately apparent, have the tools to fix them promptly, and ensure everything is up to code and safe for your next adventure.

Remember, there’s no shame in needing help—it’s all part of keeping your RV in top shape for the long haul.

Off to Troubleshoot Your RV Water Heater

In sum, troubleshooting your RV’s water heater when it’s not functioning on electric power involves a systematic approach: from visually inspecting your unit, checking the heating element, verifying the circuit breaker and fuses, to testing the thermostat.

Addressing these issues restores your water heater’s performance, to ensure you’re prepared for future trips.

With each step you take, you’re not just fixing a problem, you’re becoming more in tune with your RV’s needs.

If you need any help fixing your RV or want to rent one, NW Adventure Rentals is your best source. Drop us a note, we love to help.