RV Water Heater Repair: Revive Your Water Heating System With Expert Troubleshooting Tips

Our comprehensive guide focuses on RV water heater repair, troubleshooting, and fixing common issues. Whether you’re a seasoned RV enthusiast or a novice traveler, we understand that dealing with problems related to your RV water heater can be frustrating.

From diagnosing a lack of hot water to addressing malfunctioning components, we’re here to provide you with valuable insights and step-by-step instructions. Our aim is to help you resolve these issues and ensure a comfortable and worry-free journey on the road.

Let’s delve into the world of RV water heater repair and troubleshooting together.

RV water heater and how to repair it
photo: amazon.com

We have gathered an extensive compilation of symptoms, problems, troubleshooting techniques, and repair tips from RV users, consumer complaints, RV heater forums, professional plumbers, and manufacturers. This comprehensive guide provides detailed instructions for repairing an RV water heater, focusing specifically on two of the most popular brands: Atwood and Suburban.

Please note that installations, troubleshooting, repairs, and servicing should always be carried out by a certified professional. To ensure quality service, you can obtain up to 3 free quotes from local plumbers by contacting this company and filling out a short form.

RV Water Heater Repair: Common Problems and How to Fix Them

RV water heater repair involves addressing the most common issues that can occur. By identifying and understanding these problems, you can effectively troubleshoot and apply the necessary fixes to keep your water heater running smoothly during your adventures.

Here, we present the most common problems that can occur with your heating device:

Problem #1 – RV Water Heater Is Making a Noise

If your RV water heater is making noise, such as a high-pitched, popping, or whistling sound, it is time to check some elements before going on a long trip.

One of the common causes of a high-pitched noise in electric heaters is the accumulation of limescale, predominantly composed of calcium, on the heating element. Over time, as the water is heated and evaporates, minerals can solidify and form a layer on the heating element. This buildup of limescale can disrupt the normal flow of heat, leading to the production of a high-pitched noise. Additionally, corrosion on the heating element can also contribute to the development of this type of noise.

To address these noise-related issues, regular maintenance is crucial. Periodically cleaning and flushing the water heater can help remove limescale deposits, both on the heating element and within the tank. A descaling solution or a mixture of vinegar and water can be used to dissolve the limescale buildup. In severe cases, where the limescale or corrosion is extensive, replacing the affected heating element might be necessary.

The popping noise, which can be heard from both electric and gas units, is often the result of mineral deposits settling at the bottom of the tank. These minerals, such as calcium and magnesium, are commonly found in water sources and can accumulate over time. As the water heats up and evaporates, the minerals separate from the water and form sediment at the bottom of the tank. When the water heater operates, the heat causes the trapped air bubbles within the sediment to expand and burst, resulting in the popping or crackling sound.

For the popping noise caused by mineral deposits in the tank, flushing the water heater regularly can help remove the accumulated sediment. Draining the tank and flushing it with fresh water can dislodge and eliminate the mineral buildup, reducing or eliminating the popping sounds.

In the case of a whistling sound, it is typically caused by debris lodged within the check valve of the water heater. The check valve is responsible for regulating the flow of water within the system. If debris, such as dirt or small particles, becomes trapped within the valve, it can obstruct the normal flow of water, creating turbulent and high-speed water flow that produces the whistling noise.

To resolve the whistling sound resulting from debris in the check valve, it is essential to remove the obstruction. This can be done by shutting off the water supply, disassembling the check valve, and thoroughly cleaning it to ensure unobstructed water flow.

Problem #2 – The Pilot Outage, and It Won’t Start or Won’t Stay Lit

When facing a pilot outage issue where the RV water heater won’t start or fails to stay lit, it is important to be aware of the associated symptoms and implement appropriate solutions.

  • If the thermocouple or gas control magnet is weak and not functioning properly, it is necessary to replace them.
  • If the pilot flame is weak or not properly established, it is recommended to clean or replace the orifice.
  • If the U tube is blocked, remove the obstruction causing the blockage.
  • If you are getting an incorrect gas pressure reading, make the necessary adjustments to the gas pressure following the instructions in the manufacturer’s manual.
  • Adjustments are also required for improper air adjustment and main burner alignment.

Here is how to troubleshoot an RV water heater when experiencing a pilot outage (when the button is released):

  • If the thermocouple is weak, replace it. If it is loose, tighten the connection at the gas control. If it is not hot, reposition it to ensure better contact with the pilot flame.
  • Hold the knob longer, as it takes some time for the gas valve or electric board to receive the signal from the thermocouple, indicating the presence of a flame.

Problem #3 – No Sparks on Electrodes

If there are no sparks on the electrodes of the RV water heater, there are several steps you can take to address the issue:

  • Secure electrodes to the main burner if they are loosely attached. Ensure they are properly fastened to establish a reliable connection.
  • Reposition the electrode to achieve the appropriate gap. Adjust its position to ensure the correct spacing between the electrode and the main burner.
  • Clean dirty electrodes. Accumulated dirt or debris can hinder proper sparking. Use a soft brush or cloth to gently clean the electrodes and remove any build-up.
  • Check and secure wire connections on the circuit board. Loose connections can disrupt the electrical flow. Ensure all wire connections are tightly secured and in good condition.
  • Replace the electrode if the insulation is cracked or if the wire inside is loose. Damaged insulation or loose wires can impede the generation of sparks. Replace the electrode with a new one to restore functionality.
  • If none of the above steps resolve the issue, consider replacing the circuit board.

Problem #4 – The Gas Burner Won’t Ignite

This issue occurs when the gas valve fails to open due to a lack of voltage for the electric spark. To resolve this problem, consider checking and replacing the following components if necessary:

  • Circuit board: Inspect the circuit board for any malfunctions. If needed, replace the circuit board to restore proper voltage supply.
  • ECO (Emergency Cut Off): Ensure that the ECO is functioning correctly. Tighten any loose wires connected to the ECO, wiring harness, and solenoid valve.
  • Solenoid valve: Check the solenoid valve for any issues. If necessary, replace the solenoid valve to ensure proper gas flow.
  • Clean or replace the orifice: If the burner orifice is blocked, it can prevent gas from flowing properly. Clean the orifice to remove any obstructions or replace it if necessary.
  • Remove obstructions: If the U tube or main burner is blocked, it can hinder the gas flow. Clear any obstructions to allow for proper gas flow.
  • Gas control replacement: If the gas control is out of calibration, it may not function correctly. Consider replacing the gas control to resolve calibration issues.
  • Align the flame spreader: If the flame spreader is misaligned, it can affect the ignition process. Adjust the flame spreader to ensure proper alignment.
  • Defective components: If the problem persists, the electrode, solenoid valve, or circuit board may be defective and require replacement. Consult the manufacturer’s instructions or seek professional assistance to replace the faulty component.

Problem #5 – Insufficient Hot Water

  • Remove obstructions from the partially blocked burner and U tube. Clear any debris or blockages that may be restricting the flow of water in these components.
  • Check the air shutter, burner, and burner orifice holder for proper adjustment. Improper air and main burner adjustment can affect the water temperature. Adjust these components as necessary to achieve the appropriate settings.
  • Reset the temperature selector to the desired temperature. If the temperature selector is out of place or not set correctly, readjust it to the desired temperature level.
  • Ensure the thermostat is properly placed against the tank. If the thermostat is defective, consider replacing it with a new one to ensure accurate temperature control.
  • Verify the position and alignment of the bypass lever and flame spreader. Improper positioning and misalignment of these components can affect the water flow and temperature. Adjust and align them properly to resolve any issues.

Problem #6 – Leaking (Dripping) From the Relief Valve

If you notice water dripping from the pressure and temperature relief valve of your RV water heater, there’s no need to worry. In closed water heating systems found in RV vehicles, when the water expands, excess pressure needs a way to escape, and the valve opens to relieve it.

If the dripping problem occurs frequently, here’s a solution to repair the RV hot water heater by establishing an air pocket:

  • Turn off the RV water heater and cold water supply.
  • Open a tap in the RV to allow water to flow out through the pressure relief valve until it stops.
  • Once the water stops running, release the valve handle.
  • Close the tap in the RV and turn on the cold water supply.
  • As the cold water fills the tank, an air pocket will develop. Repeat this procedure as needed.
  • If this solution doesn’t resolve the issue, the installation of an expansion tank may be necessary.

Problem #7 – Sooting

  • Unblock any obstructions in the main burner, U tube, or exhaust grille. Clear away any debris or blockages that may be interfering with the proper flow of air or exhaust.
  • Adjust the main burner alignment, valve, air shutter, or flame spreader. Improper alignment or settings can contribute to sooting. Ensure these components are properly adjusted for optimal performance.
  • Verify if the recommended gas supply is present. Make sure that the appropriate gas supply is available and that it meets the specifications outlined by the manufacturer.

Problem #8 – Irregular Ignition (Not Igniting) and Fails to Ignite

  • Replace the cracked electrode insulation. If the insulation around the electrode is cracked or damaged, it can interfere with the ignition process. Replace the electrode with new insulation to ensure proper functioning.
  • Replace the fluctuating thermostat. A malfunctioning or fluctuating thermostat can disrupt the ignition sequence. Install a new thermostat to maintain stable and consistent temperature control.
  • Tighten the loose ground wire on the gas valve. A loose ground wire can cause unreliable ignition. Ensure that the ground wire on the gas valve is securely tightened for a stable electrical connection.
  • Tighten the poor ground on the electrodes. Insufficient grounding can lead to inconsistent ignition. Check the ground connections on the electrodes and tighten them to establish a reliable ground.

Problem #9 – How to Remove Rotten Egg Smell

If you notice a bad odor emanating from the hot water faucet of your RV, it is likely that you are experiencing a rotten egg problem known as hydrogen sulfide or sulfur water. This occurs due to a chemical reaction between released hydrogen and sulfur in the water, which is further exacerbated by bacterial growth.

For instance, RV water heaters like Atwood that have a protective coating on the interior of the tank may release hydrogen from the water during the corrosion-fighting process. This chemical interaction between sulfur and released hydrogen leads to the formation of hydrogen sulfide, causing the unpleasant rotten egg odor.

Another solution to prevent corrosion, premature tank failure, and potential leaks is found in Suburban RV water heaters. These models utilize an anode rod to safeguard the storage tank. However, the anode rod may deteriorate over time, leading to sediment accumulation within the tank. This, in turn, promotes the growth of bacteria and the production of the foul-smelling rotten egg odor.

When winterizing the water heater with antifreeze, it’s important to note that this process can accelerate the decay of the sacrificial anode rod unless it is removed.

Do you need to replace the RV water heater?

The answer is no.

How to Flush an RV Water Heater

A solution to address the issue of a rotten egg smell is to flush the RV water heating system. Begin by draining the heater’s tank.

When you open the drain plug, water should flow steadily. If it doesn’t, open the pressure and temperature relief valve to allow air in and use a wire to remove any obstructions from the drain opening.

To flush your RV water heater, you have several recommended options. You can use vinegar, with a ratio of 2 parts vinegar to 1 part water, or 3% hydrogen peroxide, with a ratio of 1 part hydrogen peroxide to 160 parts water. Alternatively, you can use chlorinated water or household liquid bleach, with a ratio of 1 part chlorine to 230 parts water.

Allow the chosen solution to sit inside the tank for a few hours, and then thoroughly flush the system. Note that removing the taste, particularly that of chlorine, may be challenging, so consider using a filter to help with this.

When troubleshooting Atwood and Suburban RV water heaters, it’s important to remember that this list does not cover all possible problems. Many factors can directly or indirectly affect the performance of your RV water heater. Always refer to the manufacturer’s guide for instructions and consult Atwood or Suburban technical support for detailed assistance.

Additionally, remember to consult the manufacturer’s guide frequently when performing repairs on your RV water heater.


When it comes to RV water heater problems, proper timing, regular maintenance, accurate troubleshooting, and safety are of utmost importance. Addressing problems promptly can prevent further damage and ensure a reliable water heating system during your travels.

While some minor repairs and maintenance tasks can be performed as do-it-yourself (DIY) projects, it is crucial to know your limitations. DIY efforts should only be undertaken if you have the necessary knowledge, skills, and tools to complete the task safely and effectively. In cases where the problem is complex or involves intricate technical aspects, it is advisable to call a professional.

Regular maintenance is key to prevent issues before they arise. Following the manufacturer’s guidelines for cleaning, flushing, and inspecting your RV water heater will help prolong its lifespan and maintain optimal performance.

Prioritize safety, and when in doubt, consult with professionals who can provide the necessary guidance and assistance for a reliable and well-maintained RV water heater.

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