Having hot water in your RV is such a nice treat. It makes washing dishes, taking a shower, and just washing your hand so much more pleasant.
But sometimes you may have an issue with your water heater and need a repair. This is true for all camper manufacturers; the Forest River brand is no exception. Many Forest River campers use Suburban water heaters, which have a few known issues and will require repair. The most common reason for RV water heaters not working is an issue with the fuel source, ignition system, or thermostat. This post will review how to check and fix the most common problems with your hot water tank not working, including:
- Fuel Source
- Bypass Valves
- Ignition System
- Thermocouple and Thermostat
- Electrical Hot Water Heaters
Whether you have a Forest River brand or any other brand RV manufacturer, the many tips and tricks below will help if your RV water heater is not working.
Table of Contents
- Bypass Valve
- Ignition System
- Thermocouple and Thermostat
- Final Thoughts
The problem is often a simple fix and can be prevented with regular RV maintenance.
If you have read my posts, you will notice that I always look at the simple fix before diving into a major repair. Over the years, I have learned that a majority of the time, the simplest fix was usually the solution. From that lesson, I learned to start there and then go down to the more in-depth part replacement scenario.
In the case of a water heater, the most common issue is the fuel source, which is propane. Most RVs have propane as a single source fuel supply. In contrast, some have both propane and electricity to provide heat. We will explore both types of water heaters below.
Step 1: Check your Propane
The first step is to ensure you get propane to your hot water tank.
Check that your gas valve is on. I know this sounds simple, but I confess that I thought there was an issue but then realized that the propane tank was not even on.
Once you have confirmed the gas valve is on, you want to check the propane pressure and ensure gas is in the line. When you take down your RV and get ready to get back on the road, you may lose some propane in the supply line and get some air pockets. To purge these air pockets, the simplest thing to do is turn on your propane stove. If your stove works and you have a strong blue flame, your propane fuel is good, and you can move to the next step.
Another quick step that you can check is your bypass valve. This valve is used in winterization, where the water valves are cut off from the hot water tank. You don’t need to fill your hot water tank with 3 gallons of RV coolant. You get by with less coolant as it only fills the cold and hot water lines.
If your bypass valves are in the winterization position, no cold water will go into your tank. And that also means it will not make hot water for your faucets.
Step 2: Check the Bypass Valve
Verify that the bypass valve is in the correct position for normal operation. These valves are inside your RV, close to the hot water tank. The water heater is usually close to the kitchen faucet and behind a removable panel.
Once you access the hot water tank, you will see two valves, one at the cold and one at the hot water line. Ensure these are in the flow position, allowing the water to enter the hot tank.
All heating appliances in your RV have an ignition system. Just like your RV furnace and stove, your hot water tank gives a spark when needed to start the combustion process.
Modern RVs, including Forest River, use an electric ignition system for their appliances. The old way was to have a pilot light always on and use a small amount of propane. Now, electric ignition systems work like spark plugs and provide a quick spark when needed to start an appliance.
If you want to see an ignition system at work, look at any newer RV or house stove. You will hear a clicking sound and see a spark going from the ignitor to the burner. As the fuel starts going to the burner, that spark will ignite the fuel. This is the same principle as your water heater.
Step 3: Check your Ignition System
You should hear clicking when you go to your control panel and turn on your hot water tank. That is the igniter creating a spark to ignite the propane. Sometimes, you will hear this click for a few seconds and then shut off. If that is the case, then the water heated senses that there is no heat being produced and will shut off.
The most common problem for ignition system failure is too much wind. Your water heater cover on the outside has a vent allowing fresh air to come in for combustion. On a windy day, that air can go through the vents and cause your burners to blow out, shutting down your water heater. Just picture a match being blown out on a windy day. The same can happen to your hot water tank.
If this is the case, see if you can put up a screen or block the wind from going to your vent. Remember, this is a vent that needs to breathe, so don’t block completely or too close. Just enough to keep the wind from blowing into the vents will work.
Thermocouple and Thermostat
Another component that could be causing an issue is the thermocouple, sometimes called a thermocouple fuse. The thermocouple fuse takes heat from the burner and converts it to a low-voltage electrical signal. That signal tells the water heater that the water temperature is rising and that all is functioning correctly. If the thermocouple does not signal heat, the hot water heater thinks the fuel is not being burned properly and will shut off the fuel source, turning off the heater.
Your water heater also has a pre-set temperature thermostat that lets the heater know if it should turn back on to make hot water. Any fault in this thermostat will give the water heater a mixed signal on the desired temperature and make it turn off.
Step 4: Clean the Thermocouple
Do a visual inspection and ensure no dirt or corrosion on the flame sensor. Clean any dirt with water and a small cloth if you see any dirt.
For information on testing your thermocouple, visit my post on what your hot water tanks turn on and off.
This section is for you if you have a water heater that also runs on electricity. A dual-power heater will run on propane, as we reviewed above, but it can also run on electricity as its power source.
When running on electricity, the heater will still use safety features such as the thermocouple and the thermostat. The difference is that if there is a power issue, the hot water heater will not work.
Step 5: Check your Power
Check to see if you have power to your electric water heater. This can be done by plugging any 120v appliance or light into the receptacle to see if it has power. If there is no power to the receptacle, check your breaker at your fuse box to see if any breakers have tripped. If you notice the breaker has tripped, reset it and test that you have power at the receptacle.
Hot water in your RV is a wonderful luxury that enhances your overall camping experience. However, issues with your water heater can arise, and it’s important to know how to troubleshoot and fix common problems. Whether you own a Forest River camper or any other brand, the tips in this article can help you address issues with your hot water tank not working. Checking the propane supply, verifying the bypass valve position, inspecting the ignition system, cleaning the thermocouple, and ensuring power availability are crucial steps in resolving common water heater issues. Regular RV maintenance and addressing simple fixes first can prevent many problems from occurring. By following these steps, you can enjoy a reliable and efficient hot water supply during your RV adventures.
Tony is an avid camper and RV traveler. He fell in love with camping on his first RV trip with his wife over 25 years ago. Tony loves sharing lessons learned and tips about RV maintenance and safe traveling.