RV Water Heater Repair and
Troubleshooting Guide
(updated 2017)


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Explore the RV water heater repair and troubleshooting guide to find solutions of the common problems related to RV water heating, so you can have worry free RV-ing, camping and relaxing outdoor vacation.

We have collected the long list of symptoms, problems, troubleshooting and repair tips from the RV users, consumer complaints, RV heater forums, professional plumbers and manufacturers. This guide covers RV heater repair instruction on two of the most popular RV brands, Atwood and Suburban.

Note: Installation, troubleshooting water heaters, DIY RV repairs, servicing, should be done by a certified individual/installer. You can get free quotes here.

Common problems and repair instructions

Problem - RV water heater is making a noise

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

What makes the high pitched noise on the electric heaters is the lime scale (calcium) formation on the element, or even corrosion.

Popping noise is also the result of mineral deposits build up in the tank and it can affect both electric and gas units.

The whistling sound can come from the stucked debris in the check valve.

The solutions for the above noise problems are in periodic maintenance such as cleaning and flushing or element replacement if the problem is severe.

Problem - pilot outage, pilot won't start or pilot won't stay lit

  • If the thermocouple or gas control magnet is weak and is not performing as usual than make the necessary replacement.
  • If the pilot flame is poor or not established properly, recommendation is to clean or replace the orifice.
  • If U tube is blocked, remove the obstruction that makes the blockage.
  • If you have an incorrect gas pressure reading, make the necessary adjustments of the gas pressure, and per instructions from the manufacturer manual.
  • Adjustment is required if there is an improper air adjustment and for the main burner alignment.

Here is how to troubleshoot the RV water heater when you experience the  pilot outage (button is released):

  • If the thermocouple is weak, replace it. If it is loose, tighten connection at the gas control; if it is not hot, re-position it to have better contact with the pilot flame.
  • Hold the knob longer as it takes some time before the gas valve / electric board gets the signal from the thermocouple, indicating that the flame is present.

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Problem - No sparks on electrodes

  • Secure electrodes to the main burner if it is loosely attached.
  • Re-position the electrode to get the proper gap.
  • Clean dirty electrodes.
  • Secure wire connection on the circuit board if it is loose.
  • Replace the electrode if the insulation is cracked or wire inside is loose.
  • Replace the circuit board if it is defective.

Problem - gas burner won't ignite

  • Gas valve doesn't open gas because; no voltage for electric spark. Check and replace, if needed: circuit board, E.C.O., solenoid valve; tighten loose wires on E.C.O., wiring harness and solenoid valve.
  • Clean or replace the orifice if the burner orifice is blocked.
  • Remove obstruction if U tube or main burner is blocked.
  • Replace gas control if it is out of calibration.
  • Align flame spreader if it is mis-aligned.
  • Electrode, solenoid valve or circuit board is defective.
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RV water heater repair - Insufficient hot water

  • Remove obstructions from partially blocked burner and U tube.
  • Adjust air shutter, burner and burner orifice holder if there is an improper air and main burner adjustment.
  • Reset to desire temperature if the temperature selector is out of place.
  • Thermostat has to be placed against the tank. If it is defective, replace it.
  • Fix bypass lever and flame spreader if they are improperly positioned and mis-aligned.

Leaking (dripping) from relief valve

If for some reason you experience water dripping from the pressure and temperature relief valve, don't worry. Since the water heating in RV vehicles runs in the closed system, when the water expansion happens the excess pressure has to go somewhere; so the valve opens.

If the dripping problem occurs often here is the way how to repair the RV hot water heater; by allowing the air pocket to be established.

  • Turn of the RV water heater and cold water supply.
  • Open the tap in the RV.
  • Let the water out through the pressure relief valve till 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, the air pocket will develop. Repeat the procedure as often as needed.
  • If this is not the solution for your problem, than an expansion tank needs to be installed.

Problem - Sooting

  • Solution is to unblock obstructed main burner, U tube, or exhaust grille.
  • Adjust main burner alignment, valve, air shutter or flame spreader.
  • Check out is the recommended gas supply present.

RV water heater repair - Irregular ignition (not ignitining) and fails to ignite

  • Replace cracked electrode insulation.
  • Replace fluctuating thermostat.
  • Tighten loose ground wire on the gas valve.
  • Tighten the poor ground on the electrodes.

How to remove rotten egg smell

If a bad odor is coming from the hot water faucet of your RV, the odds are you are having a rotten egg problem, also known as hydrogen sulfide or sulfur water. This is happening because of the chemical reaction between released hydrogen and sulfur from the water and when bacteria develops.

If your RV water heater, like Atwood for example, has a protective coating on the interior of the tank, during the process when it fights corrosion, this protective shield releases hydrogen from the water. Hydrogen sulfide compound will be the result of chemical action between sulfur and released hydrogen and it produces that stinky rotten egg odor.

To prevent corrosion and early tank failure and potential leaking, there is another solution, used by Suburban RV water heater. Their way to protect the tank is with the anode rod. Again, because of the aggressive water action, anode rod tends to deteriorate and produce sediments in the tank, where bacteria develop and produces rotten egg odor.

If using antifreeze when winterizing water heater, this process can accelerate sacrificial anode rod decay, unless you remove it.

Should you replace RV water heater? The answer is no. Use the RV repair instructions below, or contact a professional.

How to flush a RV water heater

Solution for rotten egg smell problem is to flush the RV water heating system. First you have to drain the heater tank. When you open a drain plug, water should flow steadily. If not, open pressure and temperature relief valve to get the air in and use a wire to remove any obstacle in the drain opening.

To flush your RV water heater you can go with one of the recommended solutions: you can use vinegar (in a ratio 2:1 vinegar/water); or 3% hydrogen peroxide (1:160 hydrogen/water); chlorinated water or household liquid bleach (1:230 ratio chlorine/water).

Let it stay for a few hours and after that, flush the system heavily, as it is hard to get rid of the taste, especially chlorine (or use filter).

Keep in mind when troubleshooting Atwood and Suburban RV water heaters that this is not a complete list of problems, as there are many factors that can directly or indirectly affect your RV water heater performance. Always use manufacturer's guide for reference and instructions or call Atwood or Suburban technical support for details.

And don't forget to use a reference manufacturer's guide often when performing the RV water heater repair.

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