How to Repair a Camper Water Heater Step-by-Step

A few months ago, I discussed how to fix your camper’s air conditioner. Of course, the AC isn’t the only unit that can break down. You also have to worry about your camper water heater.

As the name implies, the water heater is what provides warm water throughout the camper. Whether for a toasty shower, hot water to make tea, or some other usage, you rely on hot water a lot.

Like many things, you only appreciate it once it’s gone. After all, few people enjoy cold showers, and chilly tea? No thank you.

If your water heater has stopped working, it’s time to get handy. In this article, I’m going to outline the common problems that plague camper water heaters, especially those that haven’t been maintained in a while. Then I’m going to go step-by-step and explain each repair you can perform.

Now, keep in mind that some jobs are best left to the professionals. It’s not necessarily that you’re out of your depth, just that certain repairs can be dangerous. Remember that, for many models, your water heater is warmed by a burner, which can be a fire hazard if improperly handled. That’s not to mention all the tiny components and electric wires near a water heater that could lead to injury or electrocution.

Most of these repairs can be done by you, though, camper owner. Even if you don’t have a lot of experience with your water heater, you’re about to get very familiar with it.

If you have: a screeching water heater

Follow these steps!

Most water heater noises can be attributed to a lack of maintenance. If you’re not already doing so, be sure to inspect and clean out the water heater at least every six months. If you’d rather leave this job to the professionals, that’s fine, too. Regardless, I’ll provide maintenance steps at the end of this article.

Now, on to fixing your screeching water heater.

Step 1: When the water heater screeches or makes other high-pitched noises, it’s typically because of limescale and calcium buildup. Start by opening your water heater.

Step 2: Now, look for signs of limescale and calcium deposits. These are often white, crusty, and hardened, although they may be brown as well.

Step 3: Keep your eye out for corrosion, too, which will look brown or black and quite rusty.

Step 4: If it’s an issue with limescale and calcium, then buy a water conditioner that’s specially made to deal with limestone. Otherwise, you’ll still have this issue later.

Step 5:  Follow the directions on the conditioner and reapply as necessary.

Step 6: If it’s an issue with corrosion, you should call a professional to get a second opinion. More than likely, though, you’ll have to replace your water heater.

If you have: a whistling water heater

Follow these steps!

Step 1:  The check valve is often responsible for most whistling water heater noises. Open this.

Step 2:  Have you cleaned your check valve lately? If not, there may be dirt and dust in and around the valve. Open the valve, loosening screws completely.

Step 3:  Clean the check valve thoroughly with warm water. Do not use soap.

Step 4:  Let the valve dry completely.

Step 5:  Reattach the valve, securing all screws and springs.

Step 6:  Run the water heater again and listen for any whistling noises. These should have stopped.

If you have: cold water instead of hot

Follow these steps!

If the water in your camper is running cold instead of hot or warm, it’s probably because you’re running too many faucets at once. It could also be a bypass valve issue, but both are simple fixes.

Step 1: Check the faucets in your camper. If more than one is open, close all faucets but the one. Only a single faucet will produce hot water at a time, and by running multiple faucets, you’re adding cold water to the mix. Once there’s no more hot water left from the first faucet, all faucet water will come out cold, which could explain your issue.

Step 2: If the problem persists, it’s time to check your bypass valve.

Step 3: Ascertain whether the bypass valve is on or off. This valve can winterize the water heater, which is ideal for the off-season, but not when the camper is in use.

Step 4: If the valve is on, then turn it off.

Step 5: If the valve was already off, check your faucets again. If it’s not a faucet issue either, consult with a professional.

If you have: burner and propane issues  

Follow these steps!

If the propane turns on sporadically and sometimes not at all, the water will never warm up. This is different than the faucet and/or bypass valve issue above. With that problem, the water gets warm but doesn’t stay warm. With this, the water never gets warm because the propane doesn’t turn on to heat the burner.

Here’s how to fix the issue.

Step 1: Look for loose wires that may prevent propane ignition.

Step 2: If you discover any loose wires, make sure to tighten these up. That should allow the propane to run reliably.

Step 3: If that doesn’t work, access the propane’s airline.

Step 4: Look for anything that may have clogged the airline, such as dirt, dust, or soot. These contaminants may have gotten into the airline as well, which requires more than just dusting off the exterior.

Step 5: Perform airline bleeding. This technique will gradually free the trapped air (and thus dust and other debris) from the airline, which should allow it to function normally.

Step 6: If you’re still having issues, move on to the burner nozzle.

Step 7: Clear away any insects, dirt, and dust from the burner nozzle.

Step 8: If none of that works, look for corrosion on or near the water heater. The ignitor will click if it’s trying to run but can’t due to corrosion.

Step 9: Consult a professional to fix the burner or get a new one.

If you have: electrode failure

Follow these steps!

Let’s quickly define what electrodes are in conjunction with camper water heaters. These are parts of anode rods, and there will be several rows of them within the water heater. The rows are often centered at the top. Anode rods may be made of zinc, magnesium, or aluminum but always have a steel core wire.

The purpose of these rods is to prevent rusting within the water heater. Of course, they don’t last forever. Anode rods will originally be silver when your water heater is new, but will gradually become a darker copper. Electrodes, which provide power to the rods, can no longer do so with older anode rods.

Now let’s get into what you should do to fix this.

Step 1:  Look at the electrode and main burner connection, checking if this is loose. Tighten the connection as necessary.

Step 2: Move the anode rods if they’re close to overlapping one another. There should be a distance of at least an inch (sometimes more and sometimes less depending on the water heater manufacturer) between each one.

Step 3: The electrodes themselves can get dingy if you don’t clean them often. Do so now, but take it slow to avoid causing unnecessary damage to the electrodes.

Step 4: Make sure each electrode has the proper amount of insulation. These should come wrapped in a layer of insulation, but sometimes this can crack or break down. Replace the insulation if it’s old. If that doesn’t work, get new electrodes.

Step 5: Tighten the wire connections on the circuit board as necessary.

Step 6: If tightening the wires doesn’t help, then you may have to get a new circuit board.

If you have: slow-moving water

Follow these steps!

Step 1: If the water is moving slowly through the tank and takes about a minute to start pouring out the faucet or showerhead, start the repair by finding the faucet screens.

Step 2: Look for mineral deposits on the screens, which may be discolored and thus easy to discern. The water has to push harder to get past the deposits, which leads to your issue.

Step 3: Prepare a vinegar soak by first getting a large cup. Fill it with vinegar.

Step 4: Put the cup in the microwave. Set the microwave for 30 seconds, or sometimes up to 60 seconds depending on the power of your microwave.

Step 5: Check the temperature of the vinegar cup, which should not be hot but warm. Add 30 more seconds if necessary.

Step 6: Dip the faucet screens in the cup so they’re entirely submerged. This should deal with the calcium deposits.

Step 7: After five or 10 minutes, check on the screens. If there’s still calcium on them, let them sit for another five minutes or so.

Step 8: Once all the calcium deposits are gone, replace the faucet screens. Test the water and see how quickly it runs.

If you have: sooting

Follow these steps!

You’ve probably seen soot before, especially if you have a fireplace back at home. It’s a type of black carbon that forms after burning something. Since your burner fires on each time you use your water heater, sooting is a possibility. This is often indicative of an issue with the ignitor, though.

Read on for repair instructions.

Step 1: Check your gas supply. If it’s running on empty, fill it up completely.

Step 2: Thoroughly inspect the main burner alignment, air valve, air shutter, and flame spreader. You’re looking for any loosened screws, signs of corrosion, or development of limescale or other issues.

Step 3: Next, check the main burner, U tube, and exhaust grille. These may be blocked by dust, dirt, or debris. If this is the case, then clean each of these components carefully.

Step 4: If none of those fixes work, then call a professional technician to look at the water heater to diagnose and fix the issue.

If you have: low pressure from the pressure release valve

Follow these steps!

Step 1: Check the pressure of the pressure release valve. This has a specific limit to avoid fires, explosions, and other serious, life-threatening accidents. The pressure range for the valve is between 124 and 150 pounds per square inch or PSI.

Step 2: Look at the water heater temperature. When the pressure release valve kicks in at 150 PSI, the temperature for the water heater shouldn’t exceed 210 degrees Fahrenheit.

Step 3: If the PSI and water heater temperature are misaligned, it could be because of the age of the pressure release valve. Air gets redirected to the top of the water heater tank as the pressure release valve breaks down over time. Replacing it may be worth doing.

Step 4: If you have a newer pressure release valve, replace the air within it. To do so, start by turning off your water heater.

Step 5: Let the heater cool down for 15 to 30 minutes (or longer).

Step 6: Now that the water heater is completely cooled down, open your water heater to access the pressure release valve within the faucet.

Step 7: Turn off the pressure release valve, which should drain the air.

Step 8: Wait until this is done, replace the air, and turn the water heater back on. The low-pressure issue should be solved.

If you have: ignition failure

Follow these steps!

Step 1: Replace the insulation wrapped around the electrodes if this is cracked or otherwise falling apart.

Step 2: If that doesn’t work, look for loose ground wires around the gas valve. Tighten these as necessary.

Step 3: Inspect the poor ground around where the electrodes are situated. If this isn’t tight, the electrodes might not power properly, which will cause issues with your ignitor.

Step 4: If you’ve tried all of the above, it’s likely one of those fixes should have solved the issue. If you’re still seeing a range of temperatures from the thermometer, it’s possible the thermometer itself is the problem. Get a new one.

If you have: a stinky water heater

Follow these steps!

The water heater odor might smell like rotten eggs. The smell is due to bacteria, which forms when too much hydrogen sulfide and sulfur water form in the pipes. The smell is very noticeable and will likely only get worse if you pretend it’s not there, so let’s get to fixing it by flushing it.

Step 1: Go to the water tank and turn it off.

Step 2: Once the water has cooled down, open the drain plug so the tank water comes out. Make sure there’s no water left in the tank.

Step 3: If this process is taking too long, it could be due to the temperature relief valve. Open this if it’s not already.

Step 4: Create the flushing mixture. Vinegar and water are one recommended mixture, but make sure the ratio is 2:1. If you don’t have those ingredients, you can also use chlorinated water and liquid bleach (1:230 ratio) or hydrogen peroxide and liquid bleach (1:160 ratio).

Step 5: Fill your water heater tank with the mixture of your choice.

Step 6: Let the mixture sit in the tank for two to three hours.

Step 7: Now, flush the mixture out of the tank slowly.

Step 8: Replace water in the heater tank and turn it back on. There should be no smell.

If you have: a poor maintenance schedule

Follow these steps!

Step 1: Always use the “vacation” setting when you’re going to be away for a while (but not leaving the camper for months on end like you would in the off-season). The pilot light will still run, but it won’t change the water temperature.

Step 2: Add a fiberglass jacket to a water heater that’s more than five years old to get more years out of it.

Step 3: At the end of each season, check the anode rods and change these out as necessary.

Step 4: Also at this time, run the temperature relief valve to make sure it’s working. If there are leaks, you may have to replace the valve.

Step 5: To keep debris and sediment from filling up in the water heater tank, release a quarter of water. Do this on a six-month basis.

Conclusion

No one wants to go without hot water, and you shouldn’t have to. These camper water heater repairs are all relatively easy to perform. It does help if you’re well-acquainted with your water heater, but you can quickly learn where everything is located once you tinker around.

Of course, if I recommended calling a professional for the job, you should heed that advice. It’s really to your benefit, as it guarantees your safety. It also guarantees the safety of your water heater, as a professional will know how to avoid accidentally breaking important components.

Overall, though, once you learn how to do these simple repairs, you’ll be ready for any issue your water heater might throw at you (figuratively, of course). Do remember that maintenance is key, and that with regular maintenance, you can avoid most of these issues in the first place.

Comments

  1. Hi Jim, I am wondering how people find your “camper report.com” site with questions they may have. I googled “How to repair a camper water heater”, “how to fix a broken air conditioner”, etc. and “Camper report” was never one of the sites shown. I am working on your “Income school” and just trying to learn.

  2. I forgot to include the best part. If you hooked up to wires to a battery and place them on each side of a glass of water, you can make hydrogen and oxygen. ( I prefer 2 car batteries with a dash of salt in the water) Throw in some pepper, or dirt to watch the currents made near the anode and cathode. (The paper clips holding the wires) Now place a speaker magnet under the glass, all the water in the glass will now start to rotate. Flip the magnet over and the water will rotate in the opposite direction. Put the magnet on its side, and 2 vortices will begin to circulate. Place the magnet on the side of the glass, and the vortice will move to circulate from top to bottom stirring up the settlement. Point being, all you need is a current flow inside of a magnetic field to create a spinning storm. The higher the pH of the atmosphere, the more violent the storm.

  3. your legal info on the sidebar has Improve Photography in it. Just a heads up.

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