Tankless Water Heaters for RVs: Is it a Good Investment?


A tankless water heater is a water heater that can provide instant hot water! It does this by heating the water right as it passes through the heater. Instead of keeping spending energy on keeping an entire tank of water hot 24/7, like a traditional water heater does, this type of water heater can heat water instantly and continuously, meaning that you will never run out of hot water when you go tankless.

So, is a tankless water heater a good investment for your RV? A tankless water heater is a good investment for your RV if you live in it full time or it gets a lot of use. The energy savings alone can pay for the difference over a few years. If the RV doesn’t get constant use, then a tankless heater is not as compelling from an economic point of view.

Read on to learn all about tankless water heaters. We will look at the things you should consider when deciding if a tankless water heater is a good investment for you and your RV.

Why Go Tankless?


There are some big benefits to tankless water heaters. These water heaters have had a surge in popularity over the last decade or so. In new homes, they are often installed instead of traditional full-tank water heaters.

This is because they can deliver continuous hot water, they use less energy, and can last twice as long as traditional tank-style water heaters. Here we will look at these advantages in detail.

Continuous Hot Water

The most compelling feature of a tankless hot water heater is that when you use one, you will actually never run out of hot water! Needless to say, this is a very big draw for people, especially RV enthusiasts.

A normal RV will tend to have a small hot water tank that can run out really fast. The normal tank size is six gallons, with ten gallons being a normal upgrade.

With people trying to shower, wash dishes, and do laundry, your hot water can be gone before you know it, and not come back until the heater has fired up a whole other batch.

This is not the case with the tankless variety. When the tankless heater detects that the water is flowing, it activates the heating unit (gas or electric) and begins outputting hot water almost instantly.

So this is the first question you need to ask yourself: Are the demands on my hot water constantly more than the supply of hot water in my RV? If the answer is yes, then you might be someone that would benefit from the capacity of the tankless water heater to heat water instantly and indefinitely.

Energy

The other most compelling feature of a tankless water heater is their energy use. In addition to delivering near-instant and continuous hot water, tankless water heaters can do it with less energy than traditional hot water tanks.

For a traditional hot water tank to work, it has to keep the whole tank of water hot, all the time, without breaks. And to do that, it needs a lot of energy.

The tankless heater avoids this whole situation by heating water only when someone turns on a faucet and the water is running through the heater. There are both gas and electric tankless water heaters, but they operate on the same principle.

When the heater detects that water is flowing, it immediately turns on an electric heating element or ignites a flame. The water passing through is instantly heated as it goes out to the pipe system.

According to the Department of Energy, this mode of heating water can use about 24-34% less energy versus using a traditional hot water heater with a big old tank.

While there are obvious benefits for your wallet and for the environment in this situation, these benefits will be most felt by RVers who love boondocking. To translate those statistics for you, an energy savings of 30% is about one-third.

If you have enough propane to power your traditional hot water tank for 3 days, then that would translate into an increase of one-third, or one extra day, for a total of 4 days. Accordingly, if you currently have enough for 6 days, a one-third increase would get you to 8 days.

Of course, there are various other demands on your propane and batteries, but dropping any single demand by one-third is not insignificant. If you are a serious boondocker, you will stand to benefit the most from these energy savings.

Long-Lasting

This one is a little more tricky. According to the statistics from the Department of Energy, a really good tankless water heater will last for 20 years, while a traditional water heater will last for 10 to 15 years. So a tankless heater can last you up to twice as long.

The reason I say that this is tricky is that normally RV hot water heaters are not used all of the time like a hot water heater in a house. So while the hot water heater in your house may wear out after 15 years of normal use, will a hot water heater in a trailer also wear out after 15 years of light use?

It’s hard to say. The hot water heater in my parent’s trailer is 16 years old and going strong. And they aren’t alone in this.

So if you are a full-time RV dweller, you may see some duration benefit of the tankless heater lasting longer than the conventional. When viewed from this angle, that means that although their cost is higher initially, the cost per year of operation can be closer to that of traditional water heaters.

If your RV is not lived in full time, then it is left more up to chance whether your tankless heater will really last that much longer.

Lower Cost of Operation

Due to the fact that it uses much less energy, and the fact that they last so much longer than a traditional hot water heater, it’s operating cost can be lower per year of use than with a tank water heater.

This will depend on exactly how much hot water you use and how much the system costs you, but you might find that in the long run, the total costs of going tankless can actually be comparable (or less) than traditional.

Drawbacks

For all of their benefits, tankless water heaters do have their drawbacks. Their higher cost, lower output, and fairly complicated installation are reasons why people might choose to forgo getting one installed. Here we explore each of these drawbacks in detail.

Low-Flow

Tankless water heaters have a certain flow rate of water that they are built to handle. If you try and push it beyond the flow limit, it will not be able to keep up with the demand and the temperature of the water coming out will drop.

To try and estimate your demand, think about how many faucets you would like to be able to run at a time. You will then be able to use that to determine how much capacity you will need in your tankless heater.

A stand-alone sink will probably not use more than 1 gallon per minute (GPM), but a shower will probably use closer to 2 GPM.

Use these numbers to estimate your capacity. Add to that your laundry and anything else you might be using to get a good idea of the capacity you think you would like to have.

Good capacity can get pricey pretty quick. Which leads us to…

Cost

Tankless water heaters have a huge range of prices. This reflects the wide range of capacities that these heaters can produce.

On the low end, there are tankless water heaters that are designed to provide enough hot water for just one pipe (faucet) at a time. They can handle about 1 to 1.5 gallons per minute.

You can find them in the $100-$200 price range, and they even sell them at Walmart and Home Depot/Lowe’s.

If you are not super committed to spending a lot of money to fix your hot water shortage problem, these low-capacity types of units can be useful. While they won’t be able to provide hot water to all of your faucets at the same time, they will provide continuous hot water for one faucet at a time.

To get a decently capable heater though, it will cost you a good chunk of change. On the high end, there are instant water heater units that will be capable of heating enough water for every faucet. These can cost upwards of $1,000.

Most people that install these tankless hot water heaters will opt for something in between. Normally you will want a model that can heat more than one faucet at a time, but not necessarily every single one.

This kind of capacity will cost you anywhere from $500 to $1,000. In this price range, you can get a capacity of 3-5 gallons per minute. For reference, one faucet will use about a gallon per minute in an RV and a shower will use around two GPM.

Complicated Installation

Most RVs are not designed to accommodate a tankless water heater. There is no place to just plug it in, you need to take care of putting in the system yourself, routing the water around the old hot water tank and into the tankless heater.

You will also need to hook up the electricity or propane, which is not too complicated but for some people might be more than they are comfortable doing.

In fact, one of the biggest factors in what a tankless heater will cost you isn’t even the heater itself, but the installation cost. If you have the skills to wire it up or to create a propane gas connection, then you won’t need to worry about any sort of installation cost.

If you don’t feel comfortable doing those things, then hiring someone to do them will be an extra expense you will need to plan for.

The Final Verdict

So when it comes to tankless water heaters, are they a good investment? Do the benefits outweigh the costs? The answer is that it depends mainly on two things: 1) How much hot water do you use? and 2) How much will your installation cost be?

The first question is the most important. How much hot water you use will determine the cost savings. As already discussed, these tanks can use about one-third less energy than traditional tanks.

If you live in your camper full time, then this savings will translate into a much higher actual dollar amount of savings versus someone who only uses their RV for a few weekends a year.

With respect to the second question, let me just say this: If you are really interested in a tankless water heater but are worried about the installation, I would recommend doing some research first on the installation process to see if it is something you might feel comfortable doing. You might find that it is something you are capable of doing.

With all of the guides available on YouTube and all over the Internet, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem to install it yourself.

So your actual costs will vary from what I present here. But if you install it yourself, and if you live full time in your RV, the numbers might look something like this:

You would have an initial cost of about $1,000 for the tankless heater vs an $800 initial cost for a traditional heater. That is an extra $200 you are spending, but by lasting 5 to 10 more years, that translates to a cost savings per-year of operation.

When you add to this the fact that you are using one-third less energy, if your annual energy cost to heat the water is $200, that is a savings of about $60 per year. So that savings alone could pay for itself in just a few years.

If you use your RV a lot less, then the numbers will not be as compelling from an “investment” point of view. People that install tankless water heaters in RVs that do not get much use do so mostly out of a desire for continuous hot water and other convenience reasons.

While those reasons for going tankless are perfectly fine, speaking from an “investment” point of view, it is not as compelling as for the full-timers. But over the lifetime of the RV, it could still have an effect on your operations costs.

And finally, there is one more point: If you ever decide to sell your RV, then having a tankless heater already installed could add to the overall value.

Since tankless water heaters have had an explosion in popularity, and everyone just loves not running out of hot water anyway, they are pretty much all the rage right now. Having a decent one already installed could be a strong selling point when trying to attract buyers.

So there you go. Tankless water heaters are way cool, a bit more expensive, and full of possibility. Let me know what you decide and what other considerations you might have that weigh on whether a tankless water heater is a good investment.

As for me? I’m a big fan of efficiency, and of limitless hot water, so I personally am a big fan of going tankless.

Related Questions:

Is a tankless heater difficult to install? Depending on your abilities, a tankless heater should not be too difficult to install. It will require some knowledge of electricity or gas, depending on which energy source you choose. There are plenty of “how-tos” online if you wanted to self-install.

Is gas or electricity cheaper to operate? It depends on your electricity rate, but generally gas is cheaper to use for heating water. That being said, if you get a majority of your electricity from a campground where utilities are included, then electricity would be a far cheaper option.

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