The water heaters in most older RVs worked only on propane. For the pecunious RVer, that seems a shame—to use your precious propane for water heating even when you are plugged into electricity at an RV park.
Fortunately, there are a couple of vendors who have a workable solution. These folks make an electric water heater element for either the Atwood or Suburban water heaters found in just about all older RVs.
These electrical heating elements simply replace the normal drain plug or drain plug/anode rod in the water heaters. A regular 120 volt electrical cord with a plug on the end extends from the outside end of the heating element.
A basic installation is just that—put the heating element in the water heater (after, of course, turning it off, ... yada yada yada). The electrical cord is left coiled up inside the water heater compartment. When the camper gets to an RV park site and wants to heat his/her water with electricity, an extension cord is run from the outside 120 volt outlet to the water heater compartment, and the water heater element is plugged into the extension cord. Now, the camper's precious propane is saved for the cooking chores.
A more practical installation is to find a nearby electrical outlet, and plug the water heater element into the outlet. On many RVs, this task is rather easy, since the refrigerator and water heater are often located in very close proximity to each other.
When I added an electric water heater element to my older Itasca, it was an easy task. The water heater compartment was located next to the refrigerator compartment. It was quite easy to run the water heater element's electric cord to the same 120 volt receptacle that powered the refrigerator.
For those of you who want to do the same thing, don't be scared away if the refrigerator receptacle looks like it will only allow the refrigerator receptacle to be plugged in. At first, that is exactly what it looked like. But, closer examination revealed the outline of the other set of contacts normally found on a duplex receptacle. It was a simple task to take a small screwdriver and punch out the thin layer of plastic over the three holes—yes, hot, neutral, and ground. Interestingly, the copper contacts for the second outlet were already in place under the punched out plastic covering.
Some enterprising RVers even add a lighted switch on their inside monitor panel to remind them that the water heater is being powered by electricity.
There is, however, one small draw back to the electric water heater element. It takes the small element (usually less than 500 watts) a lot longer to get your hot water tank up to temperature than when propane is used.
Since most water heaters in older RVs had a six-gallon capacity, the occupants learned—usually the hard way—to take very brief showers.
One advantage, however slight it might be, of having a dual-powered hot water heater is that the recovery period (the time it takes the tank to once again be full of hot water up to temperature) can be shortened when both the electrical heating element and the propane burner are working together to heat the water.
This relatively easy addition to an older RV can be done by just about any handy Do-It-Yourselfer for less than $100.
Many of the newer motorhomes already come equipped with a 10-gallon hot water tank that is heated by either propane or electricity, and, therefore, doesn't need this modification.
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