Living in your camper can still be enjoyable despite the cold winter. It is important to take precautions though, well before it gets chilly, in order to keep your RV pipes and water tanks from freezing.
Whether you intend on driving and living in your RV during winter, or are simply winterizing your camper to leave it, this makes a difference. In this article, although I will mainly focus on the former one of the two, you can find tips for both situations.
There is absolutely nothing worse than waking up on a cold morning to find that everything is frozen and you can’t do anything for a good couple of hours. Read on to find out how this can be avoided.
The first thing you can do to winterize and keep the RV lines from freezing is insulating your campervan. This is especially important if you are living in your vehicle during the winter.
The great thing about insulation is that most of it can remain installed throughout the year, as it requires very little yearly maintenance.
Pipes usually begin to freeze when temperatures go down to –6 degrees Celsius/20 degrees Fahrenheit, so you should keep your thermostat furnace to a minimum of 7°C/45°F during the night. Keep sink cabinet doors open so that warm air can flow around those pipes. Also, be sure to let some water drip from the faucets every now and then, to keep the water moving.
You may have noticed that there is a hole on the pipe exit, and it would be useful to fill that in with a sealant to further insulate your RV, while also stopping rodents or critters from getting in.
Moreover, to insulate your door and windows you can apply a window insulation shrink kit, hang insulating drapes, re-caulk windows if necessary, replace the door’s weather stripping, and use a door snake.
Skirting your RV is another thing worth looking into. So much heat is lost through the floor, and skirting is the best method to keep water tanks from freezing, as well as the lines, while also significantly reducing propane costs.
Vinyl material, tarps, plywood, or insulation boards are all good options to skirt the RV’s floor. I do not recommend using hay bales around your camper, as I have heard some camper owners doing, but these are breeding grounds for mold as well as pests like mice. Out of all the options I have mentioned, Vinyl is the best one because it is very long-lasting and easy to install.
I also recommend insulating the vents to stop any warm air from escaping by installing draft shields or vent covers. Alternatively, you could stuff the vents with some insulating material such as foam board.
Heat Tape/Heat Cable
In case you’ve never heard of it before; heat tape looks a lot like electrical extension cords, but they are made to produce heat. Their main use is to keep RV pipes/lines from freezing.
Heat tape cannot be cut and it isn’t self-regulating and thus requires the use of a temperature controller.
Heating cable looks like a standard two-conductor electrical wiring cable, and it is not as flexible as heat tape. There are two varieties: self-regulating or constant wattage.
For self-regulating, as the temperature drops, the resistance of the carbon-plastic inner core decreases, allowing more power to be applied, which subsequently produces more heat along the entire length.
Constant wattage heat cables do not control their own temperature and are always on, so an external controller is necessary.
A typical constant wattage heating cable has insulated bus wires at its core, surrounded by an inner jacket, a nichrome wire wrap, a flame retardant insulating jacket, metal braid to provide a positive ground path, and finally, a protective outer jacket. The nichrome wire is the heating element, making contact with the bus wires through cutaways in the inner jacket, causing the nichrome wire to heat up.
Constant wattage heating cables are available for higher temperatures, ranging up to 500°F. They can also be used on a wider range of voltages such as 120, 208, 240, 277, and 480V.
You should wrap your sewer hose and freshwater hose with heat tape or heat cable, and you can also apply it around valves and connections that are at risk of freezing. Adding foam insulation as well is not a bad idea for extra protection. It is especially important to wrap your hoses if you need city water to supply your RV.
To wrap your hoses, you first need to lay them out flat on the ground to ensure there aren’t any kinks. Next, run the heat tape or cable down the length of the hose, making sure that the cable’s plug and thermostat aren’t a part of the wrap, and attach the cable and hose at intervals of one foot using tape.
After that, you can wrap the hose and cable in insulation, with the thermostat and plug hanging out from the end. Do not insulate the thermostat, otherwise it won’t switch the cable on when the temperature drops below the set point.
It’s a good idea to also cover the insulation wrap with all-weather tape for extra protection.
Heated water hoses are also an option if you prefer it, and they usually come in lengths of 12, 25, and 50 feet.
Putting antifreeze into your fresh water tank is only an option for those who don’t use their RV during winter, however you can always pour some in the grey and black tanks between dumps so that the contents don’t freeze up. You should put about one quart of special (pink) RV antifreeze into those tanks, and you should also put some in all sink and shower drains because you want it in the pipes too. I normally add about a pint in my toilet bowl to protect its seals and flush valve.
The wet bay, where my grey/black drain valves, water inlet lines, and water pump are is the weakest spot in my RV because it is not well insulated and there are holes and gaps where cold air can get in.
The freshwater tank is at the lowest point, near the ground, and the black and grey tanks are above it. There are exposed water lines in the bay, which feed the water pump, and they can freeze very quickly.
In order to avoid not having any running water the next day, the only thing that works for me is to use a space heater. I ran an extension cord from another storage bay that has a power outlet, attached a Thermo Cube to the cord, and plugged in a 250-Watt space heater.
The reason I use a Thermo Cube is because it only allows power to reach the heater if a certain temperature is reached, and it shuts off when a different threshold is exceeded. Mine turns on at 35°F and off at 45°F.
The only downside with this method occurs when boondocking. My 250W space heater needs 21 amps pr hour at 12V (keep in mind that amps multiplied by volts equals Watts). With my 705AH battery bank, the heater needs charging after running for just 16 hours – if it’s the only device running that is. Even though the heater is only needed for a few hours during the night, it’s still risky when boondocking.
Unfortunately, electric heaters simply aren’t very efficient, seeing as I could have both furnaces running at the same time and use less electricity. Most mornings I need to run a generator for a couple of hours to get the battery bank back up because of the space heater, but it’s worth it.
Always keep your fresh water tank full to keep it from freezing, and never leave your water hose attached to anything such as an enabled city water connection, otherwise the water in your hose could completely freeze. Use your holding tanks as a source of freshwater instead of city water as much as possible.
The rule of keeping your tank full also applies when dumping; as you should only dump tanks when they are full for the same reason. You should keep waste valves closed when not in use as well.
I do leave my sewer hose hooked up, but elevated off the ground with the use of a sewer hose support.
For more protection on your water tanks, consider investing in a holding tank heater. It is a type of electric blanket that you can attach to the tank to prevent the temperature of the water from dropping below zero and freezing.
If you do not intend on using your RV during the winter, then you’re better off leaving your tanks empty.
If you are driving your RV in sub-zero temperatures, to a campsite for instance, ice might build up in the water system’s dump valves, as well as around the termination cap. In this case, it’s best to just use a hair dryer, or a heat gun, once you arrive at your destination.
At a Campsite
Once at a campground, you should immediately flush the system of antifreeze. You can do this by attaching a hose to the main inlet and opening all of the faucets. Make sure to let the water flow for about ten minutes.
Once the antifreeze has been flushed out from your RV’s pipes, you can go ahead and fill your freshwater tank. Be careful not to fill the tank to the absolute max, just in case the water does freeze, so that there will be space for the expansion of ice without risking a rupture in your tank.
You should always keep a shovel on you when RV camping in winter, as you may need to dig your camper out of the snow. Plus, shoveling snow away from the pipes will also help prevent them from freezing. Don’t forget about the roof, as you don’t want the snow to pile up and cause stress while simultaneously making it colder inside.
Campsites with electric hook-ups are ideal for winter RV camping, so that you can easily run an electric heater and save on propane.
Frequently Asked Questions
At what temp will pipes freeze in a camper?
There is no definitive temperature at which lines instantly freeze, but rather it depends on how long the pipes remain in the cold. As a general rule of thumb, precautions should be taken once the temperature goes below freezing (0°C/32°F). It can take around 24 hours for pipes to freeze.
How do you keep water from freezing while camping?
Use a thermostat-controlled space heater for the wet bay, keep your fresh water tank full, use a holding tank heater, keep your sewer hose elevated and off the ground, and use a heated water hose if necessary.
How do I keep my RV black tank from freezing?
To keep both your black and gray water tanks from freezing, the best method is to add some non-toxic RV antifreeze. The amount needed varies depending on the size of your holding tanks.
How cold is too cold for an RV?
It’s more about personal preference, and how much cold a person is comfortable with.
Without any precautions, below freezing temperature is too much because your pipes and water will begin to freeze.
With precautions and insulations and such, I would say that around –20 degrees Fahrenheit/-28 degrees Celsius is the limit for most people.
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