Keeping the conventional water heater in your motorhome in good working order takes only a few minutes each season, but can save you money and hassle down the road
“Residential” is a word we see a lot when reading about motorhomes. That’s because it’s really the only descriptor that allows those of us living in stick-and-mortar homes to relate to the various attributes of a contemporary home-on-wheels, not the least of which are the appliances. After all, modern conveniences are a good indicator of how livable a motorhome will be; without them, extended trips or full-time living would be very inconvenient if not impossible.
Chief among a motorhome’s key appliances is the humble water heater, which provides us the freedom to take hot showers/baths, clean dishes after an evening’s meal and disinfect our hands after using the restroom or emptying the holding tanks. Without it, life would still go on, but no one could argue that it would be a lot less pleasant.
Though there have been recent advances in hot-water delivery, including hydronic systems and various tankless on-demand water heaters, the staple of the RV industry remains to be smaller versions of what we use in our permanent homes (most commonly 6- or 10-gallon capacity), manufactured by either Atwood (Dometic) or Suburban, a division of Airxcel Inc. They’re proven designs that provide a reliable hot-water source and can last for years if properly maintained. The main difference with regard to DIY service on these units has to do with the tank design; Atwood uses an aluminum-clad tank that does not require an anode rod, while Suburban models are porcelain-lined steel and use an anode rod.
What’s the difference? It’s mainly philosophical. Atwood claims that the aluminum tank lining acts as the anode and the metals in the water serve as the cathode so an anode rod isn’t required. Suburban uses an anode rod to draw the harmful electrolytic process away from the water-heater tank lining, focusing corrosion on the anode rod and sparing the tank walls. When servicing a Suburban water heater, it’s important to inspect the anode rod; corrosion eats it away over time, and once it has lost 75 percent of its material, it should be replaced. The anode rod should be inspected at least every six months and more often in areas with extremely hard water.
Other than these design details, maintaining either brand is a similar process; the tanks should be drained and flushed at the end of every season, the burner tube inspected and igniter cleaned at the beginning of each season. We stopped by C&S RV Service Center in Oxnard, California, and observed as their technicians performed routine preseason maintenance on a 6-gallon Atwood and a 10-gallon Suburban. Performing this maintenance consistently will ensure that the water heater is always ready for use and will last as long as possible.