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How to Turn on an Electric Water Heater in an RV? – 4 Steps

Fact checked by Stephen Conklin

how to turn on an electric water heater in an rv

Novice RV owners are amazed at the many features modern motorhomes bring to the table. Unfortunately, how to turn on an electric water heater in an RV remains a mystery to most beginner RVers.

Turning on a water heating appliance for motorhomes should not be any different from powering on a residential unit. Still, for those who want a detailed guide for turning on their RV electric heater, this how-to post is for them.

Table of Contents

Step-by-step to Turn on an Electric Water Heater in an RV

What to prepare

We cannot help but overemphasize the significance of reading the owner’s manual because it details everything you need to turn on RV water heater. It is the only thing you will need besides a screwdriver for opening the access panel (if any).

Step 1. Ensure that the water heater is not empty.



Please do not skip this step when turning on an electric hot water heater for RV units. Powering on the heater with an empty or half-full tank can expose the heating element to the air.

Water has 23 times higher thermal conductivity than air, so it can prevent the heating element from getting too hot. Hence, an empty tank will overheat this component, potentially damaging it beyond repair.

You can open a hot water faucet in the RV or release the TP (temperature-pressure) relief valve to check if there is liquid in the RV heater.

Step 2. Locate the electric water heater access panel.

Manufacturers design their RVs differently, whether as brand differentiation or to optimize operation. Regardless, the owner’s manual should help you locate the electric water heater and its access panel.

Suppose you misplaced the owner’s manual. In that case, locating the access panel will require a bit of searching. In most cases, this panel can be found outside the laundry or bedroom closet. However, in older RVs, this component may be outside near the bathroom.

Check the RV’s central control panel, and see if you can read a switch labeled “water heater.”

Step 3. Locate the electric water heater power switch.


Grab the screwdriver and loosen the water heater access panel’s fasteners, if any. Remove the panel cover and examine the switches.

Most RVs have an ON/OFF switch in the bottom left corner, allowing you to start electric water heater.

We recommend referring to your owner’s manual because RV manufacturers position their electric water heater ON/OFF switches differently.

Alternatively, you can post a query on online community forums. RV owners with the same motorhome model and series might be able to help you locate the water heater power switch.

Step 4. Turn on the electric water heater.

This step requires no additional explanation. Flip the switch to the ON position, and your water heater should be ready to heat the water in the storage tank.

One question newbie RV owners ask is, should they keep the RV water heater switch ON or OFF all the time?

It is crucial to remember that motorhome electric water heaters draw tremendous amounts of electricity. Hence, they should only draw electricity from shore power.

When you start on the road again, it is best to turn off the water heater or switch it to propane.

What is an RV Electric Water Heater? How Does It Work?


Motorhome electric water heaters are not different from residential versions. These appliances deliver hot water to RVers by heating the water in storage tanks or as it passes through heat exchanger coils.

RV water heaters run on electricity, just as residential electric versions do. However, they are four to eight times more compact than residential versions. After all, motorhomes have limited space.

Electric water heaters for RVs are also sturdier. They can withstand road vibrations, shocks, extreme weather conditions, and other environmental factors.

These devices are also user-friendlier, allowing RVers to troubleshoot and institute temporary fixes on the road. RV water heaters have handy access panels with a convenient reset button to restore everything to factory default.

Some RV electric water heaters have a propane double – they can heat the water using propane gas. These hybrid units offer maximum convenience. You can switch to electric at the campsite where shore power is available and use propane on the road.

Turning on the camper’s electric water heater is as straightforward as flipping a switch. However, the appliance might not work even with this approach. So, how do you troubleshoot your motorhome’s electric water heater?

  • Check the RV electrical panel to see if the circuit breaker is still intact and in the ON position.
  • Check the motorhome’s 120-volt AC electrical system, ensuring it is powered ON.

If the water heater circuit breaker and 120-volt AC system are ON, consider resetting the heater. Press a red reset button near the power (ON/OFF) switch to do so.

  • If resetting the water heater fails to turn it ON, switch off its circuit breaker. Grab your owner’s manual and analyze the wiring diagram. Refer to the instructions to check all cable connections.
  • If the above action does not work, assess the heating element for electrical continuity. Use a noncontact voltage tester to determine if the heating element is working. Get a replacement, if necessary.
  • If all else fails, drive your RV to a certified technician to check why your water heater refuses to power on.

Frequently Asked Questions


Why does my RV water heater not work on electric?

Some RV water heaters can run on a combination of propane and electricity. Hence, if your unit does not work on electricity, you might want to switch RV water heater from propane to electric.

First, turn off the propane supply switch inside the RV. Next, turn on the electrical power to the RV heater from an access panel in the camper’s exterior.

You can also check your RV manual to know the RV electric water heater switch location. Some might have both switches (electric and propane) on the water heater.

RV vs home electric water heater: what is the difference?

The principal differences between a residential and a camper electric hot water heater are size and, by extension, capacity and price.

Understandably, RV water heaters are smaller than their residential counterparts due to space limits in motor homes. This attribute also makes RV water heater capacities rarely exceed ten gallons.

Unsurprisingly, RV heaters cost less than residential units, with high-end products costing about $700 to $1,000, while home versions can cost up to $1,500.

Some RV water heaters also have a hybrid design, allowing RV owners to use electricity or propane at a flip of a switch.

Maintenance tips for RV electric water heater

RV owners do not want to reach the point when they realize their RV electric water heater not working. That is why maintaining it is essential.

  • Turn on electric water heater units only when the tank is full.
  • Empty the tank when not in use, especially when winterizing the RV or when not using the RV for at least two weeks.
  • Winterize your RV water heater properly by installing a bypass valve and cleaning it thoroughly before storage.
  • Replace the anode rod every two to three years.
  • Inspect the water heater for leaks and odd sounds.


As you can see, regarding how to turn on an electric water heater in an RV, the solution is as straightforward as flipping a power (ON/OFF) switch.

Although powering the electric water heater is a cinch, looking for the ON/OFF switch could be frustrating. The RV owner’s manual should be handy. Otherwise, you can search for information online specific to your motorhome and RV water heater.

Alternatively, an RV technician can show you how and help you troubleshoot any issues.

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