Winter can be one of the most exciting times of year to take your RV out on the road as the landscape is transformed. But whether you are on the road or parked up in lower temperatures, frozen water in your RV’s pipes is a genuine risk.
More than just an inconvenience, when water freezes it expands, and the expanding ice in your pipes can cause them to crack or burst, leading to a very expensive repair bill.
There is no exact science for knowing when your pipes are at risk of freezing as it depends on many factors such as how quickly the temperature changes, how long the low temperatures last, and what kind of pipes you have (thinner pipes will freeze sooner). As a very general rule, when the temperature goes below 27F at night and doesn’t rise to above 50F during the day, you should worry.
However, there are simple and inexpensive things that you can do in order to ensure against pipes freezing, and better to do these sooner in the season rather than wait and get caught out by an unexpected cold snap.
Drain Your Water Tanks
First, if you aren’t using your RV, you should drain your water tanks. This stops stored water from freezing, which can damage both the tanks and the connecting lines. Even if the water doesn’t freeze, sitting water can cause rust and corrosion, so draining is good practice.
Install a Tank Heater
If you are using your RV, and therefore need to keep your tanks full, invest in a tank heater to prevent freezing. Tank heaters are usually powered by electricity and stick to the bottom of the tank with adhesive tape. Also make sure you don’t fill your tank to maximum, to leave space for expansion if the water does freeze.
Just be aware that electric heaters can be a challenge if you are parked up somewhere with limited electricity, such as a limit of 30 amps. With your water heater, other heaters and refrigerator, this can max you out and you may need to shut something off before using other appliances.
Cover your Holding Tanks
Cover your holding tanks with towels to provide a bit of extra insulation. This probably isn’t sufficient on its own, but works well in conjunction with a tank heater.
Wrap Exposed Water Pipes in Insulating Tape
Next you should check where the plumbing in your RV is and whether it is heated, insulated, covered or exposed. Check your RV specs, and go and have a look as well.
If your pipes are inside the coach or covered, you probably don’t have to worry too much, but might consider adding some extra insulation if you know you will be in very cold temperatures. If any of your water pipes run outside the cab, you can almost guarantee that they will freeze and crack in sub-zero temperatures.
The simplest way to add insulation to your exposed water pipes is with insulating tape, which is both cheap and easy to apply. Just wrap the tape generously around any exposed lines to add a bit of extra protection against the elements.
Heated Freshwater Hose
If you are planning on parking your coach for the winter using electricity and water from your home or some other fixed location as RV hook-ups, invest in a heated fresh water hose (sometimes called a water hose with freeze protection). This will provide a good flow of water while preventing freezing.
Heated hoses usually have a heat strip along the side of the hose and plug into a standard 110 volt electrical connection. This keeps the temperature of the hose above freezing to prevent the water from freezing. This heated drinking water hose from Camco is a great option.
Make sure you get a hose that is the right length for your needs as you don’t want it to be overstretched, or prone to curling. This is relatively easy if you are keeping your RV at home, but if you are on the road, you will know that the distance from the water source at campsites can vary greatly, so you may need a few different options.
Leave the Water Faucet Running
Just like you might do in your home, another strategy is to leave your faucets running as moving water is less likely to freeze. Make sure you drain your tanks before doing this to ensure that they don’t overflow, and leave your freshwater tank open. After making sure the all your sinks are also open, turn on the bathroom and kitchen faucets so that they produce a consistent, but slow, drip.
This should only be done when you know that your pipes are at risk of freezing, and you should only do this just before you go to sleep, to minimize the water wastage. Remember to close your freshwater tank again in the morning before you start running water again.
Add Antifreeze to Your Tanks
Antifreeze has a reputation for being dangerous, but when properly used and diluted it will prevent freeze damage to your pipes in colder temperatures.
To add antifreeze to your tanks, firstly completely drain and clean your RV water system, including both the freshwater and wastewater tanks. You can use your RVs blow out plug for this. You can then introduce antifreeze into the system either using your RVs existing water pump or an external hand pump. You will also need a bypass kit as you won’t want antifreeze in your freshwater tank, and you may decide to paypass your hot water heater as well.
The kind of antifreeze you get for your RV is different from regular automotive antifreeze so it won’t cause damage to your system. It is also non-toxic, which means that it is safe to drink. That doesn’t mean you want to mix it with your drinking water and imbibe lots of it, but you don’t need to be overly concerned about a little bit of cross-contamination.
When temperatures rise again and you want to drain the antifreeze you need to run through the complete water cycle to ensure the system is full flushed, and then fill the tanks again and let the water sit in the tank for a little while before draining to remove any final traces. Also, despite being non-toxic, you should still be careful about disposing of your antifreeze and take it to a hazardous waste drop off location.
There are different types of RV antifreeze available, and what you need will depend on the temperatures you are dealing with. For example, a -50F antifreeze will prevent your water from freezing in temperatures down to about +12F, while the -100F antifreeze will prevent freezing down to -60F.
Don’t Forget Your Sewage Lines
You shouldn’t have the same problems with your sewage lines as with your water as long as you ensure that your sewage line is properly sloped from the camper to the hook-up – something you should do year round. If you are worried about your sewer line you can use a straight section of thin wall PVC sewer pipe and the necessary fittings to complete your sewer hook-up. The PVC will stand up better in lower temperatures than your plastic hose.
In very cold temperatures you may occasionally find that your sewage opening is frozen shut. If this happens you can unstick it by carefully pouring hot water over the problem area.
What to Do If Your RV Pipes Freeze
Despite your best efforts, you may still find yourself with frozen pipes. Signs that this may be the case, besides the temperature, are:
- There is little or no water coming out of the pipes;
- There is a strange smell coming from the faucet;
- Evidence of frost on the pipes themselves.
Whatever kind of frozen pipe problem you have, the first thing to do is deal with it immediately. The longer your pipes are frozen, the harder they will be to thaw.
If, when you examine your pipes, you find any cracks, this means that you have a burst pipe and you probably need to call a plumber. You should also turn off your mains water supply to prevent excessive water leaking when the pipes thaw.
If you believe that the pipes themselves are intact, the solution is to safely raise the temperature of the frozen sections of the pipe until the ice thaws.
In this case leave the water mains on and turn on your faucets. This is because if you are able to thaw the ice just enough to let a tiny drip of water begin to flow, the flowing water will help thaw the rest of the ice. But make sure you know where the mains water is so if cracking happens later you can shut off the water quickly.
When you have identified the section or sections of the pipes that are frozen, apply heat to those areas. There are many different tools for this, but whichever you use, make sure you monitor the work throughout the thawing process, as heating the pipes too rapidly can also lead to cracks.
A small portable heater can do the job, but you can also try heat tape. Although it is called tape, it is actually wire that you wrap around the pipe and then plug into the electrical socket to heat. There are also a number of specialists tools that a plumber will have access to.
I am a big fan of winter camping. It is less busy, and some of our favorite spots look and feel completely transformed with the colder season. However, there is no doubt that winter camping takes a little bit of extra planning. As well as worrying about your water pipes, you’ll probably also be thinking about keeping yourself warm in your RV. Find advice on heating your RV in winter here.