RV Water Heater Repair and
Troubleshooting Guide

Suburban RV water heaterRV water heater

Explore the RV water heater repair and troubleshooting guide to find solutions for the common problems related to RV water heating, so you can enjoy your ride, camping, and relaxing outdoor vacation.

We have collected a long list of symptoms, problems, troubleshooting and repair tips from the RV users, consumer complaints, RV heater forums, professional plumbers, and manufacturers. This guide covers instructions on repairing an RV water heater on two of the most popular brands, Atwood and Suburban.

Note: Installation, troubleshooting, repairs, and servicing, should be done by a certified professional.
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RV water heater repair: Common problems and how to fix them

  1. Noise
  2. The pilot outage
  3. No sparks
  4. A gas burner won't ignite
  5. Not enough hot water
  6. Leaking
  7. Sooting
  8. No ignition
  9. Rotten egg smell
  10. Flushing tips

Problem #1 - RV water heater is making a noise

If your RV water heater is making a noise, such as high pitched, popping, or whistle sound, it is time to check some elements before going on a long trip.

What makes the high-pitched noise on the electric heaters is the limescale (calcium) formation on the element or even corrosion.

The popping noise is also the result of mineral deposits building up in the tank, affecting both electric and gas units.

The whistling sound can come from the stuck debris in the check valve.

Solutions for the above noise problems are in periodic maintenance such as cleaning and flushing or element replacement if the problem is severe.

Problem  #2 - The pilot outage, and it won't start or won't stay lit

  • If the thermocouple or a gas control magnet is weak and not performing as usual, make the necessary replacement.
  • If the pilot flame is poor or not appropriately established, the recommendation is to clean or replace the orifice.
  • If the U tube is blocked, remove the obstruction that makes the blockage.
  • If you have an incorrect gas pressure reading, make the necessary adjustments to the gas pressure, and per instructions from the manufacturer manual.
  • Adjustments are required if there is an improper air adjustment and for the main burner alignment.

Here is how to troubleshoot the RV water heater when you experience the pilot outage (the button is released):

  • If the thermocouple is weak, replace it. If it is loose, tighten the connection at the gas control; if it is not hot, reposition it to better contact the pilot flame.
  • Hold the knob longer as it takes some time before the gas valve/electric board gets the signal from the thermocouple, indicating that the flame is present.
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Problem #3 - No sparks on electrodes

  • Secure electrodes to the main burner if they are loosely attached.
  • Reposition the electrode to get the proper gap.
  • Clean dirty electrodes.
  • Secure wire connections on the circuit board if it is loose.
  • Replace the electrode if the insulation is cracked or the wire inside is loose.
  • Replace the circuit board if it is defective.

Problem #4 - The gas burner won't ignite

  • The gas valve doesn't open gas because there is no voltage for the electric spark. If needed, check and replace the following elements: circuit board, ECO, solenoid valve; tighten loose wires on ECO, wiring harness, and solenoid valve.
  • Clean or replace the orifice if the burner orifice is blocked.
  • Remove obstructions if the U tube or main burner is blocked.
  • Replace the gas control if it is out of calibration.
  • Align the flame spreader if it is misaligned.
  • The electrode, solenoid valve, or circuit board is defective and should be replaced.

Problem #5 - Insufficient hot water

  • Remove obstructions from the partially blocked burner and U tube.
  • Adjust the air shutter, burner, and burner orifice holder if there is an improper air and main burner adjustment.
  • Reset to desire temperature if the temperature selector is out of place.
  • The thermostat has to be placed against the tank. If it is defective, replace it.
  • Fix bypass lever and flame spreader if they are improperly positioned and misaligned.

Problem #6 - Leaking (dripping) from the relief valve

If, for some reason, you experience water dripping from the pressure and temperature relief valve, don't worry. Since the water heating in RV vehicles runs in the closed system when the water expands, excess pressure has to go somewhere; so the valve opens.

If the dripping problem often occurs, here is the way how to repair a RV hot water heater; by allowing the air pocket to be established.

  • Turn of the RV water heater and cold water supply.
  • Open the tap in the RV.
  • Let the water out through the pressure relief valve until it stops.
  • Once the water stops running, release the valve handle.
  • Close the tap in the RV and turn on the cold water supply.
  • As the cold water fills the tank, the air pocket will develop. Repeat the procedure as often as needed.
  • If this is not the solution to your problem, then an expansion tank needs to be installed.

Problem #7 - Sooting

  • The solution is to unblock an obstructed main burner, U tube, or exhaust grille.
  • Adjust the main burner alignment, valve, air shutter, or flame spreader.
  • Check out if the recommended gas supply is present.

Problem #8 - Irregular ignition (not igniting) and fails to ignite

  • Replace the cracked electrode insulation.
  • Replace the fluctuating thermostat.
  • Tighten the loose ground wire on the gas valve.
  • Tighten the poor ground on the electrodes.

Problem #9 - How to remove rotten egg smell

If a bad odor is coming from the hot water faucet of your RV, the odds are you are having a rotten egg problem, also known as hydrogen sulfide or sulfur water. This happens because of the chemical reaction between released hydrogen and sulfur from the water and when bacteria develop.

If your RV water heater, like Atwood, for example, has a protective coating on the interior of the tank, during the process when it fights corrosion, this protective shield releases hydrogen from the water. Hydrogen sulfide compound will be the result of chemical action between sulfur and released hydrogen, and it produces that stinky rotten egg odor.

There is another solution to prevent corrosion, early tank failure, and potential leaking found in Suburban RV water heaters.

Those models use an anode rod to protect the storage tank.

Again, the anode rod tends to deteriorate and produce sediments in the tank because of the aggressive water action, where bacteria develop and produce rotten egg odor.

If using the antifreeze when winterizing a water heater, this process can accelerate sacrificial anode rod decay unless you remove it.

Should you replace the RV water heater?

The answer is no.

Use the RV repair instructions below, or contact a professional.

How to flush an RV water heater

A solution for the rotten egg smell problem is to flush the RV water heating system. First, you have to drain the heater tank.

When you open a drain plug, water should flow steadily. If not, open the pressure and temperature relief valve to get the air in and use a wire to remove any obstacle in the drain opening.

To flush your RV water heater, you can go with one of the recommended solutions: you can use vinegar (in a ratio of 2:1 vinegar/water); or 3% hydrogen peroxide (1:160 hydrogen/water); chlorinated water, or household liquid bleach (1:230 ratio chlorine/water).

Let it sit inside for a few hours and then flush the system heavily, as it is hard to get rid of the taste, especially chlorine (or use a filter).

When troubleshooting Atwood and Suburban RV water heaters, keep in mind that this is not a complete list of problems, as many factors can directly or indirectly affect your RV water heater performance. Always use the manufacturer's guide for reference and instructions, or call Atwood or Suburban technical support for details.

Also, don't forget to often use a reference manufacturer's guide when performing the RV water heater repair.

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