Some people never use their RVs in cold weather. Others find that heating up their RVs is an absolute necessity.
How do you heat up an RV?
The best ways to heat up an RV are:
- Gas furnaces
- Portable gas heaters
- Built-in electrical heaters
- Portable electrical heaters
- Diesel heaters
Let’s take a closer look and find out when to use each heating source for RVs and campers.
1) Gas Furnaces
Gas furnaces are the oldest and most popular heaters in the RV industry. You’ll find that many RV manufacturers still use them today.
Go here to read about how furnaces for RVs work.
Here are some of the advantages of built-in gas furnaces.
Advantages of Using Gas Furnaces in Your RV
- Efficient heat source.
- Great for boondocking.
- Provides basement heat.
- Externally vented.
- They are very common among RVers.
Built-in gas furnaces are extremely efficient and they can heat up a rig in a matter of minutes.
This is great for when you pull into a campsite late at night during cold weather. After setting up, you won’t have to wait long before your camper is nice and warm.
Propane is a wonderful source of fuel for people who are using their campers off of the grid because electricity is not required.
Also, if you get a specialized connection, you can use external propane tanks so refueling doesn’t require moving your RV each time. Just take a few tanks to a fill-up station and bring them back to your camper.
These furnaces run off of forced air and ducts are usually routed around the plumbing system of the RV.
This means that you can provide your RV with basement heat for winter camping. With other heating systems, you might be forced to go without plumbing during cold weather as your plumbing system may freeze during use.
Gas heaters are externally vented so you don’t have to worry about moisture buildup. You also don’t have to worry about carbon monoxide building up or deprivation of oxygen.
Since these heaters are so common, it is easy to find parts as well as replacement heaters. The maintenance is also relatively low on gas furnaces and I’ve seen 20-year-old gas heaters work just fine.
While there are many advantages of using gas furnaces, there are also some disadvantages to using them as well. Here are the disadvantages of using built-in gas furnaces.
Disadvantages of Using Gas Furnaces in Your RV
- Inability to zone heat without multiple heaters.
- Fuel burns quickly.
- Fuel is expensive.
- The blower can be noisy.
- The fan runs off of battery power.
Cold weather can cause propane tanks to be emptied quickly. This is inconvenient when going away for multiple days as you’ll either have to bring multiple tanks to your campsite or you’ll have to travel back and forth to a fill-up station on a regular basis.
Propane gas is also an expensive fuel and you’ll have to pay for it even if utilities are included at your campsite. This is something you probably won’t have to worry about when short-term camping with an electric heater.
Because gas furnaces run off of forced air heat, you have to listen to the sound of the fan as well as the sound of the air being pushed through the heat ducts.
Some people find this to be nice soothing white noise while others find it irritating. Depending on your preference, this can be an advantage or a disadvantage to using onboard gas heaters in your camper.
Another drawback is that you’ll need battery power to run your fan.
This means that during cold weather you may need to run your generator just to charge your battery so that it can power the fan in your gas heater. Run out of battery power or gas and your heater will not work.
Lastly, when your RV only has one onboard gas heater, you won’t be able to make use of zone heating. This means that even if you just want to warm up your bathroom a bit before showering, you’ll end up having to heat up your entire camper.
2) Portable Gas Heaters
This heater is our recommendation, you can read more about it in this article.
Although most campers have built-in gas furnaces, some people opt to add their own portable gas heaters. These heaters can be used in place of your existing heaters or they can be used to add supplemental heat.
Here are the advantages of using a portable gas heater in your camper.
Advantages of Using Portable Gas Heaters
- Creates an additional heat source.
- The heater is portable.
- Portable gas heaters are inexpensive.
- No installation required.
- Quiet operation.
- No electricity needed.
Portable gas heaters don’t have to be used by themselves. You can use them to turn an electric system into a gas one or you can use them to provide zone heating when you don’t want to heat up your entire RV.
This heater is portable so you can use it in your RV, your tent, your home, or anywhere else. This is also what makes it great for providing zone heating as you can simply take it into the room you’d like to heat up.
Installation is not required on this type of heater and you won’t need to add any ductwork to your camper to use it. Since you won’t be installing any ductwork or ventilation, you also won’t have to maintain any of this.
The operation of a portable gas heater is silent so if you happen to find the sound of fans blowing irritating, you can avoid this by simply using a portable gas heater instead of your furnace.
Small portable gas heaters won’t use as much propane as large gas furnaces so you won’t have to spend as much money fueling them. This is especially useful when you’re off the grid as you won’t have to bring as many extra tanks with you on your trip.
Lastly, portable gas furnaces do not need any electricity to operate. This makes them a truly off-grid option for RVers looking to get away from it all.
As with anything, there are disadvantages to using the type of heater. Here are the disadvantages of using portable gas heaters in your RV.
Disadvantages of Using Portable Gas Heaters in Your RV
- Not powerful enough to heat up large RVs in cold weather.
- No basement heat.
- Installation needed to hook up to the RVs main propane tank.
- Takes up additional room in the RV.
- Possible safety issues.
- Need ventilation.
Small portable gas heaters may not be powerful enough to heat up a large motorhome or travel trailer. This is especially true when it is extremely cold out.
Also, because there isn’t any ductwork associated with this type of heater, you can’t heat up the basement area around the water tanks and the pipes. This means that even if you can fully heat your RV with a portable gas heater, you may not be able to get it warm enough to safely use your plumbing system.
You won’t have any issues in weather above freezing but anything below and you run the risk of damaging your plumbing.
It is possible to use portable propane tanks with these heaters but if you want to run them off of your RVs gas system, you’ll need to have these heaters installed. This can add to the cost of the heating system and it can take up additional space in your RV. It also makes them less portable as your installation may end up being a permanent one.
Some people have concerns about the safety of portable gas heaters. Remember, these heaters are not vented so you’ll have to worry about not having enough oxygen.
‘You’ll also need to worry about the heat being too concentrated in one area which can cause fires.
Because of all of this, you’ll end up needing to open up a window. This is especially true as this heater puts off moisture which can build up inside the camper and cause condensation. Too much condensation can lead to mold and mildew building up inside of your RV.
Also, as an added protection you may need to install carbon monoxide detectors to your RV. You should probably do this anyway but it is something to keep in mind.
3) Built-in Electric Heaters
Often-times newer RVs will have built-in heat pumps inside of their AC units. This creates a type of forced air heat that runs entirely off of electricity.
Here are the advantages of using these types of heaters.
- Free heat at short-term campsites.
- Dry heat.
- No ventilation required.
- Less maintenance.
Many short-term campsites offer free electricity at their campsites. As a result, heating up your RV ends up being free. This saves you money you’d otherwise have had to have spent on propane.
Electric heat is a dry heat which cuts down on condensation. This means you won’t have to crack a window in the winter and you won’t have to waste energy doing so. A reduction in energy waste is good for everyone and it’s especially good for you when you’re staying at sites that charge you for it.
Because electric heat does not deprive the air of oxygen, you don’t need to worry about ventilation. Also, depending on how the heater is set up, you may not have to worry about managing any ductwork either. This means less maintenance and as a result more time and more money for you.
The Disadvantages of Using Built-in Electric Heaters
- No basement heat.
- Will not operate below temperatures of 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Need electricity to operate.
- The fan is loud.
One big drawback to this type of electric heater is that it is not very useful in extreme weather conditions. These heaters generally don’t provide heat to the plumbing or the water tanks and even if they did, they’d fail at it in cold weather.
The reason for this is that these heaters are not built to operate in freezing temperatures. In fact, anything below 40 degrees Fahrenheit will render them inoperable.
Another situation that will render them inoperable is a lack of electricity. These heaters are not great for off the grid camping as you’ll need to run a generator to use them. Generators are loud and require extra fuel which may not be available at your campsite.
The fan on an electric heat pump is loud and you’ll definitely notice it. Again, this might not be a big issue for you but it will be for some.
4) Portable Electric Heater
This is one of our recommendations for heating a tiny house and it works very well for smaller RVs as well or as an additional heating source. You can read more about it here.
Portable electric heaters that are used in homes can just as easily be brought into your RV. There are plusses and minuses to using these but they’re definitely worth looking into.
Advantages of Using Portable Electric heaters in Your RV
- Dry heat.
- No installation required.
- Aesthetically pleasing.
- Can be used elsewhere.
Electric space heaters offer up a dry heat that cuts down on condensation and does not require ventilation.
Additionally, no installation is required as all you have to do to operate them is plug them in. This is, of course, you haven’t decided to install a built-in electric fireplace.
This is the Duraflame which is an EXCELLENT electric fireplace. You can see the best price here at Amazon.
Electric fireplaces may or may not have to be installed depending on the model.
These heaters are portable and you can buy them in small 300 watt models or large 1,500-watt models. The smaller the heater, the more portable it will be. This will allow you to zone heat certain areas of your RV.
Electric heaters can be purchased in a wide array of aesthetically pleasing models.
You can buy fake fireplaces or stoves and you can even buy ones that offer up light displays.
An electric heater can often be purchased for less than $25.00. This is an inexpensive solution to those looking to add heat to a heatless RV or to supplement the heat they already have. Also, since it’s electric you may not even have to pay to operate it at some campsites.
These heaters can be purchased without fans which makes them quiet to operate. When you’re done camping, you can take them into your house or garage and use them there.
Disadvantages of Using Portable Electric heaters in Your RV
- Takes up extra space.
- Not good for off-grid camping.
- Cannot supply heat to the basement area.
- Will not heat up a large RV in cold weather.
- 110-volt outlets are needed.
Portable electric heaters can be purchased in smaller models but they’ll still take up space. Also, because they require a 110-volt outlet and a steady supply of electricity, they aren’t great for off-grid camping.
These heaters aren’t hooked up to a duct system so they can’t heat up the basement without major modifications to your RV. They also aren’t powerful enough to heat up large RVs in weather that is below freezing. Of course, you can bring more than one heater into your camper but you may need a 50-amp RV to do so.
5) Diesel Heaters
Diesel heaters are mostly found on motorhomes that operate off of diesel fuel. They are known as hydronic heaters and they use heated water to help heat your motorhome.
Advantages of Hydronic Heaters
- Eliminates the need for a hot water heater in cold weather.
- Has a large supply of fuel.
- Can often be run off of electricity only.
- Can heat the basement.
As we said earlier, hydronic heaters heat up water like a radiator. This means that your motorhome ends up having much more hot water available to it at any given time.
Because this heater operates off of diesel, you’ll have a lot of fuel available to you to run it. A typical class A motorhome has a fuel tank that holds well over 100 gallons of fuel. All of this fuel can be used to operate your diesel heater.
In addition to being able to run this type of heater off of diesel fuel, you may also be able to run it off of electricity. This means you’ll still be able to take advantage of free or inexpensive electricity at campsites.
These heaters are also meant to heat the basement and they can run at below-freezing temperatures so you’ll always be able to go winter camping in a motorhome with a hydronic heater.
Disadvantages of Hydronic Heaters
- High maintenance.
- Hard to find.
Hydronic heaters have more moving parts to them and they are more expensive to make. The maintenance on these units is also more difficult so you may end up having to pay extra money for this as well.
Also, as we said earlier, you’ll typically only find these systems on motorhomes. If you’d like to get a travel trailer with a hydronic heater, you may be out of luck.
6) Heat Pumps With Air Condition
You can also install a heat pump. They have been more and more popular in RVs, cabins, tiny houses etc.
The reason is that they are relatively cheap to buy and they are very efficient. They run off of electricity so that’s something to keep in mind. If you always hook up your rig or maybe you have solar panels installed, this is a great option!
You can read much more about heat pumps in this article about heating in tiny houses.
How Well Are RVs Insulated?
We have written an extensive article on how well RVs and campers are insulated.
Here are some of the main points from the article.
Typically, RVs and campers are insulated pretty well. Especially if it’s a newer camper. Older campers and RVs are harder to heat up because they are poorly insulated. These are the typical materials used for insulation:
- Spray Foam Insulation
- Foam Board Insulation
- Fiberglass Insulation
You will find that most RVs and campers are built with the same type of insulation materials as ordinary houses. This is because it’s cheap to buy and easy to get.
However, there are also better and more efficient materials. These are typically materials developed for spacecrafts and airplanes. You will have to install this type of insulation yourself.
There are many ways to heat up an RV in cold weather. In extreme weather conditions, you’ll probably want an onboard system that runs off of gas, electricity, or diesel. For off-grid situations, you’ll probably want to use a gas heater or a diesel heater.
Electric heaters are still an option off the grid but you’ll have to use a generator to make them work.
When buying a heater for your RV, make sure you know why what kinds of camping you’ll be doing so that you can buy the one that’s best for your situation.
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Morten is the founder of GoDownsize. He has filmed and interviewed people living in tiny houses and RVs since 2011. He grew up on the coast where his dad took him boating from a young age. He has completely rebuilt two RVs in which he travels with his family for months at the time. Read more about Morten here.