Man in warm RV with furnace

How Does an RV Furnace Work? Questions & Answers (7 Types)

In RV livingby Christopher Schopf

Some people may never even think about how an RV furnace works.  In fact, I never considered camping in the winter until after I bought my first pair of snowshoes.  After that, I couldn’t imagine buying a camper that I couldn’t use in the winter.  This led me to start thinking about how to buy an RV I could use in the winter.

The obvious answer to this was buying an RV with a good RV furnace.

How does an RV furnace work?  An RV furnace is usually a forced air system that is powered by both propane and electricity.  Propane heats the system and electricity makes the fan move.

Forced Air RV Furnace

Man in warm RV with furnace

A forced air system isn’t very complex.

It basically has a thermostat, a blower motor, a circuit board, a safety limit switch, and some duct work.  It also has air intake and exhaust vents as well.

When the thermostat is set higher than the temperature of the RV, the blower motor is activated and the heater is switched on.  Propane burns to create hot air and this air is then blown through ducts throughout the system.

Electricity is needed to turn on the system and run the fans.  Because of this, an RVer will need both propane and electricity to run their forced air RV furnace.

The advantage of this heater is that it is relatively inexpensive, easy to maintain, and it can heat the inside of the RV as well as the basement area that holds the RV’s pipes.  This helps reduce the chances of the RV’s pipes freezing and allows the camper to fully function in the Winter months.

The downsides to this type of heater are that it burns a lot of propane and it can be noisy when running.  It also needs to be vented and the vent needs to be cleaned out or the heater may stop working.

How to Maintain a Forced Air Heater

Forced air heaters require maintenance but it’s easy enough that most people can do it themselves.  Here is what you’ll need to do to maintain your RV’s forced air furnace.

  • Check to ensure that the ducts are attached to the registers.
  • Make sure the registers are clean.
  • Ensure that the ducts are attached to the furnace.
  • Make sure the furnace is clean.
  • Check the ducts for tears, holes, or obstructions.
  • Check that the air intake and exhaust vents are clear.

The thought to keep in mind with an RV is that it is constantly exposed to different elements and different areas.  Oftentimes, RVs are taken to remote areas and parks where wildlife is abundant.

Because of this, mice and birds are likely to make their way into vents and dust and debris is more likely to accumulate around registers.  My advice is to do RV furnace maintenance at least twice a year.  This will keep the system running efficiently and will help save you money.

Electric Heat Pump Air Conditioners

Electric heat pump air conditioners are electric heaters that are built into the AC system.  Think of these heaters as a sort of mini-split.  These heaters are great for campgrounds that do not charge extra for electricity as they run entirely off of electricity.

They are also great for drying out campers as the heat that comes from them has a drying effect on the air.

Unfortunately, these heaters are not very useful in temperatures below 40 degrees and they cannot heat the basement where the RV’s pipes are located.  This heater also uses a lot of electricity so you’ll have to be hooked up to a generator or shore power to run this heater.

Electric Space Heaters

Electric space heaters are just the typical heaters that you might buy for your home.  They are portable, provide dry heat, and are quiet to run.

Unfortunately, these heaters cannot heat the basement up and they require a lot of electricity.  In order to run this type of heater, you’ll need to run a generator or hook up to shore power.

Vent Free Propane Heater

A vent-free propane heater is just an aftermarket heater that runs on propane only.  It is great in that it is portable, silent, and does not need electricity.

The downside to this heater is that it does not easily connect to an RVs propane system and it does require ventilation.  This means that you’ll need to crack a window to safely operate this type of heater and you’ll need a professional to safely install it.

Hydronic Heat Systems

A hydronic heat system runs on diesel or electricity and can be found in high-end motorhomes.  The great advantage to this heater is that it does not require any propane.

Additionally, this heater heats water instead of an RV hot water tank and can protect the RV’s pipes.  This type of heater is known for being extremely fuel efficient.

The downside is that you will need electricity for it to operate and if it does die, the hot water heater system dies as well.

Wood Stove

A wood stove can provide an endless amount of free or inexpensive heat and can even be used for cooking.  The major downside is that many people have safety concerns about using a wood stove in an RV that will be traveling a lot.

The reason for this is that the stove pipe needs to be set up correctly so that everything is vented properly.  People believe that the constant movement of the RV will compromise this type of stove.

Others argue that wood stoves have been used in marine applications for years and they have held up well to the constant movement of the bodies of water they travel through.

RV Furnace Safety

Regardless of what type of furnace you use for your RV, care needs to be taken to keep you and your guests safe.

An RV must deal with many stresses and environmental conditions that a stationary home does not need to deal with and therefore inspections need to be done on the furnace system more frequently.

Also, it is important that RVers have fire extinguishers as well as carbon monoxide detectors in their RVs.  These safety items are relatively light-weight and do not cost much money and provide an immense amount of protection against fires.

Related Questions

How do you keep RV pipes from freezing when camping?

One of the best ways to keep your RV pipes from freezing when camping is to simply winterize the system.  This will ensure that your pipes cannot freeze but unfortunately, it will also stop you from being able to use your plumbing.

Remember that even if your pipes are working, the water in your tanks can freeze as well.  Water expands as it turns into ice so a full freshwater, gray water, or even black water tank can be damaged if the liquids inside of it become frozen.

Also, if your gray water or black water tank does freeze, it may become impossible to empty it.

You could get around this by bringing bottled water and a cassette toilet or you could simply use the campground’s facilities.

Another option is to make sure you have an RV furnace that can keep your RV’s basement warm.  As we discussed earlier, standard forced air propane heaters and hydronic systems are built to do this while the other types of heating are not.

This being said, some RVs with standard heaters still won’t be able to keep your RV’s pipes from freezing.  In extremely cold or windy conditions, you may want to try putting up a wind barrier around the bottom of your RV.  This could consist of anything that will block gusts of wind from blowing through the area underneath of your RV.

Traveling RVers will usually use some sort of tarp while people that are stationary for the winter may decide to install some sort of thick skirting around the RV.

How do you turn your heat on in your RV?

Some people can own RVs for many years before even considering turning on their heat.  If you’re one of these people, you’ll want to go through your system and check to make sure all of the vents are free and clear of debris before attempting to turn on your RV’s furnace.

Once you know all of the vents are clear, begin turning your RV’s furnace on by making sure that the battery is charged or that you’re plugged into shore power. 

Remember, even if you have a propane RV furnace, you’ll still need electricity for it to run.

After you’re plugged in, go to your propane tank and make sure that it is turned on and that it has fuel inside of it.

As soon as everything has been cleaned and power has been provided to the RV, you’ll be able to go to your RV’s thermostat.  Most systems are set up just like the thermostat in your house.  Set the temperature that you would like the RV to reach and then turn the system onto on or auto.

If you just want to circulate the air without turning on the heat, switch the system into the fan position.