If you live in cooler climates, you need to know how to winterize an RV. In late fall, that is job one.
This week, we talk with a Master Certified RV Technician and one of the country’s top RV experts to learn when, how, and exactly what steps to take to protect the plumbing system of your RV from cold weather.
Our guest on Episode 418 of the RV Podcast is Todd Henson, Director of Education for the National RV Training Academy. Also known as “the Beard,” Todd is the lead technical instructor for a very popular home study RV tech training course that teaches everyday RVers how to do basic maintenance and repairs.
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How to winterize an RV: What you need to do
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview with Todd:
As the weather turns colder, we want to talk about winterization. And then, if I could bring you back next week, I’d like to talk about storing your RV. Because there are so many new RVers who are going to encounter their first batch of winter weather very soon, and even some of the experienced RVers are a little unsure of a couple of things. Winterization and storage. This week let’s talk about winterization. When do they need to winterize those RVs?
Winterizing an RV means protecting the pipes from freezing
Okay. Now, here’s the thing. When we are talking about how to winterize an RV, what we’re trying to do is protect our plumbing from freezing water. We know as water freezes, it expands and that water is under pressure. It’s in pipelines. It just has no place to go, so it ends up causing problems. It creates cracks. And then as soon as we go back out, we turn on the water, of course, we have a huge problem. So when do we winterize, of course, is whenever the temperature outside begins to drop.
Now, where it’s difficult is, is for how long? Right now here in Texas, we’re enjoying our second spring, so it is getting upwards in the 90 degrees, low 90s in the afternoon, but when we wake up in the morning, we’re in the low 50s. The problem that we have is, as we continue to get into October, that number’s finally going to come down, and again, we may be in the 70s in the afternoon, but in the 30s in the morning. And that’s the deadly time for us as RVers, because even for a few hours, when we have a half-inch line, it doesn’t take very long to freeze those.
So let’s talk about the different types of winterization processes that we can do. But the first and foremost, we’re talking about when. First off, if your season is over, obviously you want to go ahead and winterize. So in other words, you’re back home, but you’re not scheduling anything through the winter months, through the autumn months, that would be the best time to do it. It is best to do it when it’s not freezing.
BONUS: Ever wonder about camping in an RV that has been winterized? Here’s an article on how to do meals and cleanup in a winterized RV
The different ways of winterizing an RV
If you’re still RVing out there, one of the things that you can do is if you can, keep it plugged into shore power. And if you have a four-seasons RV or all-seasons… They give it different names… And if you have tank warmers, turn those on. Turn your furnace on or Aqua-Hot system.
Now, you don’t have to keep it at 70 degrees, but you can set that down to its lowest temperature, maybe 50, 55 degrees, save your propane or save your fuel, whichever one you’re using. But you want to pretend like you’re living in it. If you can pretend like you’re living in it, that’s just as good as winterization. Now, there are three different types of winterization.
So if you have your heaters on and the temperature inside the RV is 50 if you have those tank heaters, you’re good for most of the winter at that temperature when it’s cold?
Two years ago here in Texas, we had that freak snowstorm where we got negative 20. I didn’t winterize, I just pretended like I lived there. So I kept the furnace up. I mean, I was changing out my propane tanks every day. But yeah, we set the furnace down to about 50 degrees.
I turned on the tank warmers and left the water heater on, and not a problem. I mean, it was 20 below 0 for several of those days, and it runs just fine. As long as you can create enough heat inside the RV and in the storage bay, yeah, you don’t have to winterize.
Full-timers who don’t know how to RV and they stay in the winter states, it’s the same thing. They just live in it, so you just keep it warm.
What temperatures should concern you
But there’s a lot of folks who are just going to be putting their RV to bed, so to speak, for the winter season. And I want to go back to that half-inch line, because I have heard a lot of people say you really have to do it as soon as the temperature is at say 28 degrees consistently for several hours. If it warms up to 50s and 60s in the daytime and then at night, you got a couple of days in there. Is that true or are they playing with fire?
Bonus: What happens if you are stuck in freezing weather while on the road while? Read these Crucial Winterizing Tips for Campers Caught in a Sudden Cold
If you’re asking me when, I want to go on the safe side. But yes, you determine your own level of risk you want to take. I can tell you that it is totally true for us and our own experience, is a couple hours a day or something like that, it’s not going to damage the lines.
I just don’t want that to be taken as gospel because there’s different factors out there. What is a couple hours to some… If it gets above freezing, let’s say if it stays up to 35, well, that water’s still going to be really cold. And so by the next morning where it only takes a couple hours, it’s that much closer to freezing.
So yes, in a practical application, a couple hours.
But again, let’s look at it from a standpoint if you’re done for the season, it’s best to do a lot of the things that we do on the RV when the temperatures are moderate.
We shouldn’t wait until it’s nearly freezing to go outside of the RV and begin to do maintenance. It doesn’t make sense. Do it whenever the temperatures are nice and okay, if you’re putting it up.
All right, now let’s talk about what they need to do. Realizing, of course, every RV is different and has its own unique instructions; look in the manual. But what are the things we need to do?
Get the RV Antifreeze in – the “Pink Stuff”
Okay. Now, there’s a couple different ways out there that you can quote “winterize,” and I really only choose one. I prefer one. And that, of course, is to use a propylene glycol or food grade antifreeze. The other version is to blow it out.
Let me quickly cover that. If you blow out your lines, what you’re trying to do is vacate all of your plumbing lines, vacate the water, and just simply insert air.
A couple of considerations. Your lines are not able to handle a lot of the pressure that an air compressor can push, so you really want to set that pressure down below 60 psi, probably around 50 psi.
But the problem that I see with this is, especially with a lot of our appliances, as I’m pushing that water out, I don’t have just straight lines, I’ve got coils inside.
BONUS: Click here for a complete playlist of winterization videos showing step-by-step instructions.
If I have a tankless water heater or something like that, I’ve got coils. If you have an Aqua-Hot system, you’ve got coils, and that’s where water sits.
Well, as I’m pushing that water up and out, I’m not going to get it all out, so as soon as I stop the pressure, water falls right back down. But we also have bends and curves. We’ve got check valves. I’ve got pressure until it gets on the other side of that check valve, then I can still have water.
To me, it doesn’t make sense to use air pressure to push it out. As a matter of fact, if you have an Aqua-Hot system or many brands of our tankless water heaters, they will tell you in the manual, do not use compressed air. I know it’s out there, and for a lot of people, they’re able to pull it off. So I want to recommend using just food-grade antifreeze.
The pink stuff.
The pink stuff, correct.
And really honestly, the best place to get that is at your local auto parts store. So the same supplier that supplies most of the RV dealerships also is the same supplier for the local auto parts stores, and so they’ll have it there in most cases.
I know you can get it at the big box stores, the marts that begin with Wal and whatnot, but you can also get it at your local auto parts store. They won’t know what it is. You’ll just have to say the pink stuff and say, “Hey, that stuff over there with all the dust on it.”
Todd’s trick on how to winterize an RV
But I want to show you. I can walk up on any RV out there with one little attachment, and you can actually winterize the system by pumping in food grade antifreeze.
So I want to show you. What it is, is just a half-inch line that I have here, just a clear line. It’s a half-inch. Now, this is clear. It doesn’t have to be clear. I just got this at the big box store. But I also got a half-inch barb fitting to a half-inch national pipe thread, which is NPT. I never could say it right. NPT.
Here’s the thing. All RVs have a water pump somewhere.
All RVs have a water pump somewhere. If we can just simply get to the water pump and disconnect the inlet side to the water pump and connect this hose to that water pump. On the other side of that hose, we actually put this in our food-grade antifreeze.
So right here, I’m using just a five-gallon bucket, and I’ll talk about that here in just a second.
All right, here’s the thing. If you have a five-gallon bucket and this tube right here, then it’s just a simple process. Again, if we take this and connect it to the inlet side of our water pump… And the inlet side is actually easy to find because there’s always going to be a strainer right in front. Just simply take it off, no tools required. Disconnect that. Reconnect this.
We’re redirecting where that water pump is getting its fluid from. In this case, it’s going to be a five-gallon bucket. Now if you have, say, a small travel trailer, two gallons will be enough to completely winterize your RV. If you have a larger fifth wheel, a Class A, four to five gallons.
Add a gallon if you have a dishwasher. Add another gallon if you have a washing machine, so maximum of seven gallons of fluid. This is why I have a five-gallon bucket.
If you can get to the water pump, then on any RV out there, all we do is just simply redirect where we’re getting our fluid from. We go inside to our control board. Whatever control board we have, we just simply put it on water pump.
We want to go to each and every faucet that we have. We do one side first. So let’s say cold side first. So open the cold and let the clear water come out until the pink comes in. Turn that off, and then the hot side.
The hardest part of how to winterize an RV
The hardest part is remembering every single water appliance we have. So you got your faucets, your toilet. If you have an RV style toilet, on the back of that toilet, you have a vacuum breaker, and there’s a small amount of water there. You need to flush the toilet until there’s pink.
Outside, if you have an outside kitchen or an outside water hose or a faucet, whatever there may be, cold side, then hot side. You could do it either way, hot side first, then cold side. You want to run all of that until the pink comes out.
If you have a washing machine, reason for the extra gallon is you’re going to have to run that load until pink stuff gets into the washing machine. We want to protect, of course, the components and the lines going into the washing machine. And the same thing for our dishwasher should we have one.
If you have a residential style refrigerator that has a ice maker connected to it, go ahead… The manufacturer recommends running the pink stuff into the ice. So that just means whenever you come back out, your first couple drinks, just get an umbrella because it’s going to be pink ice.
Now, it’s food grade antifreeze. It’s not going to hurt you, but you’ll probably have to take that ice and dump that out until you get clear ice.
One option is, is you can shut off the water flow to your refrigerator. You should have a cutoff. Now, most RVs now, they’re putting that cutoff on the outside of the RV. If your RV’s just a couple years old, it may be somewhere in the kitchen under the sink just like it would be in the house.
If you simply cut that off, you still have the water going up to the freezer, so what I would recommend, if you do decide to do that, get you a small bowl.
Disconnect that line once you shut it off and let the water drain back into a bowl. Now you’ve vacated that water there. Keep running the ice maker until all the ice is out, then simply turn it off.
Dump the holding tank
The one thing I failed to mention from the very beginning, that is to dump your holding tank. If you have water in your holding tank, you want to go ahead and dump it. Same thing for your gray tank and your black tank.
Now, it’s up to you if you want to leave a third of water in the black tank. No matter what, we’re going to get some considerations with the black tank whenever we winterize. If you completely dry it out, just know that you’re going to have dry pyramids when we get back out of the winter months.
There’s no water in there for the bacteria to break down the solids.
So either way, as long as you’re not above a third on there, and even with that, I think that’s still playing with fire. I’d rather just keep it empty.
We would presume water would rise as it freezes, but sometimes the weight of water itself won’t rise and it’ll just push out on the side. So just dump them all and just know that you’re going to have to take care of that whenever you’re done.
Low point drains. If you have low point drains, open those up until the pink stuff comes out and then close it. So once you do that, your showers… I mean, again, the hardest part, is remembering everything. But once you get all that done, you have pink stuff everywhere.
Now, I know a lot of people will say, “Ah, what about the p-traps?” Well, you actually take care of the p-trap because, of course, you turn on the faucet until the pink stuff comes out. Do both sides. Turn on the faucet until the pink stuff comes out.
Never dilute the antifreeze
Don’t mix it. It actually comes 100%, and that’s what we want. If you look at the food grade antifreeze, depending on the brand you have, it’ll say it’s good until about negative 25 or negative 50. The neat thing about this food grade antifreeze is even at negative 25, if it freezes, it doesn’t expand. It just turns into a slushy, so your lines are still taken care of.
A lot of the newer motor homes and RVs have a on-the-side utility access point where you can actually hook up that hose as well, so you can do it from outside without having to even bother with the water pump. Is that correct?
Yeah, if you have a wet bay system, you’ll have to look at the guidelines with the levers. And then from there, what you’re doing is you’re going to use your internal water pump. Now, the water pump that we have, the on-demand water pump, it pushes better than it sucks, so get a hose.
But in this case, I’ve got a three-foot hose. I would still do the same thing. I would put my antifreeze in here, and I would take the small hose and I would hook it up just like I would the regular hose going to the city. Hook this into the wet bay.
Take the other side and put it in the five-gallon bucket. Because again, the pump itself, it can’t really pump through a 20-foot hose. We don’t really want to use a 20-foot hose. Just get a small one, because remember, it pushes better than it sucks.
How to winterize an RV water heater
What about the water heaters? We haven’t talked about the water heaters. We got the plumbing system set, but how about water heaters? Every one’s different. Again, I know that. Yeah?
Yeah. So if you have a tankless water heater, pretend like it’s not there and let the food grade antifreeze run through. Even though they’re tankless, there’s a small reservoir. Well, that small reservoir isn’t that much, so let the food grade antifreeze go through there.
The problem with those, like I said, is just like with the Aqua-Hot system, they have a burner assembly. Then they run the lines around that burner assembly, and that’s how we heat up the water. Well, again, if I have coils filled with water, I can’t blow it all out, so I’ll just run the food grade antifreeze through them.
So if you have a tankless system, instant hot, whatever you want to call it, or a Aqua-Hot, a hydronic system, use the food grade antifreeze.
If you have a tank system, two different ways. If you have your water bay system, wet bay system, of course, when you put it on winterize, you’re bypassing what’s in the water heater. What we want to do now is vacate the water in the water heater.
So the steps on that is we have hot water in there, upwards of 140 degrees. We don’t want to just go over there with our socket and start taking it apart. It’s too hot and it’s under pressure.
So what we’re going to do is turn off the heat, and the best way to do that is go to your control board and just simply turn your water heater off. Now, from there, you’ve got no more power going to it.
What you could do is go to a faucet. And as I say before you did your food grade antifreeze, turn on the hot water. Leave the pressure, leave the water going into the hot water, because all pressure comes from the cold water side.
So as you turn on the hot water faucet, you’re pulling out the hot water and you’re pushing regular cold water back into it. You will know when you got all the hot water out, because, of course, all you got to do is just touch the water, and once it’s room temperature, you know you’ve replaced the hot water, which is fine. So let’s do that.
Don’t get scalded!
So now the situation is I’ve got room temperature water in my water heater. So now I turn off the faucet, go outside. It’s still under pressure. Whenever we heat up water, the top of our water heater, there’s always that air pocket. That air pocket is for expansion.
That can get upwards of 150 psi, so we don’t want to go wrenching on that. So you have a P&T valve up top, a pressure and temperature valve. Up there, it’s a spring-loaded handle, so we just simply step aside, and what we’re going to do is we’re going to relieve the pressure.
I’ve got high pressure on the inside, so I’m going to just open that up, step aside, and water’s going to spew out, and it’ll spew out for a second. Then it’ll just simply stop and you’ll hear it inhale. Now we’ve equalized the pressure on both sides.
Depending on the brand… And I already know the sizes. If you have a Suburban, you want to get a 1-1/16th-inch socket, deep well socket, to take out the anode rod. If you have a Dometic or Atwood, it’s going to be a 15/16th-inch socket. So in either brand, again, we’re going to turn off the heat to it. We’re going to pull the hot water out.
We’re going to relieve the pressure. Then we could take out the anode rod out of the Suburban or the drain plug out of the Atwood or Dometic. Let that water drain.
Now, if you let it drain and there’s still water pressure going in there, well, you’re kind of defeating the purpose, so what we have to do is turn off the water now.
So we go outside, whether we’re using city water, whatnot, turn that off, let that water drain. If you have a Nautilus system, boom, you just simply turn it to winterize, and you have shifted where that water is going and it’s no longer going to the water heater.
If you don’t have a wet bay system, this is where you have to crawl in the RV and figure out where your water heater is. And if you can’t figure it out, the best place to start is outside. So you get outside your rig. Is it going to be on street side or is it curbside?
Okay, well, it’s on street side. It’s roughly in the middle. So now you go inside the RV, you figure out roughly in the middle. There’s probably some cabinet there. Down below, you have to get behind the water heater.
And behind the water heater, you’re going to have a selection of valves, and this is where it gets really different.
What you want to do is put those valves in bypass mode. So you want to look at your manual to find out which way you turn your valves.
The bypass means is all pressure comes from the cold water side, so cold water is going into the water heater and simply comes out. And what we want to do is bypass that water heater. Let the cold water now go up into the hot water lines and go this way, not back into the water heater. So that’s why we’re actually turning those shutoff valves.
So again, depending on the brand, I can get you all the way to there, but because each OEM does their valves a little bit differently, that’s why I have to recommend you look at the service manual.
Now we’ve got it winterized, right?
Now, the next step, and that’s what I’d like to continue this conversation next week and talk about how we store our RV. What do we need to do now that we got it winterized when we’re putting it away for a couple of months at least? So would you come back with us next week and talk about that?
Yes, we can do that.
Todd Henson, it’s great. And again, I want to thank you so much, and we are so excited to be able to also urge people to take this awesome RV maintenance class that you guys make. It’s all online, it’s all so easy. You are the rockstar of this thing. And we will put a link to that – https://rvlifestyle.com/rvtechcourse
But we’ll see you next week as we talk about storage.
All right. Thank you so much.
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