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Selective Winterizing: Protecting Your RV Plumbing While Camping in Cold Weather

Don has been an avid traveler and motorhome owner for most of his life. He shares his experiences along with valuable tips for RV owners.

Winter camping in Palm Springs, California. Palm trees below and snow on the mountain tops.

Winter camping in Palm Springs, California. Palm trees below and snow on the mountain tops.

RV Camping in the Winter

Today, RV owners want to travel more often, some even year round, and camp in more diverse environments than ever.

In the past, a camper's ideal vacation goal was to be near a nice warm sunny beach, or lake. Many RV owners now want to travel to colder parts of the country and stay worry-free in their RV while they enjoy their favorite winter sports and attractions.

But, winter camping has its own special requirements for the RV owner, one of which is to take the right measures to make sure they do not damage their camper’s equipment and accessories, specifically their water lines and holding tanks.

You Cannot Winterize an RV if You're Using it!

Probably the biggest problem for many RV owners is deciding whether to "winterize" their RV for the winter season, or leave it unwinterized if they want to use it.

Protecting RV Water Lines

One thing that the RV owner needs to look out for, when they are camping in sub-freezing environments, is the chance that a cold spell can damage their water lines and possibly even their holding tanks.

Some RVs, especially the larger and newer motorhomes, have been designed to survive a wider range of weather changes without suffering damage in cold environments.

Some RVs even have "heat strips" attached to their holding tanks and water lines to help keep them from freezing.

Other RVs even have the complete holding tank area, along with the water lines, enclosed, and the enclosure has its own furnace that will automatically turn on when the compartment temperature drops below a certain level, typically 40F.

One Cheap Way to Protect Your RV Water Lines: Electrical Heater Cords

The vast majority of RV’s are not designed for use in sub-freezing temperatures.

A popular method used by some people I have met is to purchase (110-VAC) electrical heater cords that are designed to heat pipes, then wrap these around their water lines and even their holding tanks to help with this problem.

They plug these cords into 110-VAC and they keep everything warmer than they would be in a cold compartment alone. But this method can be a problem if too many cords are used and end up drawing too much of your RVs 110-VAC current.

Use a Drop Light

One trick I learned a number of years ago is to use a drop-light in my lower compartments. Yes, I’m talking about one of those metal and plastic light bulb holders that auto mechanics use to cast some extra light where they are working on automobiles.

I place a 100-watt incandescent light bulb into the drop-light and place this inside my lower compartment as close as possible to the water holding tank and the water lines themselves.

Then, I close the compartments of my RV and let this small heater keep the compartment’s temperature up above freezing.

Now, a 100-watt light bulb isn’t a 1500-watt space heater, of course, but it does provide enough heat to keep the closed compartment and whatever is in the compartment a little warmer than the outside air.

And, if you think about it, when you are camping, you just need a little heat during those coldest one or two hours during the early morning when your pipes might be the most vulnerable.

Deciding When to Use a Drop Light

When you're traveling in your RV in the winter, it's really hard to tell when you might need to do something to prevent your water lines from freezing.

It depends on how cold it is getting at night, and how long it is staying cold where your RV is parked. You can check the weather stats, but they may apply to some city or airport not very close to where you are.

This is especially hard to tell when the temperature is dropping to or just below freezing most nights, but the temperature warms up above freezing in the daytime.

I came up with a little trick that tells me when I need to be concerned.

I put about a half-inch of fresh water in a plastic cup and set it in my service compartment. Then, each morning, I get up and check if it has any ice on it, or if it has frozen.

If I see ice, then the overnight cold spell is lasting long enough at the site where I am camping to possibly cause trouble. If the water in the cup isn't frozen, I know I can easily go another day without worry.

The Drop Light Is an Aid, Though Not a Solution For Really Cold Weather

Does this work?

Yes, it has worked for me under several different circumstances.

Decades ago, I had a houseboat with inboard motors and I always kept a light in each engine compartment during the winter months that I didn’t use the boat. It kept the compartments safe from freezing temperatures as well as the water pump and water lines.

A few years ago, I had a fifth-wheel camper that I kept on a site in Virginia year-round, and I always kept a drop light in the compartment near the water holding tank and the water lines.

It worked great for me then, and I could even travel up to Virginia during the winter and use my camper during the coldest months with no freezing water lines. Additionally, I wouldn't have to worry about doing a full winterization on my RV before I left for my Florida home.

In fact, I used this trick on an older Class-A Winnebago that I drove to Virginia during a cold winter winter month to visit,

We hooked up in one of my daughters' back yard, for a couple of weeks with no plumbing problems. We were able to be quite comfortable in our RV and take the time to visit family and friends. We had a really nice holiday while there, in our RV.

Of course, I used my drop-light trick then, with success. I just placed the light in the service compartment and closed all of the compartment doors firmly to avoid air leaks giving us a nice compartment heater for the coldest hours of the night.

So, if you are camping in the winter—and I mean during a relatively mild winter, not a trip to Montana, Alaska, or Canada—then try placing one or more of these drop lights where they can help keep your water lines and tanks from freezing.

Another Trick: Drain the Water Overnight?

I met one fellow camper who had a trick of his own that he said worked for him when he was traveling in his camper in winter and had to leave it for a couple of days.

He would drive his RV to visit family during the winter, and usually stayed in a family member's driveway.

He would use the same trick as I did with a droplight, but often he would leave his RV for a couple of days to spend the night with other relatives some distance away.

When he did this, he left the droplight in place, but he also drained his fresh water lines. He said this made him feel safer while away from his RV.

According to him he did the following;

  1. Level the RV. RV water lines are designed to gravity drain and have a manual valve that can be opened to drain the lines.
  2. Turn off the hot water heater and the water pump.
  3. Open the hot and cold water taps to allow air in to the lines so they can fully drain. Also open the hot and cold water line drain valves (usually in your service compartment).
  4. Once the water is drained, pour a cup of RV (water) antifreeze into each sink and shower drain, to keep that little bit of water left in the drain trap from freezing.

Once you do this, you can feel comfortable that your water system is safe for you to leave for a few days, at least. Remember this works in "normal" winter temperatures but don't rely on this in any area that is experiencing extreme temperatures for long periods of time.

And, when you return, just make sure the drain valves are closed, and turn on your hot water heater and water pump before you refill your water lines.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2015 Don Bobbitt