RV Tips and Tricks – Make RVing EASY and FUN!

There are a million RV tips and tricks to make the RV life easier, and this page offers some little jewels we’ve discovered since we started RVing full-time in our fifth wheel trailer in 2007. We’ve broken them down into:

RV Tips and Tricks for making RVing and the RV Life easy

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OUTDOOR RV TIPS and TRICKS

High Powered “Search” Flashlight

We often camp in areas that are quite remote, and getting to and from and around the rig at night is much easier with a very high powered flashlight!

Lumintop SD75 LED flashlight

Lumintop SD75 Flashlight compared to a pocket Maglite

We have a Lumintop SD75 Flashlight which is downright phenomenal. We have hiked Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon at night to photograph the stars and the Milky Way, and this flashlight is literally like holding a car headlight in your hand.

Here is more info about this flashlight:

Lumintop SD75 Flashlight Review

Getting Parked Without Damaging Anything

The most basic element in RVing is learning to hitch up and unhitch, whether you are driving a car pulling a popup, a diesel truck towing a fifth wheel or a Class A motorhome towing a car. Of course, lots of people have loads of fun in their motorhomes without towing a car behind, but getting hitched up and unhitched is part and parcel of the RV lifestyle for an awful lot of us.

The most important thing for the driver and the person standing outside of the rig is to stay in eye contact with each other. This is entirely up to the person running around outside. If you can see the driver’s face in the rear view mirrors, you are golden. If you can’t, then any kind of gesture you make, including jumping up and down and waving your arms because the driver is about to drive the rig right off a cliff, will never be seen.

We use two-way radios to give us a way to talk to each other and to lessen the impact if I inadvertently end up in a position where Mark can’t see me in the rearview mirror. We use the longest distance radios we can get, to make sure the signal is decent. Right now we have 36 mile GMRS radios, which are realistically good to about 3-5 miles. We used these on our boat (a godsend when anchoring) and we’ve used them ever since we started RVing. We’ve gone through three sets so far, because the salt air ate up two pairs during our cruising years.

Two-way radios for backing up an RV

We use our two-way radios all the time…

Besides the radios, it’s really helpful to have good hand signals. I indicate the distance until disaster by spreading my arms wide and then bringing my hands closer and closer together until I give a “halt” sign (palms forward). Shaking my head and waving my hands and giving a few slices to the neck can help too if it starts to look really bad.

Midland 36 mile GMRS radios

36 mile GMRS radios

It is royally embarrassing to make all these gestures when you’ve got an audience of people watching, but I’ve learned that there’s no ego in getting the rig parked well. Every RVer who has been around a while has made a huge blunder of some kind while parking, and they’ve all lived through it. So a few members of your giggling audience will probably be very sympathetic to whatever mistakes you have up your sleeve.

My worst gaffe was in front of two very special friends we hadn’t seen since we’d moved into our fifth wheel a year earlier. They had come out to camp with us, and we were all excited. I had just finished telling them (with great pride) that we didn’t need their help parking because we parked our rig all the time, we had a system, and we had gotten pretty darn good at it.

Mark began to back up as our friends watched, and I began to warn him that he needed to go more towards the driver’s side to avoid a tree. He adjusted, but again, I told him, he needed to go more towards the driver’s side! I kept repeating my instructions louder and louder as our good friends watched in bewilderment. When Mark was just about to cream the tree, we all started shouting STOP!!! Mark got out of the truck, calmly assessed the situation, and then said to me: “Ahem…. which side does the driver sit on?”

Our friends smiled weakly and I looked for the nearest rock to crawl under…

So, don’t be embarrassed and don’t be shy. Make your gestures big and strong, and remember which side of the rig the driver sits on!

Hitching and Unhitching a Fifth Wheel Trailer

Some folks drive their RVs solo, and although I can’t say much about hitching and unhitching a motorhome and car combo, our good friend Bob has found a great way to hitch and unhitch a fifth wheel trailer solo. He marked the front landing leg that’s near the extend/retract button at regular intervals all the way up and down the leg.

Fifth wheel landing leg marked with hash marks

Hash marks on a landing leg help get the rig back to the right height before hitching up.

Then he numbered each hash mark. He keeps a pad and pen in the hatch near the landing legs button. When unhitching, once he’s raised the trailer to where he can drive the truck out from under it, he jots down the hash mark number that is visible on the leg. Then he drives out, parks, and returns to the trailer and raises or lowers the landing legs as necessary to get the trailer level.

When he hitches up again to leave, he adjusts the trailer height to the exact position where he unhitched. That way, when he gets in the truck to hitch up, he knows the trailer will be at the correct height as he backs the truck up into the hitch pin (and he doesn’t have to get in and out of the truck several times to check and adjust the height of the trailer).

We marked our landing legs at 1.5″ intervals and have not numbered them. There are only 6 hash marks, and I make a mental note of what mark we were at when we unhitched. Frequently, by the time we leave, I’ve forgotten where we were at before we leveled the trailer, but I’ve developed a good eye for knowing how much to raise or lower the rig as Mark backs the truck towards the trailer.

We also marked the centerline of the fifth wheel pin box and pin plate so it is easy for Mark to line up the hitch with the pin box and king pin when he is backing the truck into the trailer.

Leveling the Trailer

There are many methods for getting a trailer level, and hydraulic leveling is a blessing that takes all the excitement out of it. For those without hydraulic leveling, we found in our early years that with two 5′ lengths of 2″x8″ board and one 5′ length of 1″x8″ board we could always find a combination that worked to get the trailer level from side to side. A 5′ board is relatively easy to drive onto and provides a solid platform for the trailer’s wheels.

We store the boards in the bed of the pickup. When using two boards, we stagger them a few inches so the trailer is driven first onto one level and then up a step to the next. We have to remember to back up when coming off stacked boards or the upper one will tip up and hit the bottom of the trailer while driving off it (think of a sailor walking the plank).

Leveling boards fifth wheel RV trailer

This was an extremely unlevel spot where we used quite a few boards and strips of horse stall mat.

If you don’t like the idea of hauling long boards around in your truck, there are nifty plastic leveling board kits (here’s another type) that are very popular.

We also use plastic wheel chocks whenever we park on a steep incline to prevent the trailer from rolling, especially while unhitching and hitching up.

Our friend Ken introduced us to using a sliced up horse stall mat rather than pine boards. We cut a 4’x6′ sheet of horse stall mat into five 1×5 strips and four 1×1 squares, and those have worked really well for us. They hold up to the elements really well and they roll along with the contour of whatever crazy surface we might park on. It is also possible to drive off of them either forwards or backwards because they don’t slap the underside of the trailer.

The only disadvantage is that they are much heavier than pine boards, but we can drag them around and they don’t disintegrate. We use the 1’x1′ squares under the landing legs and scissor jacks for cushioning.

We also have four large blocks made of three 1′ lengths of 2″x8″ boards screwed together. We put handles on the ends to make them easy to lug around. In a really unlevel site in the Smoky Mountains we had to stack them on top of each other AND extend the jack legs all the way!

RV fifth wheel landing legs

A very unlevel spot that required two blocks plus all the leg length.

What Is Level and How Do You Know?

Determining what constitutes “level” inside an imperfectly constructed RV is an interesting trick. We used a carpenter’s level on our kitchen floor, in several directions, and on our table, and on the bedroom floor. Of course, none agreed! But we found a good compromise and then mounted some RV levels on the outside of the rig to give us a reasonable guess when we’re setting up.

There are two different types of levels: Bubble Levels that have an air bubble that floats to the high side, and Ball Levels that have a ball that drops to the low side. Bubble levels are more responsive (the bubble moves more quickly as the RV moves). Ball levels take a few seconds to react. If you use both types, you can get confused because they move in opposite directions.

We have a large Level Master level on the fifth wheel pin box that is easy to see from inside the truck. We also have two small bubble levels on the trailer on the corner by the landing jack power button, one facing forward (for left to right leveling) and one facing sideways (for front to back leveling).

RV Fifth wheel hitch level and center mark

The ball style level (visible from inside the truck) shows which side of the rig is low.
We painted a line on the pin box to help with hitching up.

Our pin box mounted Level Master, a ball level, is easy to see from inside the truck. When the trailer is higher on one side than the other, the Level Master ball falls to the low side.

Our smaller levels on the front corner of the fifth wheel are bubble levels, so the one on the front of the rig showing the side-to-side level has a bubble that rises to the high side. This is the opposite of the ball level on the pin box, and sometimes, when we are struggling with white line fever from hours on the road, this messes us up.

RV bubble levels on a fifth wheel trailer

Small bubble levels show left/right and front/rear level near the landing jack power button on our fifth wheel.

I’d recommend sticking to either ball levels or bubble levels and not mixing and matching like we did! A good solution might be to mount a ball level like this on both the pin box and on the front of the trailer near the landing jack power button.

Why do you need two side-to-side levels? When I’m running around placing the boards in line with the wheels for Mark to drive onto, I want to see a level on the fiver easily myself, and the front of the pin box is impossible to see from the side of the truck when we’re hitched up.

However, lots of folks rely on a single pin box mounted level that has both side-to-side and forward-back levels in it. There are a few from Camco and Hopkins that are very popular.

You can forego all this nonsense with a slick hydraulic leveling system. However, this does introduce a complicated and expensive system into your life, and we’ve heard many stories of the jacks falling down while driving, or not retracting properly and systems failing in other ways. On the plus side, though, you can easily jack up the trailer to change a flat!

 

Cordless Drill for Easy Jack Setup

We don’t have electric stabilizer jacks on our fifth wheel trailer (nor did we on our travel trailer). However, we use an 18 volt cordless drill, and it’s very easy.

Cordless drill set up for RV stabilizer jacks

Ready for action with the drill, extension and socket for the stabilizer jacks

We use the following setup to crank the scissor jacks:

We keep the 1/4″ Hex to 3/8″ Socket Adapter in the drill. Mark glued the extension and 3/4″ socket together with JB Weld, making it ultra easy to grab the extension, jam it in the drill and go.

18 volt cordless drill, 8" extension and socket for RV scissor jacks

18 volt cordless drill, extension, socket and adapters for RV scissor stabilizer jacks

This setup worked on both the four stab-jacks on our travel trailer and the two rear scissor jacks on our fifth wheel. We keep the drill right inside a basement hatch door so it’s easy to find during both setup and breakdown of the trailer.

RV stabilizer jacks with cordless drill

Raising and lowering the jacks takes 2 seconds!

Rigid Drill Set Radio

This goofy radio is in the Rigid Drill Kit (along with an impact driver & regular drill & lithium ion batteries and charger). We love it even more than the other stuff!

Camco makes a special Leveling Scissors Jack Socket that replaces those three pieces, but there is no 8″ extension. Personally, I like the long extension because you don’t have to crawl in so far to make contact with the scissor jacks.

Last year we bought a Rigid drill kit which includes a regular 18 volt drill, an impact driver (awesome for the lug nuts when changing a tire) and a radio as well as two rechargeable lithium-ion batteries and a charger.

After going through three different 18 volt drills during our years of RVing and sailing, we’ve been really impressed with this Rigid kit. The Lithium-Ion battery charges up in about 15-20 minutes and it’s good for a really long time.

The kit comes with two batteries, so we use one for the drill and one for the radio. And what a hoot it is to have a portable radio. In this day and age of slick electronics, we’ve gotten such a kick out of this thing…

 

Cleaning the RV

No matter where we park, the slide roofs need attention before we bring them in. Either they are dusty, in the desert, or they are covered with twigs and leaves, in the woods, or they are wet from rain. Slide toppers might help with this, although I have heard that they tend to make noise in high winds, sag over time, and sometimes end up with leaves and twigs trapped underneath.

Mark has a long handled squeegee he uses to get the water off, a broom for the leaves and branches, and a California Duster and/or broom for the dust. Getting up on the roof is also useful for checking out all the rooftop items like hatches, TV antenna, solar panels and wiring. His favorite cleaning tool for all this is a telescoping scrub brush that we used for cleaning our boat.

Scrub brush on RV roof

Our telescoping brush from our boat is a favorite for cleaning the rig.

He just loves this soft bristled brush. Murphy’s Oil Soap mixed with water is a good solution to wash the roof. To get rid of black scuff marks on the outside of the rig, he uses Mr. Clean Magic Eraser sponges.

Telescoping Ladder

Telescoping ladder on an RV

A second ladder is really helpful!

Telescoping ladder

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The first trailer we lived in full-time didn’t have a walk-on roof, and the signature of an RV without a walk-on roof is that it doesn’t have a built-in ladder.

We got a telescoping ladder so we could get up on the roof, and we have kept that ladder and used it ever since, even though our fifth wheel has a built-in ladder.

You may not think you need a second ladder when you’ve got one on the rig already, but polishing the front cap is one job where you do.

Washing or working on any part of the rig that is high up and out of reach of the ladder on the back is much easier with a second ladder, including the high corner of the rear end opposite the built-in ladder!

 

RV Patio Mats

A beautiful patio mat extends your living space and defines your outdoor area in an elegant way, and we love ours.

RV Patio mat defines outdoor space while camping

A classy patio mat extends your living space into the outdoors.

But they can be pricey if you’re just getting started with weekend RVing. An alternative is to get some green indoor/outdoor carpeting. We had this with our popup tent trailer, and it fit the bill perfectly (and our friends who now own our popup still use it!).

Popup tent trailer indoor-outdoor carpet patio mat

Save a few bucks and use green indoor/outdoor carpeting!

Waxing the Fifth Wheel Cap

Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix for getting the fifth wheel cap to have a deep shine. It’s made of ABS plastic and shows every swirl mark of a first-pass at waxing. The only way to bring back the luster it had when it was new is to use an orbital buffer and fiberglass polish and a whole lot of elbow grease.

Polished front cap on RV fifth wheel trailer

An orbital buffer and 3M Marine Cleaner Wax give the front cap a nice shine
but leave Mark’s shirt speckled with white spots!

Mark likes the 3M Marine Cleaner & Wax that we used on our sailboat. Unfortunately, you’ve gotta do this a bunch of times, and the worse condition the front cap is in, the more times it takes. But eventually you can get the shine back. Just be sure you keep the buffer moving lightly across the surface at all times so you don’t dig a hole in the plastic!

We have more cleaning tips for giving an RV that extra shine while boondocking here: Tips for Washing an RV While Boondocking

 

Truck Overloads

Timbren SES Suspension System for truck

Timbren SES Suspension

Our 14,000 lb. fifth wheel was right at the weight limit of what our 2007 Dodge 3500 could tow, and the pin weight of the trailer along with all the things we carry in our truck loaded down the bed of that truck quite a bit.

When hitched up, although the rig looked quite level, the truck sagged a bit, leaving the front wheels a little light and giving the truck a tendency to wander.

To alleviate this, we installed a Timbren Suspension Enhancement System between the axles and leaf springs of the truck. These are solid rubber donuts (not airbags) that fit between the axle and the leaf springs. That made the truck sit better and wander less.

We had that setup for eight years. In 2016 we purchased a 2016 Dodge Ram 3500 dually truck which had a much higher weight capacity in the truck bed and could handle the pin weight of the trailer along with the additional weight of the water jugs and leveling boards we carry in the bed of the truck much better.

How to Put Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF) in a Truck

Our 2016 Dodge Ram 3500 has a five gallon Diesel Exhaust Fluid tank which needs to be refilled every thousand miles or so. We’ve got some tips for where to get this stuff cheap and how to get it in the truck without spilling here:

How to Put Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF) in a Truck and Which Brand is Cheapest

How to put Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF) in a truck without spilling

Putting DEF in a diesel truck is a new necessary evil, but there are tricks to make it cheap and easy…

RV Grill Operating on the RV’s Propane Tanks

Mark loves to barbecue, and ever since our first popup trailer, we’ve had a wonderful, small RV barbecue, the “RV sidekick grill.” It comes with a mounting kit to hang it on the side of an RV. Flipped sideways, this same kit becomes legs so the grill can stand up off the ground.

RV grill attached to fifth wheel trailer

The RV sidekick grill is designed to hang on the side of an RV or stand on its own.

We had this grill installed on the side of both our popup tent trailer and travel trailer, but with the fifth wheel, Mark installed an extra gas line and valve coming from the RV’s propane tanks so it can run from them. A quick disconnect LP gas hose goes from the grill to this gas line.

RV grill gas pipe connection

An extra gas line and valve lets the grill runs from the trailer’s propane tanks.

We’ve had this little grill since 2005 and it still makes a great meal!

 

RV Water Toys – Water Spigot Connections

In many dry camping campgrounds where there are water spigots available but no water hookups at the campsites, the water spigots don’t have threads. We’ve found a water bandit makes it possible to thread our water hose onto the spigot so we can fill up with water easily.

Water Bandit spigot adapter for RV fresh water at campgrounds

The water bandit makes it possible to connect a fresh water hose when there are no threads on the spigot.

In cases where we get water hookups and leave the water hose connected to the trailer, we screw a 90 degree elbow onto the trailer so the hose can hang straight down rather than come out of the our city water connection horizontally and then droop down towards the ground, putting pressure on the connection and potentially causing drips. We discovered this nifty little elbow when we lived on our boat in a marina before our cruise.

RV water connections to fresh water hose

The elbow here is 45 degrees. 90 is even better

In addition, a water pressure regulator keeps the water pressure down to a level inside the rig that prevents any unexpected damage or leaks. A quick release makes it easy to connect and disconnect the fresh water hose. Mark also keeps a Y valve in his water hose arsenal. This is handy if the rig is connected to city water and we want to fill pails with water for washing the truck, or if an RV dump station has only one water spigot and we want to fill our fresh water tanks and run the black water flush at the same time.

Lots of folks like to attach a water filter as well. We used various filters at first, but no longer use any, although we periodically add a cap full of bleach to the fresh water tank. When we got a new fresh water tank, we were surprised that there was no sludge of any kind inside the old tank, even after 7 years of use.

Changing the Inner Rear Tire on a Dually Truck

We have a Dodge Ram 3500 dually truck with a B&W fifth wheel hitch, and wouldn’t you know it, the first time we had to change a tire on it, it was the inner rear tire. Ugh!

We had always wondered exactly how you went about doing this, and we found out. Here is a blog post that explains the entire process:

How to Change the Inner Rear Tire on a Dually Truck

 

INDOOR RV TIPS and TRICKS

Creating STORAGE SPACE with Seating for Four in the Dinette

We replaced the two chairs in our dining area with two wonderful storage ottoman benches, and this has increased our storage space by quite a bit. The storage ottomans we chose have a nice faux leather padded top that is really comfy to sit on, and they have voluminous storage space inside.

Storage benches in RV dinette

Our dining area – lots of storage and seating for four.

We have his-and-hers benches, and we keep our camera gear in them. The great thing is it got rid of all our clutter and gave us a place that is low down in the trailer and slightly ahead of the trailer’s axles (a smoother ride) where we could make custom padded storage for this delicate gear.

For more info and more pics of our benches, see this blog post about our setup: Making STORAGE SPACE in an RV.

You can buy the storage ottomans we purchased HERE, and you can get ideas of other brands and sizes of storage ottomans on the market HERE.

Protecting the Carpets Under the Slide-Outs

The carpets take a beating as the slide-outs roll in and out. Some slide-outs aren’t quite square and one wall or the other presses particularly hard on the floor while driving. You can buy fancy carpet protectors that fit under the slides. We went a cheaper route and bought a package of four flexible plastic cutting boards.

RV tips - cutting boards under RV slide-out

Flexible cutting boards taped together protect the carpet under the slide-outs.

We used packing tape to tape two of these together, end-to-end, and each pair fits under the slide-out walls perfectly yet are thick enough to protect the carpets. I keep one pair under one slide-out wall while driving, because that slide is crooked and its one wall gets wedged against the floor pretty tightly. The other slide-out walls hover above the carpet as we drive, so I pull the plastic cutting boards out from under them so they don’t get lost underneath while in transit.

Keeping the Cabinets Closed

After having a cabinet door fly open while driving over a bumpy road, causing two unbreakable Corelle bowls to fly across the trailer and break in half, we now latch every cabinet door with 6″ bungee balls. For drawers we use mini 10″ bungee cords with a hook at each end, hooking the top and bottom drawer handles.

RV tips bungee balls and bungee cord on RV cabinet doors and drawers

Bungee balls and bungee cords ensures the cabinets and drawers all stay closed.

Rolled up Carpets

We have a large pots-and-pans drawer that occasionally likes to open. We roll up our throw rugs and place them so they can’t unroll in front of the drawer to keep it closed.

How to keep RV drawer closed in kitchen

Rolled up throw rugs keep this big pots and pans drawer closed while driving.

Rubber Shelf Liners

Rubber Shelf liners are invaluable, keeping everything in its place on each shelf as we travel. We try to make sure no plates, mugs or glasses are touching each other when we set out.

Shelf liner for RV shelves

Shelf liner keeps things in place when we drive

Closet Organization with Plastic Drawers

Our bedroom has a marvelous 8′ wide closet with sliding doors on it, but the interior is just open space with a rod for hangers. We don’t use it as a hanging closet (we have a different closet for that). Instead, we put stacked plastic drawers inside to give us more drawer space as well as a horizontal surface on the top.

RV closet plastic drawer organizer

We created more drawer space in one closet with lightweight, inexpensive plastic drawers.

These drawers don’t latch closed, so Mark drilled a hole through each drawer and the frame, and we simply slip a screw through each hole to keep it closed as we drive.

How to keep RV drawers closed

A screw through each drawer keeps it from opening in transit

Book Organization with Special Bins

We like to keep our heaviest items, like books, on the floor, as shelving in an RV tends to be quite flimsy. I found an awesome line of Rubbermaid “All Access” bins that have a clear plastic latching door on the front. Ours fits neatly under our desk (which we never use as a desk, so it’s wasted space). We can move the whole thing easily, can load it from the top easily and can get at the books from the front easily.

Rubbermaid All Access storage in RV

Rubbermaid’s “All Access” bins have clear front opening doors!

Dish Drying Mat

We do several small loads of dishes everyday, and I just love our little dish drying mat. It soaks up all the water, and once I move the dishes off of it I can hang it up to dry. Every so often I throw it in the laundry with the dish towels, and it comes out just fine.

RV dish drying mat

A dish drying mat sops up water, can be hung out to dry and thrown in the laundry.

How to Defrost an RV Refrigerator in 20 Minutes!

Propane RV refrigerators build up a lot of frost very quickly. After trying many different methods for defrosting our fridge over the years, we’ve outlined the steps we use to get this job done quickly:

How to Defrost an RV Refrigerator in 20 Minutes!

How to defrost an RV refrigerator

Defrosting the fridge doesn’t have to be a big nasty chore…

LED Wax Pillar Candles

I love romantic lighting, and there’s nothing like candles for that. But having an open flame isn’t great. Sailing friends of ours introduced us to pillar shaped LED candles made of real wax, and they are delightful. We’ve had ours for five years now, and we’ve had to change the batteries just once. They are wonderful for dim lighting in the pre-dawn hours or late at night, and they are a nice light around the rig when we watch a movie. The best part is they really look and feel like real candles, but you don’t have the risk that comes with an open flame.

RV tips LED flameless wax pillar candles in RV

LED pillar candles add warmth and create romantic mood lighting

Departure Checklist

RV Departure Checklist

All our mistakes on one page
with the worst ones underlined!

We thought we could memorize all the things that need to be done when we pack up the rig for towing, but a few mishaps taught us otherwise.

We now have a checklist taped inside the same cabinet that houses the main slide-out controls.

A quick glance before we leave ensures us that indeed all the hatches are closed, the shower door is latched, the window-mounted hummingbird feeder is not stuck on a window somewhere, etc.

This list is a comedy of errors made over several years of RVing. I’m sure more items will be added in the future!

 

Simmons Beautyrest Mattress

An RV can be outfitted with ordinary residential furniture, and we have upgraded our recliners to comfy La-Z-Boys.

More important for full-time RVers, there is no need to sleep on some funky RV mattress every night. We upgraded our mattress to a Simmons Beautyrest and just love it.

One important note is that many RV mattresses are non-standard sizes. An “RV Queen” is shorter than a standard Queen, and an “RV King” is narrower than a standard King. Here’s a chart showing the differences:

Standard “RV” Size
Queen 60″ x 80″ 60″ x 74″
King 76″ x 80″ 72″ x 80″
Simmons Beautyrest Plush Pillowtop mattress for RV

A good night’s rest…

In most rigs that have a Queen bed, the floorplan clearly states whether it is an RV Queen or a regular Queen. However, in virtually all RVs that have a king bed, it is an RV king. If you are buying an RV with a king bed and think you might want to upgrade to a residential mattress someday, make sure there are 4″ of extra width on the sides so the mattress can fit, even if it hangs over a little.

 

Laptop Lap Insulator

I mentioned that we don’t use our desk, and that’s because we use our dining room table for writing things out by hand and we use our laptops on our laps in our recliners. To keep from frying our legs with our laptops, we each have a laptop sized thin piece of foam that was part of the packaging of a solar panel. If you don’t have that handy, there are laptop lap insulators that can do the trick.

Laptop on thin foam insulation

A thin piece of foam keeps our legs from cooking under our laptops

Cleaning the Ceiling

We have a fabric ceiling liner and twice we’ve had to clean a stain from it. Each time we used spray bleach and the results were miraculous. You couldn’t see where the stain had been. Just make sure you cover everything nearby before spraying bleach in the air or you’ll have not just a clean ceiling but white spots on the rugs and upholstery too.

 

HEALTH and COMFORT in the RV LIFE

Living in an RV is not all that different than living in a stick-built house, so anything you enjoy in a conventional life is more than likely going to be something you can enjoy in your RV life. Here are some goodies that we use everyday, that have made a significant difference in our lives, and that we will continue to use daily no matter what kind of home we live in:

Amazing Grass

Amazing Grass powdered wheat grass drink

Helps keep fair haired people with thin skin from bleeding!

Mark has found that when he works around the rig, it is really easy for him to get little cuts and blood spots on the backs of his hand his hands. This turns out to be common with fair haired (red haired) formerly freckle-faced guys over 50. After some research, we found that the remedy is bunches of Vitamin K, and it turns out that wheat grass is loaded with Vitamin K! It has lots of other beneficial nutrients as well.

As long as Mark drinks a small dose of wheat grass everyday, his hands are as tough as when he was 20. But miss that wheat grass for a few days, and the next time he does any work around the rig, the slightest flick of his hand against something breaks the skin and he’s bleeding again. The best brand we’ve found is Amazing Grass.

Sound weird or too good to be true? We’ve suggested this crazy remedy to formerly red-haired friends, and they are now big believers and wheat grass connoisseurs too. Mark mixes it with fruit juice and actually loves the flavor! For those who don’t like veggies, the claim is that a spoonful of this wheatgrass powder is akin to a bushel basket of veggies. I don’t believe that myself, and I keep putting broccoli on our plates, but I think this stuff is worth its weight in gold when it comes to toughening up thin skin.

Hand-held Electric Massager

As former athletes, we’ve both spent a lot of time looking for ways to soothe aching muscles. We’ve owned a lot of different hand-held massaging tools over the years, including the very popular Thumper Sport massager, and they’ve all been okay. But many of them ultimately wound up in yard sales because they had bad habits of pinching skin or were awkward to use.

Brookestone electric massager

Brookestone electric massager

We’ve found that the hand-held Brookestone massager is really fantastic. Because it has just one ball head on it (rather than the more common and goofy twin ball heads), you can place it over any sore spot and get instant relief. Rub it slowly on your leg muscles after a hike or bike ride or rub it on that weird spot in your neck after you sleep funny and wake up unable to turn your head, and you’ll feel better right away.

This massager was a lifesaver for me after a bad cycling accident I had years ago that messed up my shoulders and collar bone for a very long time, and Mark recently relied on it heavily when he wrenched his back. We’ve never had it pinch our skin at all.

The neat thing about these massagers is that they increase the blood and fluid flow in the sore area, which is really helpful for getting nutrients into the injured spot and getting waste fluids out. You don’t need to press hard on it — just place it on the sore area and you’ll feel the muscle relax instantly.

We have had ours for four years now, and we used it both on the boat and in our RV. It’s amazing just how kinked up you can get living in a small space, and it is so helpful to be able to get unkinked in a matter of minutes. We keep it in our living room so it’s always handy.

Sonicare Toothbrush

Sonicare toothbrush

Sonicare toothbrush

If only these Sonicare toothbrushes (and toothbrush heads) had been around when we were kids! It may seem ridiculous to spend a bunch of money on an electric toothbrush, but brushing your teeth with one of these makes your mouth feel like you just came from a cleaning at the dentist’s office. I’ve used a Sonicare toothbrush for 13 years now, and what a difference it has made in the overall health of my teeth.

One note for boondockers and off-the-grid RVers living on solar power, Phillips, the manufacturer of Sonicare toothbrushes has noted that the rechargeable batteries do not like modified sine wave inverters very much. I read this years ago, and have always charged ours on our pure sine wave inverter. Perhaps the batteries are better in newer models, I don’t know.

Also, for tech junkies who like to collect tech goodies, the magnet inside the Sonicare toothbrush heads is incredibly strong. Mark has saved a few of the magnets from our discarded Sonicare toothbrush heads and has found all kinds of interesting uses for them, including gluing one onto a long stick to retrieve tiny metal objects from hard to reach spots in the bowels of something.

Other RV Tips & Tricks

We have loads of other tips and tricks for RVers on this website. Many of the links can be found here:

RV Tech Tips and Product Reviews

A small sampling is below:

A wonderful website dedicated to RVing tips and tricks is RVtravel.com

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RV Heater – How to Install a Vent-Free Propane Heater in Your RV

Installing a vent-free propane heater is one of the best upgrades you can do for your RV if you plan to be spending a lot of time in chilly places. This page reviews how ventless propane heaters operate in comparison to traditional RV furnaces, it discusses the different technologies used in the design of various types of vent-free gas heaters on the market today — including catalytic heaters, ceramic brick and plaque heaters, and blue flame heaters — and it presents a step-by-step guide for installing a vent-free propane heater in your RV or camper.

You can jump to the various sections of this page here:

 

This post was first written in January, 2009, but was completely overhauled and rewritten in October, 2014.

INTRODUCTION

 

Warming my hands over a vent-free blue flame propane heater in my 5th wheel camper RV

Happiness is… a vent-free propane heater!

We froze in our trailer during our first winter in Arizona. Morning temperatures in the kitchen were often 40+ degrees F, and although daytime temps could get as high as 70, as soon as evening came, the temps in our trailer dropped into the the 50’s.

Brrr! It’s hard to sit around in the evening in those kinds of temperatures. All modern motorhomes and campers (ours included) come equipped with a propane furnace. However, these loud, inefficient beasts use a lot of electricity, and can drain the batteries in one night.

During that first winter (2007-08) in our 27′ Fleetwood Travel Trailer, we discovered that the more experienced winter desert boondockers (both snowbird RVers and those living the full-time RV lifestyle) installed vent-free propane heaters in their rigs. These are wonderful little appliances that use far less propane than a furnace and no electricity at all. When we upgraded to our 36′ Hitchhiker 34.5 RLTG fifth wheel in May, 2008, we decided we would install one. All summer long we thought about the project, but never found ourselves in a town where there was a good selection of heaters to look at or anyone knowledgeable about installing them in RVs. So we dawdled.

As the nights got colder in late November, 2008, and we relied more and more on our trailer’s electricity-eating furnace, we found ourselves in the warm company of our good friends Bob and Donna Lea Jensen and their vent-free, electricity-free propane heater. Bob has installed quite a few of these little devils over the years, and he gave us some hints and loaned us two critical tools for the project: a pipe cutter and a flaring tool. We learned a lot through this process, and I thought it might be helpful, along with our other RV tips and tricks pages to include some notes here about our project.

There are several types of vent-free heaters on the market, and each has its pros and cons. In the end, we opted to buy a 20,000 BTU thermostatically controlled blue flame heater made by Vanguard. The night before the installation we laughed as we bundled ourselves into our recliners wearing multiple layers, buried under blankets for the last time. Mark’s face peaked out from under his hood as he read. The night after the installation, in shorts and t-shirt, I had to poke my nose out the window to get some cool air. In our excitement, we had inadvertently heated the bedroom to 85 degrees.

We have used and loved this heater year-round ever since, running it near sea-level in the southern states in the winter months and using in the cool mountains during the summer months!

 

COMPARISON OF RV FURNACES AND VENT-FREE HEATERS

RV PROPANE FURNACES

Propane uses oxygen as it burns and gives off moisture as a by-product. Therefore it has the potential to use up all the oxygen in an enclosed space and kill any living, breathing occupants while creating a layer of condensation on the insides of windows. Yikes! To accommodate these unpleasant aspects of propane heating, conventional RV propane furnaces use a large blower system to bring in outside, oxygen-rich air. In turn, they vent the moist, oxygen-depleted air from inside the rig to the outside. Circulating the air this way keeps the oxygen level in the air fairly constant and significantly reduces the build-up of condensation on the insides of the windows, as the moisture gets blown outside along with the exhausted air.

Atwood RV furnace
However, by blowing all this warm air outside, the furnace is effectively heating the outdoors. If you stand outside an RV next to the furnace vent on a really cold day, you can warm your hands and body quite nicely. Also, this blower requires electricity to run. RV furnaces are DC, so they do not require an inverter or generator in order to operate. However, the amount of power they use is astronomical (our 40,000 BTU furnace uses 11 amps DC). If you are boondocking, or dry camping in the desert as many winter Snowbird RVers do, you are then faced with a choice of either keeping the RV unacceptably cold, or using a generator to keep the batteries charged (even our big solar power installation on the Hitchhiker 5th wheel was not enough to keep up with the furnace blower during the winter).

Besides heating the outside air and running the batteries down, a major disadvantage of a standard RV propane furnaces is that the blower is really loud. There is nothing like being deeply absorbed in a really great movie and listening to some very profound dialog being exchanged in whispers, and having the furnace suddenly roar to life and drown out everything being said. Our furnace blower often woke us up out of a sound sleep too.

VENT-FREE PROPANE HEATERS

In contrast, vent-free propane heaters are silent and provide heat without using any battery power. This is because they rely on you to give them fresh air: you have to crack open a window while they run. All US-made vent-free heaters are built with an internal oxygen sensor that shuts off the heater if the oxygen level in the room becomes too depleted. In addition, most RVs come equipped with an LP gas detector that will sound alarms if the oxygen in the air drops too low or if an LP gas leak is detected. You may also need (or choose) to run a small fan to circulate the air. This will use some battery power, but you can decide how much or how little to use the fan.

Living without heat in an RV

Brrr… This was what life was like before we installed our vent-free propane heater!

So, in essence, when using a vent-free heater, you must find a happy balance between several variables. Determine which kind of heater will best suit your needs (see descriptions below), figure out where to place it in the RV, which window(s) to crack open, and how often to run a fan (if at all), and if so, which kind of fan to use (a little DC fan, like one used in a computer, a large AC ceiling fan that will require an inverter or generator to run, or an optional blower fan that can be purchased with the heater).

Heat rises, so in 5th wheel campers the heat tends to gather in the bedroom. Simply close the door to the bedroom, or crack it slightly open to control the movement of the warm air into that space. Likewise, if you use a ceiling fan, you can experiment with running it forward or backward, either to draw air up and move it out along the ceiling or to push the warm air down towards the floor.

Propane has a fixed capacity for providing heat. One gallon of propane contains 92,000 BTUs of potential heat, which means a 40,000 BTU RV furnace running full blast will burn through nearly a gallon of propane every two hours or so. During the coldest periods, it is a real pain in the neck to keep having to refill the propane tanks as you fly through propane trying to heat your rig.

Our Lynx travel trailer came with a 30,000 BTU furnace, and our Hitchhiker 5th wheel came with a 40,000 BTU furnace, both installed at the factory. These were sized appropriately for the square footage of each camper. However, we have found we can easily heat our big fifth wheel to higher temperatures in less time using our 20,000 BTU vent-free propane heater instead of the factory-installed 40k BTU RV furnace. So, a smaller vent-free heater that burns less propane per hour can effectively heat a given space more quickly than a traditional RV furnace that is twice its size.

Because of the inefficiency of RV furnaces in terms of propane use and battery power consumption, when we use the RV furnace alone for heat in 30+ degree F overnight temps and 40+ degree daytime temps, we find we have to keep our trailer at 50 degrees while sleeping at night and at just 60+ degrees during the day. Cold as that sounds, this uses up almost a gallon of propane a day and we can barely keep the batteries topped off using our 490 watts of solar panels alone. Worst of all, living like this is really uncomfortable.

Using our vent-free blue flame heater in the same conditions and burning the same one gallon of propane per day in those conditions, we can easily keep the 5th wheel at 76 degrees all day long. And we use almost no electricity.

To clarify, we have two 30 lb (7 gallon) propane tanks, and when outside highs are in the 50’s and lows are in the 20’s, we go through a tank of propane each week. When outside highs drop below freezing 24/7, we can go through a tank in 3 days.

 

WHICH IS THE BEST TYPE OF VENT-FREE HEATER?

 

When choosing a vent-free propane heater, there are a lot of products on the market. Catalytic and ceramic heaters produce infrared radiant heat which heats objects situated nearby much the same way the sun does. They create a warm, baking sensation on your skin, but if you move away (like moving into the shade outdoors), that sensation goes away. The air in the room warms up over time as the objects in the room warm up.

In contrast, blue flame heaters heat the air, rather than the objects in the room, providing a more even, uniform warmth. Gradually, the objects in the room heat up as the overall temperature of the air in the room rises.

All of these heaters come in different sizes, ranging from 5,000 to 30,000 BTUs, which are good for heating 100 square feet up to 1,000 square feet. Small ones can be hung on the wall, out of the way, while big ones that appear modest-sized in the show room suddenly become monster heat sources that dominate the floor space when you get them home to your RV.

 

CATALYTIC INFRARED RADIANT HEATERS

Olympian Wave-8 Catalytic infrared radiant heater for use in an RV
Catalytic heaters were the original vent-free heaters. The major brand is the Olympian Wave, manufactured by Camco, and their primary models are the Wave-3, Wave-6 and Wave-8 heaters. These provide 3,000, 6,000 and 8,000 BTUs of heat respectively.

Catalytic heaters provide infrared radiant heat by way of a large pad on the surface of the heater. A chemical reaction in the pad causes heat to radiate off the entire pad. If you stand in front of a catalytic heater, your skin will feel a nice baking warmth on it. The closer you sit, the more you will bake. This is a great feeling when you are chilled.

These heaters have been in use for years, and have an enthusiastic following. They are also quite expensive ($300-$430), often as much as double the cost per BTU as the other types of vent-free heaters. They do not have thermostats, just a “high” setting and a “low” setting, so you must manually turn them on and off or to high or low to regulate the temperature in the RV.

If the pad on these heaters becomes dirty, it is possible to replace it for about $100. A friend of ours tried to clean his by vacuuming it, and inadvertently ended up destroying the pad. Because the pads had changed slightly since he bought his unit five years earlier, he could not replace the pad and had to replace the entire heater instead.

You will need a brass elbow fitting from Camco for the installation. You may also want leg stands so the heater can stand on its own two feet and a dust cover to protect the catalytic pads when it is not in use.

 

CERAMIC (BRICK or PLAQUE) INFRARED RADIANT HEATERS

Mr. Heater Ceramic infrared radiant heater for use in an RV
Ceramic infrared heaters are a slightly newer technology that has been warming RVs for quite a few years. The most popular brand on the market is Mr. Heater. Other brands include Kozy World, Empire and ProCom. These are generally offered in one, two, three and five brick configurations providing 5,000, 10,000, 15,000/20,000 and 25,000/30,000 BTUs of heat.

Ceramic heaters provide the same infrared radiant heat as catalytic heaters. Across the front of the heater there are small ceramic “bricks” or “plaques” that heat up to a glowing orange/red color. Like a catalytic heater, standing in front of a brick (or plaque) ceramic heater will toast your toes to your thighs on the front of your legs. The heat from the bricks interacts with your skin and you will feel a wonderful tingly warmth.

These are extremely popular units and can be quite inexpensive ($130-$350). Most can be purchased with or without a thermostat. One big disadvantage is that the area directly in front of the bricks gets hot enough to burn things. Any flammable items that come too close to the bricks could catch on fire. If a cat or dog wanders past and flicks its tail against the bricks, it might get singed. If a toddler sticks its fingers in there, a trip to the hospital might ensue.

 

BLUE FLAME HEATERS

Mr. Heater Blue Flame vent-free propane heater for use in an RV
Blue flame heaters are the newest technology and provide a different kind of heat than the catalytic and ceramic heaters. Rather than radiating heat, blue flame heaters operate via convection (the principal that heat rises), drawing cool air in through vents at the bottom of the heater and emitting warm air out the vents in the top. This is a heating method that is much like central heating in a house. Once the air temperature has risen sufficiently, the objects warm up as well. If you keep your RV at a warm temperature all the time (especially at night), the objects in the room will never get cold.

Blue flame heaters draw cool air in from floor level through a row of vents at the bottom, heat it up, and emit the warm air out of vents at the top, relying on convection (the fact that heat rises) to move this air instead of using a blower. You can warm your hands and body by standing in front of one, but it is more of a warming sensation than a baking one. The area in front of the blue flame is covered by fireproof glass (it’s actually a ceramic material) and it is not burning hot. So, there is no risk of items immediately in front of the heater catching fire. Blue flame heaters are a good idea for people with pets or children.

The most popular brand is Mr. Heater. A few others include Empire Heating Systems and ProCom, the same makers of the ceramic brick heaters. These manufacturers produce both blue flame and brick heaters in the same chassis, so other than the appearance of the bricks or the flame, the unit itself has the same look whether it is the brick or blue flame version. The typical BTU range on these heaters is 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 and 30,000.

Blue flame heaters are as popular as the brick ceramic heaters, and are in the same price range of about $130-$350. They can also be purchased with or without a thermostat.

BLUE FLAME FIREPLACES !!

Pleasant Hearth Vent-Free Propane Fireplace 35 inch

.

There are some wonderful blue flame heaters that are designed to look like fireplaces, complete with logs, trim and beautiful wooden mantels. Manufacturers include Pleasant Hearth and ProCom.

These cost about $200-$300 more than the regular blue flame heaters, but what a beautiful addition to your RV. You can sit and watch the yellow flames dancing around the logs and warm your bones at the same time. I saw one of these units in an old travel trailer and was enchanted. The owner had built his own mantel out of an old coffee table, and it was lovely. I wanted one of those units so badly!!

The only place for a unit like that in our rig was along the backside of the “L” in the kitchen counter, which is just a few inches from the wall of the entertainment slide-out when it comes in. If we had the carpentry skills, we probably could have slipped a fireplace in there, recessed under the counter.

The only downside would have been that it might have gotten a little hot under the counter, and we would have had to be extra careful that the heater was fully cooled whenever we brought the slide-out in, or we would have cooked the gelcoat on the outer wall of the slide. Also, as it turned out, that particular location for the heater would not have provided the same warmth when we sat in our recliners as the heater does in its current spot in the kitchen in front of the oven (even though it would have been closer). It’s just the way the air flow circulates in our particular trailer.

PORTABLE HEATERS

Mr. Heater Buddy portable propane heater for your RV
If you don’t want to hassle with installing a dedicated gas line for a vent-free propane heater in your RV, you can opt to get a portable unit instead. The portable ventless heaters are all infrared radiant heaters with bricks (plaques) that have air intake vents in the bottom for convection as well. They have built-in blowers that run on a 6 volt a/c adapter (sold separately) or on 4D batteries. They are very popular.

They are manufactured by Mr. Heater (with the brand name “Big Buddy”), and they come in sizes from 4,000 to 18,000 BTU. They run on the small Coleman style portable propane canisters but can also be connected to a larger BBQ style propane tank.

If you plan to run the heater from a large propane tank instead of the little propane canisters, Mr. Heater sells a companion flexible gas hose with a regulator and quick release connector on it for just that purpose. Mr. Heater make nice carrying cases for these heaters as well.

 

OPTIONAL EQUIPMENT for VENT-FREE PROPANE HEATERS

Thermostat

Usually this option is just $30-$50, and it is well worth the cost if you plan to be in your RV for extended periods of time. A manually controlled heater will have several heat settings (usually three), but you will need to monitor the heat in the room and adjust the settings as you get warmer or cooler. A thermostatically controlled heater will cycle on and off as its sensor detects changes in temperature. Ours typically cycles on and off in 5-10 minute increments, keeping the temperature within 2 degrees.

On our unit, the thermostat has a simple analog dial that can spin from “1” to “5.” These are arbitrary numbers rather than fixed fahrenheit degree markers. However, once you figure out how “1 1/4” or “2 1/2” relates to temperature, you can keep the temperature in the room tightly controlled by turning the dial to the setting you want. This is especially nice if you plan to keep the heater on all night, as the temperature in the RV will remain constant while the outside temperature drops.

Feet

Most units are designed to be hung on a wall, however most also have an optional stand so they can be placed on the floor. Most smaller units include the feet as an option (about $25) while most larger units come with the feet at no extra charge. The great advantage to hanging a unit on the wall is that it is always there, ready for use. If you use your RV during all four seasons, it is nice to know that if you suddenly find yourself in a chilly spot, you can simply flip the switch and have your heater working for you, rather than digging it out of the back of the closet (a lesson we learned after the fact!).

The advantage of having the unit standing on its own two feet is that you can move it around the rig. This is especially true if you don’t use a fan of some kind to move the warm air around the rig. If you go this route, make sure you have plenty of flexible gas hose so you get maximum range for placing the heater in different spots in the rig.

Blower

Most ventless gas heaters can be purchased with an optional blower. As soon as you start blowing the air around the RV, you are signing up to use the batteries to keep the rig warm, something the vent-free solution was aiming to avoid. However, the power consumption should be less overall than a furnace. Some blowers are thermostatically controlled, allowing them to cycle on and off as needed. This is efficient, as the blower and batteries won’t be in use all the time the heater is on. Rather than a built-in blower, many people opt to install a small DC fan which uses very little power. If your rig has a ceiling fan, that can also be an option, although it will require the inverter or generator to be turned on. In our case, our inverter is turned on from the moment we wake up until we go to bed, so running the ceiling fan when the heater is on during the day is no big deal.

 

HEATER PLACEMENT

When we installed our ventless propane heater, we tried placing it in several locations. We also tried turning our ceiling fan both on and off and running the fan both forwards and backwards (blowing towards the floor and towards the ceiling) before we settled on a final arrangement.

Kozy World Vent-Free Propane Heater connected to flexible gas hose

This ceramic heater has a flexible gas hose that allows it
to be moved around the RV.

We found that the best setup was to place the heater directly below our ceiling fan (in front of the oven at the base of the stairs in the kitchen) and to set the fan to blow towards the ceiling, drawing the warm air up and distributing it outwards throughout the RV. It was astonishing to find what a difference it made as we moved the heater to various places in the trailer and tried each placement with or without the ceiling fan, and blowing up versus blowing down.

Our RV is a “rear lounge” fifth wheel
, and we found that the area around the recliners was a significant cold air pocket. Doesn’t it figure! That’s where we like to be on cold evenings!! There are large windows surrounding the recliners, which make that area cold, while the warm air in the rig congregates high up on the ceiling just in front of the stairs leading to the bedroom (that is, if the bedroom door is closed. Otherwise the warm air settles in the bedroom itself).

We assumed that facing the heater towards the recliners just 5 feet in front of them would warm up this cold pocket. Wrong! No matter how high we set the thermostat, and no matter what we did with the ceiling fan (which is located 10 feet away right in front of the stairs leading to the bedroom), the recliners were still cold.

When we moved the heater to the base of the stairs leading to the bedroom, and turned the ceiling fan on “high” and set it to blow towards the ceiling, we could immediately feel the warm air encircling us as we sat in the recliners. Who woulda thunk??!!

Heater Sizes and Capacities

Most manufacturers state the square footage their various heaters are designed to heat. We decided that we’d rather buy a slightly larger unit (that is, one rated for a larger space than the interior of our fifth wheel), and simply keep the heater on a lower setting than to find ourselves unable to heat the buggy adequately. Our rig is 360 square feet, which put us somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 BTUs. We ended up buying a 20,000 BTU heater, and we typically keep it set to 50% of maximum during the evenings/mornings and 25% of maximum at night when temps outside are in the 20’s and 30’s. If we had purchased a 10,000 BTU unit instead, I think it would have been cranking at max volume most of the time during the mornings and evenings and on stormy days. As a rough guide:

Vent-free heater BTU ratings and square footage
6,000 Up to 200 sf
10,000 Up to 300 sf
20,000 Up to 700 sf
30,000 Up to 1,000 sf

There are legal ratings for the sizes of vent-free heaters and the rooms they can be operated in. Less than 6,000 BTUs is okay for a bathroom, and less than 10,000 BTUs is okay for a bedroom. These are the ratings that are being referenced when you see a sticker on a larger unit saying “not designed to be used in a bedroom.” The idea is that a large unit operated at max volume in too small a space will use up too much oxygen in the room too quickly. Of course, such a scenario would have the occupants of the room running out the door because it would be way too hot for comfort.

 

SAFETY OF VENTLESS PROPANE HEATERS

Some people may worry that these kinds of ventless propane heaters aren’t safe, fearing that it might blow up the RV or suffocate them. These heaters are extraordinarily well regulated by various governing bodies, and designers have to meet stringent guidelines and submit their heaters to a battery of very challenging tests before they can be brought to market. Vent Free is the industry organization for all the vent-free gas heater manufacturers. Their website spells out all the testing, guidelines, state by state requirements, laws and safety record for these heaters. Through September 1, 2005, they claim that there had not been a documented death due to a vent-free propane heater (see that claim here). Visit their website at ventfree.org.

In addition, at the factory, RV manufacturers install a LP Gas Detector Alarm system (various brands are used) to detect LP gas leaks in the RV and alert anyone inside. These are installed because many RVs come equipped with propane-based appliances, including things like the stove, oven, hot water heater, refrigerator and RV furnace. All RV owners should be aware of where their LP gas detector is located. It is usually installed near the floor, as LP is a heavy gas that settles down low. Propane is found in highest concentrations near the floor.

Some RVers run their vent-free propane heater overnight as they sleep. We don’t do that. If the overnight low temps will be well below freezing (i.e., 25 degrees F or below), we run our RV furnace, set to 50 degrees, all night long to keep the plumbing from freezing, because the furnace is ducted throughout the basement.

 

OPERATION AT HIGH ELEVATION

Most of these heaters are sold with an official limit for operating altitude. The problem at higher altitudes is that there is not enough oxygen for the propane to burn properly. Some units are rated for use up to only 3,500 feet, while other manufacturers have a stated limit of as much as 5,000 feet.

Our blue flame vent-free propane heater is rated for use up to 4,500 feet, but we have used it extensively at altitudes up to 8,500 feet and have used three times for two week periods at 10,000 feet.

The key to operation at altitude is the Oxygen Detection Safety-pilot (ODS) sensor which has been standard equipment on all US-made vent-free heaters since the 1980’s. This sensor shuts off the gas to the heater when it detects the oxygen level has dropped to 18% (normal sea-level air is 21% oxygen). We find that whenever the ODS shuts our heater off, our stove and oven continue to run without a hitch. So, in reality, the stove and oven are actually more dangerous, as they do not have built-in ODS units to shut them off when the oxygen in the room gets too low.

5th wheel camper rv in the snow

A surprise autumn snowstorm at 10,000 feet elevation in Colorado during a two week stay taught us a lot
about how vent-free heaters function at high altitudes.

We use our heater all summer long as we travel through the western mountain states. We find that it works very well at 6,000 to 9,000 feet, taking the chill off cold mornings and raising the temperature inside the RV from a brisk low to mid-40’s to 75 degrees within an hour.

We have spent months at these altitudes. On occasion, if we have been running the stove and oven as well as the heater, the heater will unceremoniously turn itself off. This is no problem. We simply open the RV door to let some oxygen-rich air into the rig.

We have also spent several periods of 10 days to two or three weeks at 10,000 feet. Here we had more difficulty with our vent-free heater when the outdoor temps dropped into the high 20’s overnight (and we got two inches of snow on our roof!) and daytime highs were in the 40’s. The heater needed some coaxing to make it work. We tried two methods of combining the RV furnace and the ventless propane heater at this altitude. Neither was ideal, but this will give you a sense of what to expect and what to try:

1. Run the RV furnace all night long to keep the rig at 50 degrees overnight, and then use the RV furnace to raise the temp to about 60 in the morning. We found that this method used gobs of electricity and propane and didn’t make us very warm. What’s worse, when we tried to use the vent-free blue flame heater after running the furnace, the furnace would not have sufficiently replaced the interior air with exterior oxygenated air, so the vent-free heater could not run very long before it shut off due to having insufficient oxygen around it. So, in essence, using the RV furnace meant we couldn’t use the vent-free heater. We found we could run the RV furnace all day long but the temps in the rig would never exceed 61-62 degrees (the high temps outside were in the 40’s, lows in the mid-20’s).

2. Leave the furnace off overnight and run the ventless propane heater in the morning to warm up the rig. The temps inside our bedroom typically stay about 10 degrees above the outside temps if we don’t heat the RV overnight, so we woke up on some mornings to interior temps in the high 30’s. (We close our bedroom door at night to help keep the bedroom warm). The vent-free heater miraculously heated our indoor RV temps to 70 degrees within an hour of turning it on. At this point, around 70+ degrees, the heater would shut off. We could coax it to run a little more by opening the RV door and fanning the outside air into the rig, but it would shut off again after another 10 minutes or so. So then we would turn on the RV furnace.

Any sensible person would have gone and gotten electric hookups at a campground and run an electric ceramic heater, but we aren’t always very sensible. Camping at 10,000 feet in snowy weather is rather extreme. Most of the boondocking spots we stay at in the summer months are down around 6,000 to 9,000 feet, as I mentioned above, and the heater works beautiful at those altitudes. During the winter months we are typically at elevations of under 1,500 feet and the heater works like a champ without missing a beat.

Note: Since publishing this article, we have enjoyed yet another year of toasty warm heat from our blue flame vent-free heater in the mountains from spring through fall and at low desert elevations in the winter. We were also caught in another even bigger snowstorm on a mountaintop at 10,000 altitude once again and tried a different heating strategy that kept us warmer and dryer. Our article about that experience is here:

How to Heat an RV in Cold Weather and Winter Snowstorms

 

WHERE CAN YOU BUY A VENT-FREE PROPANE HEATER?

We had the worst time trying to find places to look at these heaters and find people knowledgeable about installing and using them in RVs. In some states it is illegal to sell these kinds of heaters (here’s a link to the state-by-state regulations for vent-free gas heaters from ventfree.org), and in mountain towns they are scarce because of their issues with operating at high altitudes. In four months of summer travel when we were looking to buy, we found just two propane gas companies selling vent-free heaters, one in Jackson, MS and one in Kanab, UT. We ended up learning the most from fellow desert boondockers in Arizona, Nevada and California during the winter months and from salespeople in mom-and-pop hardware and RV parts stores in Yuma and Quartzsite, Arizona.

If you know what you want, you can get a much better deal buying online, and Amazon sells all the major brands and accessories. We paid $290 plus $25 tax for our heater, a Vanguard 20,000 BTU blue flame with a thermostat and no blower (it came with feet). After buying, we found the same unit online with free shipping and no sales tax for $175 (Vanguard heaters are no longer made). Ace Hardware told us they could order a similar unit for us, shipped to their store in a week, for $215. So we paid a premium for our unit, but we did talk to a lot of sales people in the process and we saw a lot of the units (and warmed our hands over them), and knew exactly what we were buying.

Cost of installing a vent-free heater

Our entire project cost $385. The heater was $315 (including tax), and parts totaled $70. We were able to borrow the tools, but found they cost only about $15 to buy. We were quoted between $60 and $100 for the labor for the installation. As stated above, we also could have saved about $140 on the heater if we had purchased it online.

 

INSTALLATION OF A VENT-FREE PROPANE HEATER IN AN RV

Following is a pictorial step-by-step guide showing how we installed our vent-free propane heater in our RV.

Installing fIttings on the vent-free propane heater

The installation begins with work on the heater itself…

Working under the kitchen cabinets to install the new gas line for the heater

…however, the bulk of the installation involves tapping into an existing copper gas line to connect a new flexible gas line that goes to the heater.

The first step is to do a little work on the heater itself…

Installing the feet on our ventless blue flame propane heater

Attach the plastic feet so the unit can be freestanding and be moved around the trailer easily.

Installing the gas valve on the blue flame heater

Attach a brass elbow fitting at the base of the heater.
A flexible gas hose will eventually connect to this elbow.

Installing the thermometer on our ventless blue flame propane heater

Attach a thermistor (an electrical resistor type of thermometer) for the internal thermostat. This went on the lower back corner of the heater.

 

Our heater came with feet so it could be freestanding, and it also came with a thermistor, or resistor based thermometer, for the thermostat. These were attached before beginning the actual installation of the new gas line in our trailer.

The brass elbow did not come with our unit, but we found one with the right pitch, thread and diameter at the gas and electric supply store where we bought the other fittings for our project.

Second Step — Turn off the gas and tap into an existing copper gas line

The gas hose for the heater will tap into an existing copper line in a kitchen cabinet

The new flexible gas line for the heater will connect into the existing copper line.

We decided to tap into the copper gas pipe that runs between the refrigerator and the stove at the back of one of our lower kitchen cabinets. Mark measured the pipe and found it was 3/8″.

The goal was to cut the existing pipe and insert a series of fittings that would allow us to attach a flexible gas hose at that point, effectively creating a new leg of flexible gas line. This hose would then run out through a hole drilled at the base of the cabinet and attach to the heater. All of this is low-pressure pipe and fixtures.

Layout of all the gas fittings for installing the vent-free blue flame propane heater in our fifth wheel trailer RV

To create a new leg of flexible hose gas line requires a T-connector (to rejoin the severed pipe), F-F gender changer, On/Off valve and flexible gas hose with a stopper at the other end.

At a gas and electric supply store we picked up a male-male T-connector that would be inserted into the cut copper pipe.

The base of the T would connect to a female-female gender changing connector, and then to an on-off valve (which has male fittings at either end), and finally to a female connector on the end of the flexible gas hose.

Most of the year the heater would not be in use, so we bought a stopper for the end of the hose that goes to the heater.

pipe cutter for cutting gas pipe

Specialty tool #1: Pipe cutter

When the heater is disconnected, this stopper would be screwed into the end of the hose and the heater would be put in a closet.

However, we later discovered we wanted easy access to our heater during all four seasons, so the stopper never gets used!

 

The existing gas line is cut

The existing gas line is cut.

A universal gas appliance hookup kit manufactured by Mr. Heater includes all these parts except the T-connector!

Flaring tool showing both parts

Specialty tool #2: Flaring Tool.

The first step, after turning off the gas, was to cut the pipe. This requires a pipe-cutter, a small, inexpensive tool.

Once the pipe was cut, the next step was to connect the T-connector between the two severed ends of the copper pipe.

practice flare on scrap piece of copper pipe

Practice flare.

This would be done by first sliding a female connector onto each of the two pipe ends and then flaring the ends of the pipe with a flaring tool so the connectors couldn’t slide back off again.

The female connector is slid onto the pipe before the flare is done

The flare prevents the female connector from coming off the pipe.

The male-male T-connector would be screwed into this (and its companion) female fitting on either end of the pipe, rejoining the pipe and making a new connection available for the gas hose to go out to the heater.

flaring tool for flaring the end of a gas pipe

Flaring tool with scrap practice pipe in it.

Mark had never used a flaring tool to flare a pipe before, so he wanted to practice it first on a scrap piece of pipe.

Flaring the real pipe under the kitchen cabinet

Flaring the real pipe inside the cabinet.

He made the practice flare by inserting the scrap pipe into the appropriately sized hole in the tool and then screwing down both ends of the tool to snug the pipe into it — as if it were a bad guy in the old days having his head and hands put in the stocks in the town square!

One flare finished second flare beginning

One flare done, now do the other.

Then he inserted the pointed end of the flaring tool into the end of the pipe and twisted the crank, slowly flaring the end of the pipe as the point pressed further into it.

Two wrenches tighten T-connector in place

Tightening the T-connector with two wrenches

He slid the female connector onto a short piece of pipe and felt a snug fit between the pipe and the connector. The flare was just right. Now confident that he could flare a pipe properly, he contorted himself to get the flaring tool set up on the real copper pipe at the back of the cabinet.

T-connector with F-F gender changer

T-connector with F-F gender changer ready for the shut-off valve to be attached.

He began by sliding a female connector onto one end of the severed pipe under the cabinet and flaring the pipe’s end. Then he did the same thing to the other piece of the severed pipe. Then he screwed the male-male T-connector into the two female ends of the pipe to rejoin them, and he tightened the T-connector using two wrenches.

He attached a female-female connector to the base of the T, making it possible to screw the male-male valve into place. This valve would allow the gas to the heater to be turned on and off. After the valve, he attached the female end of the gas hose.

Connecting the flexible gas hose to the shut-off valve

The new flexible gas line connects to the shut-off valve.

Finally, he drilled a hole in the front base of the kitchen cabinet and ran the gas hose through the hole. The other end of the gas hose was attached to the elbow connector he had placed on the bottom of the heater.

Tightening all the connections with wrenches, and turning the gas to the trailer back on, the heater was now ready to be used.

Hole at base of the cabinet for the gas hose

The new flexible gas line will come through this hole and connect to the heater.

Mark checked for gas leaks using a tiny spritzer bottle filled with a few drops of Dawn dish soap and water. Spraying this mixture on each connection, he looked for bubbles to form which would indicate a gas leak.

To give us flexibility in moving the heater around the rig, we originally used two lengths of gas hose: a 3′ length for under the cabinet and a second 12′ length that attached to it with an inline male-male connector.

Vent-free blue flame propane heater installed in a 5th wheel trailer

What a great little heater!!

The idea was that the 12′ gas hose would give us lots of flexibility for moving the heater around the trailer. However, we found that it was too long and too bulky and the best position for the heater was close to the stove anyway. So we replaced the 12′ hose with a shorter 4′ one.

After the installation was finished, it didn’t seem like such a big project after all, and what a thrill it was to toast ourselves in our warm buggy. Our timing was perfect: the next week brought a big cold front, multiple days of rain, lows in the 30’s and highs in the fifties. We were snug as bugs in a rug while the winds howled outside.

 

There are tons of choices for installing a vent-free propane heater, but these four are among the most popular. If you buy a heater from Amazon, make sure it is PROPANE and not NATURAL GAS, as the pictures look the same. We receive a 4-6% commission for purchases made through any of our Amazon links (at no cost to you) which helps us maintain this site — thank you!

Good luck with your project, and stay warm!

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Disclaimer: This blog post describes our vent-free propane heater installation. We are not responsible for any installation other than the one in our own rig.

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