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Protecting Your RV Plumbing While Camping in Cold Weather, Selectively Winterize.

Updated on October 28, 2019
Don Bobbitt profile image

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

View of mountains from campground in Palm Springs California

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. | Source

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 sunny ;beach, river or lake for their vacation fun.

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 making the decision of whether they should Winterize their RV for the Winter season, or gamble and not Winterize if they want to use it.

Protecting RV Water Lines

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

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

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

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

Drop Light with cord

Performance Tool W2260 120V, 25' x 18GA Metal Drop Light With Hook
Performance Tool W2260 120V, 25' x 18GA Metal Drop Light With Hook
I used one of these in my fifth-wheel camper during the winter just to provide enough heat in the storage area that my pipes were safe from freezing. Its cheap and using a 150-watt bulb has been adequate.

A cheap way to help protect your RV water lines

But, 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 where possible, they wrap these around their water lines and even their holding tanks to help with this problem.

Then they plug these cords into 110-VAC and everything is kept 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 mechanics have used, to cast some extra light where they are working on automobiles, for years.

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 a large enough amount to 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.

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.

You see, the problem is, how cold is it getting at night, and how long is it staying cold where your RV is parked.

This is especially true when the temperature is dropping to or just below freezing, as is often the case most nights, but the temperature is warming up somewhere above freezing during the daylight hours.

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, exactly at the site where I am camping, not at some airport or city weather monitoring station, for me to be concerned about frozen pipes.

And I will know that I can easily go another day, without worry, if the water in the cup isn't frozen.

Extension Cord for drop light

Prime EC501630 50-Foot 16/3 SJTW Medium Duty Extension Cord, Orange
Prime EC501630 50-Foot 16/3 SJTW Medium Duty Extension Cord, Orange
I use this brand of extension cord. What I like is that it is still flexible enough to use when in cold weather.

Remember, it's an Aid, not a solution

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 extreme winter climates like; 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.

by Don Bobbitt

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 but would have to leave it for a couple of days.

He would drive his RV to visit family during the Winter, and usually stayed, like myself in a family members driveway.

H would use the same trick as I did with a droplight but often he would leave his RV for a couple of days to visit some other relatives, staying with them because of the distance from his RV.

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 your Hot Water heater and your Water Pump.
  3. Open the Hot and Cold water taps to allow air in to the lines so they can fully drain. 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. This will keep that little bit of water 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 weather 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.

Water pipe heat cable

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


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    • Cynthia Hoover profile image

      Cynthia Hoover 

      4 years ago from Newton, West Virginia

      Thanks for all the information Don! I'll pass it along!

    • Don Bobbitt profile imageAUTHOR

      Don Bobbitt 

      4 years ago from Ruskin Florida

      Cynthia, I am glad you like these simple tricks I have used in the past.

      Here's one for tenters who are camping where they have electric power. If you don't have a heater, use a 100-watt light bulb (in a drop-light fixture for safety) and place a metal can or bucket over the bulb at night. In a good tent, it can make a very nice heat source to help keep the chill off.

      Thanks for the comment,


    • Cynthia Hoover profile image

      Cynthia Hoover 

      4 years ago from Newton, West Virginia

      So glad I found this hub Don! After the devastating flood in West Virginia a large portion of my fellow Mountaineers will be wintering in tents, campers and RV's. I'll be sharing this with my flood related social media groups!

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      4 years ago

      I'm sure this is very useful for RV campers. It was interesting to read and makes me want to investigate owning an RV.


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