While ski lift operators are dancing in gleeful anticipation, wise RV owners are making preparations. The question, oh you “Jeopardy” players? What does the worst La Niña winter prediction in over a half-century mean?
Winterizing your recreational vehicle is always a wise move, but it seems like folks from the northern states would do real well to heed the advice even more than usual. If fixing burst motorhome plumbing sounds like fun to you, then skip this article and proceed with the rest of the magazine.
Avoid an Expansion Draft
Actually, winterizing your RV applies to far more than simply protecting your plumbing from winter’s persecutions. Still, it’s a good place to start. As you learned in elementary school science class, water expands when it freezes. Expanding in a pipe or plumbing fixture can give you an upset stomach. To prevent this indigestion, don’t take Tums; simply take the water out of your plumbing system.
The preliminaries to this procedure call for a COLD water heater. If it isn’t already shut down and cool, do so before you start. When the tank is cold, shut down the RV water pump (or disconnect from city water as applicable). Draining the heater calls for opening the drain plug, which is most commonly in the form of a petcock, or alternatively, it could be an anode rod, which looks like a octagonal plug from the outside of the tank.
Open the petcock or remove the anode rod, and then to make things go faster, open the TP valve at the top of the heater—that’s the safety valve that pops off if ever things get too hot. By opening that top safety valve, you’ll allow more air to get into the tank to break up the vacuum. Opening a faucet inside the rig can also speed up the process.
If you took out an anode rod to release water from the tank, it’s a good time to inspect it. If the rod has been chewed up, and doesn’t resemble much of a rod anymore, it’s time to replace it with a new one. These anode rods are “sacrificial” in nature, giving up their lives so that your tank innards may live. It’s cheap insurance where so provided. Once the tank is empty, close the TP valve and drain valve (or replace the anode rod).
Meantime, while you’ve been waiting for the water heater to drain (which is somewhat akin to watching paint dry), you’ve busied yourself by locating and opening the fresh water storage tank valve. As water drains merrily away, you can take up more time by purging your fresh water hose of water and stowing it away safely. Once the water has drained from the fresh water tank, close the drain valve.
Two schools of winterization now pop up, forcing you to make a decision. One school says you should now purge water from the plumbing lines and fixtures by pumping RV antifreeze through them; the other school says you should save your money and simply pump air through the lines. While the antifreeze method is probably more certain to ensure that all water is out of the plumbing system, the air method is far less expensive. We’ve always come down on the side of thriftiness, and in the years we’ve done it have never had a frozen fixture or pipe because of it. But, we provide instructions for both methods.
The antifreeze method: Always use the special, nontoxic pink RV antifreeze available at your neighborhood RV supply store. While the green automotive variety will kill mice and other undesirables, it’s not healthy for grandchildren.
Many RVers dump a gallon or two of the pink stuff in the fresh water tank to begin the task; others spend a few bucks and buy an adapter that allows them to pump the antifreeze directly out of the jug. But wait! Like the infomercial says, “There’s more!” Before you begin to pump that precious pink stuff through your rig, be sure to flip the water heater bypass valve to “winterize” or “bypass” so your empty water heater won’t demand its six (or more) gallons of antifreeze. If you don’t have a bypass kit, you’ll need to pick one of those up and install it before you start pumping antifreeze. (See, there’s a reason why we’re thrifty!)
With the water pump energized, ready to pump pink stuff, start from the last fixture down line from the water pump and open the fixture up. Let it run until pink antifreeze jets out of the fixture. Turn off the fixture, and proceed to repeat this step, fixture by fixture, working your way to the water pump. You’ll need to operate both hot and cold sides of the fixtures as you go. When all fixtures pump pink (including the toilet and shower head) you’ve exorcised all the water from the system.
Air method: Requiring no water heater bypass, this method only requires the purchase of an inexpensive “blow out plug” that screws into the city water inlet on your RV. The other end of the plug looks like a Schrader valve (like you use for putting air in your car tires). Using an air compressor set for 40 pounds maximum, or a helper who pressurizes your water system and then lets off on the pressure, plugging it back in when you call for it, you’ll use air to purge the water from the system.
With air pressure on the lines, simply walk through the rig as directed for those using antifreeze, beginning at the far end of the plumbing system and working forward. Open the fixtures and run them until no water comes out, and you too, have cleared the dangerous H2O from your plumbing lines and fixtures.
Now that you’ve displaced the water from your plumbing lines, and relocated it to the holding tanks, you’ll need to drain the holding tanks. Not a complicated exercise, just dump them as you normally would. It’s a good idea to jet out the black water tank with a tank-cleansing wand at the same time. Leave the valves shut for the winter.
Preparing the physical drain traps in your RV does require the use of a small amount of RV antifreeze. A few ounces dumped down each sink, shower stall, and in the pot will ensure no freezing up.
What else needs to be done to ensure a happily drowsy RV? Some folks suggest you take air out of the rig tires, and maybe go so far as to block it up over the winter. Hogwash! The fear of overtaxing the suspension system is an old wives’ tale, and “flat spots on tires” is an overblown issue. Covering the tires to protect them is one thing, but don’t use “tire dressing” as it contains substances that tire industry folks say can be damaging to the welfare of your tires.
What about the battery? A charged battery will not freeze. A dead battery will freeze. You might consider connecting a maintenance charger on your batteries that “floats” the batteries at the correct voltage. Others make sure their batteries are fully charged, and then simply disconnect them from the rig circuit to prevent “phantom” loads from discharging them.
If your rig is equipped with an on-board generator, this is a good time to make sure the genny is serviced, that is, change the oil. During the winter, by all means, exercise the generator once a month by running it an hour with at least a half load.
Live in a humid area? A mechanical (or electronic) dehumidifier can save you lots of problems. If you opt to use chemical dehumidifiers (the sort that use crystals to draw moisture out of the air), make sure they’re set up so that the liquid they generate won’t overflow where it will cause problems. We set ours in plastic dish tubs, not in the bathtub directly, since the liquid they produce is a bit corrosive.
Finally, make sure you leave nothing in the rig that will be attractive to winter pests. Edibles like cereals and crackers are irresistible to rodents, and besides, by next spring even if the mice didn’t find them, you probably wouldn’t want them either.
With the rig properly winterized, you can retire to the hearth, with travel atlas in hand, planning for the revival next spring. We’ll check back with de-wintering information.
Russ and Tiña De Maris are authors of RV Boondocking Basics—A Guide to Living Without Hookups, which covers a full range of dry camping topics. Visit icanrv.com for more information.