How to Light Your Water Heater in Your Airstream


Getting to know your RV water heating system and how to safely and properly turn it on.

If you’re an RV owner, you know that just like at home, RV water heaters include a tank of cold fresh water that is heated, used in your shower or faucet, and then refilled and reheated. Some RVs have tankless water heaters that heat cold water on demand continuously. 

Unlike at home, your travel trailer water heater shouldn’t always be on. This is partially for safety (you never want your water heater running while you’re traveling) and partially to help you conserve energy. So, when you’re parked and hooked up to a power source, one of the first steps you should take is to ignite your water heater so you have hot water when you need to shower or do dishes. 

Watch this video by TrailerChix’s The CleverChick (and her dog Rue) for an easy step-by-step view of just how easy it is to light your water heater – it’s just flipping a switch. Or, read on for a transcript of The CleverChick’s tips, and a few of our own.

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Step One: Make sure you have propane or electricity.

Airstream travel trailer water heaters can run on either propane (LP) gas or electricity, or both. Before you light your RV water heater, you’ll want to make sure you have one or both sources of power. 

At a campground with electricity, this is as easy as plugging in your travel trailer to the electric hookup. If you’re camping off grid, you’ll rely on your propane tank, so make sure it’s full before you head out to your campsite. 


Step Two: Make sure you have water in the fresh water tank.

Before you light your water heater, you want to make absolutely sure your fresh water tank is not empty. 

At a campground with hookups, you’ll want to be hooked up to the city water connection via a water line (hose), which feeds your fresh water tank. If you’re boondocking or going off grid, make sure your fresh water tank is full before you leave. Check your water level indicator to see if your tank is empty or full, and turn on the cold side of a faucet in your RV to test the water flow. 


Step Three: Find your water heater switches and orient yourself.

In most Airstream travel trailers, the water heater on and off switch is located in the bathroom. Check your RV or your owner’s manual to make sure you know where it’s located. You’re looking for two on/off switches on either side of a red indicator light. The switch on the left has a lightning bolt graphic for electricity and the switch on the right has a flame for propane. 

When the switches are in the “off” position, the bottom portion of the switch is flush with the switchplate. To turn either switch on and spark ignition, simply flip it upward so that the top portion of the switch is now flush with the switchplate. 

Your Indicator Light: What it means

The red light between the electric and propane water heater power switches is an indicator light to let you know when your water heater has failed to ignite. That means the red light only comes on if you’re experiencing a problem with your water heater. The light is your first sign that something is wrong, either with your power source or your water heater. 

If you turn on your water heater with one or both switches and the red light does not illuminate, proceed as you normally would using your water heater.

Use one source of power, or both

You can run your water heater on electricity only, propane only, or both at the same time. Why use both? If you’re using a lot of hot water for a period of time, or need a shorter recovery time for your water heater tank to fill back up, both power sources can help meet the demand together. 

Please note, however, that this is not the most efficient way to heat water. 

If you’re at a campground with electricity, we highly recommend using electric power for your water heater and saving your propane for other appliances.

Proper maintenance is key

Regular maintenance of your water heater and all other appliances will keep you and your Airstream happy for years to come. To schedule maintenance or ask specific questions, find your Airstream dealer and talk one-on-one.

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