Protecting RV Plumbing in Winter

Or perhaps more accurately: Protecting RV Plumbing in Winter, when you’re living in it. As those of you who follow me on Facebook and Twitter already know, the temperature on Friday night got down to 25 degrees. I knew that was going to be cold enough to potentially do damage to Cas’s plumbing so I took some preventative measures.

Here in the campground, most folks are using heat tape and insulation around their hosing to keep things from freezing up. For those not in the know, heat tape is a flexible material with a heating element in it that gets its power from electricity. It needs to be plugged in somewhere to work, the power pedestal is the usual place. Then if you wrap the insulation material over the heat tape, it holds the warmth in and will keep your hoses from freezing, good stuff.

In Coffeyville, it gets cold but not /real/ cold. For this area, especially if your tanks are enclosed that’s all you need to do to keep from having a problem. When I say enclosed tanks, I mean that your tanks are in the belly of the RV, and not below it. Enclosed tanks are less likely to freeze because the hull of the RV keeps the wind away from them and holds heat in. A small incandescent light bulb throws off enough heat that if it’s going to get significantly below freezing, you can run one of these into the compartment where your tanks, or even run heat tape in there if you need to.

Casitas have an enclosed fresh water tank, but the black and grey tanks are exposed underneath. If you have exposed tanks like this, skirting your RV can give similar conditions to having enclosed tanks. You can buy skirting from places like Camping World, but making them yourself out of wood works too. What a skirt does is cover the gap underneath your RV, to keep the elements out an heat in. Then like with enclosed tanks you an run a light bulb or something down under there to produce heat and the skirting will hold the heat around your tanks. Again though, here it doesn’t get cold enough to warrant that, of the 100 + rigs in Big Chief, I think 2 of them are skirted right now.

But the heat tape and insulation around hose thing is standard practice. While this is a tried and true method of avoiding hose freeze-ups, I’m cheap and didn’t want to buy them. My hoses are about 79 feet long (okay, a bit of an exaggeration) and I have a lot of exposed sewer piping that would need to be covered too. So here’s what I did instead.

Dishes got done in the afternoon like usual, then I dumped my tanks, and left the valves open. If I used my fresh water tank I also would have dumped this, but my fresh water tank has been empty since I started living in it. When water freezes it expands, and that’s what causes the damage, if your pipes and tanks are full the water has nowhere to expand and you end up with leaks and bursts. With the minimal amount of water left in my tanks after dumping, it could expand without doing any damage.

I left the valves open, because step 2 was to turn the hot water tap on in the bathroom to drip. Running water doesn’t freeze as quickly as still water does. I used the hot water faucet to keep the water in my water heater moving as well as the pipes. I didn’t turn the water heater on, mine runs on propane only and it’d be dangerous to let it go when I wasn’t around to supervise.

If you’re going to use this method, only do it when the temperature is cold enough to actually freeze things, and close your tanks back up afterward. You also might want to avoid using the bathroom during this time. Leaving the valves open allows the liquid to continually drain from the tanks, but the more solid stuff will sit in your tank and accumulate. This can lead to, er, issues.

Next is the inside plumbing. In Casitas, the water pipes run around the RV at floor level, they are actually visible when you open up the floor level storage compartments. So I set my space heater on the ground, and opened up all these cabinets, and the bathroom door. That way the heat could easily get to the pipes and keep the water in them warm. The water heater is also behind one of these compartments at ground level, so it was getting heat too.

Then I went to work, and the temperature dropped. After scraping the frost off Bertha I drove home and low and behold! The hoses had still froze. Darn.

My mistake was not letting the water drip fast enough. I may not be paying my water bill here, but it still irks me to waste it. Now I’ve seen this letting the water drip method in action before, so I know it will work, you just need to adjust the flow for the temperature – the colder it gets, the faster it needs to drip. At the Old Job, we’d have to leave the water running on nights it was predicted to freeze, because some of the animals lived outdoors, and they needed access to the water, no matter what the temperature might be. South Carolina is warmer than here in Kansas, but on the coldest nights in January there would be a few times where it’d get down to around 20.

I may have gotten into trouble if the sewer hose froze before the water hose did, then I’d have water continually running into my gray tank but it’d have no where to go, that’s why I didn’t have it dripping too fast to begin with. Luckily, if the sewer hose froze first it wasn’t too far ahead of the fresh water hose, I didn’t end up with water backing up into my shower anyway.

So yeah, the hoses froze up, but the space heater keep the pipes fine. Once the temperature climbed up above freezing by 9 am everything was working again. My hose connections still seem to be leak free, so hurray for that.

Tonight’s low is 24, so I get the chance to try again. Β This time I’ll be dumping all the tanks before going to work but keeping the valves closed, turn off the fresh water outside at the connection and leave my bathroom faucet open slightly. Β This way when the outside hose freezes it isn’t full of water and the ice can expand inside, where it should promptly melt from the heater running.

This would mean no water tonight, but I don’t use the water much at night anyway. In fact I’m contemplating just winterizing this weekend and getting it over with, I always use the bath house for the restroom anyway so the biggest chore will be carrying water in for cooking and dishes. As it turns out I’ll probably be dragging Cas up to Wisconsin for Christmas so I definitely will need to winterize before then.

Stay warm out there!

Image courtesy of samenstelling

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23 Responses to Protecting RV Plumbing in Winter

  1. Dorothy November 26, 2012 at 6:19 pm #

    I lived in my Motorhome in Oregon for 4 years while I was still working so I could save money for early retirement. Where I lived we would occasionally get temps down in the 20’s but that usually did not last long. Most of the time it was in the 30’s. What I did to keep the water hose from freezing was to put pipe insulation around it and wrap duct tape around it to keep it somewhat dry. I also used the shortest hose possible which was about 4 feet. Then when it was going to be in the 20’s I let the water drip with the grey valve open. I also did as you are doing by opening the cupboard doors. All of my plumbing was inside also. I did nothing special with the dump valves. Only twice in the 4 years did I have problems with the dump valves freezing. If you dump like you did and leave the valves open, there should be no problem. Another option is to fill your fresh water tank and unhook the outside hose.

    Good luck. I am down in Texas and it is a bit warmer here. πŸ™‚
    Dorothy recently posted..On The Road Again!My Profile

    • Becky November 27, 2012 at 4:19 pm #

      Sounds like you did what I tried to do the first time, I just failed to have the water running fast enough πŸ˜›

      My fresh water tank needs sanitizing at the least before I use it, I may need to replace the hoses entirely because they don’t look nice.

  2. cozygirl November 26, 2012 at 6:51 pm #

    Not the best situation for sure…but you got your head in the right spot it sounds like. Hope tonite’s trick works like a charm! Good luck!
    cozygirl recently posted..A LONG 5 days of holiday fun …. !!!My Profile

    • Becky November 27, 2012 at 4:22 pm #

      Well, at 2 pm my hoses were still frozen, so I guess not so much, haha. Tonight’s going to be below freezing again but only a low of 29, then the next several days should be above freezing again. Once things all thaw out I’ll be able to assess if there’s any damage, everything inside the RV should be fine though.

  3. Brian November 26, 2012 at 9:30 pm #

    My Rockwood has the same holding tank arrangement as your Cas. The freshwater tank and water pump are above the floor in the front storage compartment and the waste tanks are below the floor and unprotected. I was in Oklahoma with the travel trailer over the Thanksgiving weekend and experienced the same sub-freezing temps as you did.

    You should be able to use your freshwater tank as long as the drain valve and water pump are located above the floor. I’m with you on not leaving the water heater running on propane when you’re away. Maybe you could look into adding the electric element to your water heater, it’s safer and much quieter.

    I winterized my trailer yesterday. It’s bath house and water toting time for me too. Come on Spring!!!!!!!!!!

    • Becky November 27, 2012 at 4:25 pm #

      Yeah thing is my freshwater tank is unusable right now, needs sanitizing at the least and possibly hose changes because they look nasty.

      I’ll definitely be winterizing sooner rather than later I think, although after tonight the weather’s suppose to stay above freezing for the next several days.

  4. Don M November 26, 2012 at 10:14 pm #

    I have not tried to RV in freezing weather, but I think I would use the enclosed fresh water tank instead of the city water hose. That eliminates the need to run the water, which means you can stop worrying about the waste tanks too, until you use them anyway.

    • Becky November 27, 2012 at 4:28 pm #

      Yep, if mine was in a usable state right now. πŸ˜›

  5. MARVIN November 27, 2012 at 8:00 am #


    Becky ,

    I try to avoid freezing weather , but when it happens I turn off the water at

    the pedestal and disconnect the fresh water hose . I also drain and close

    the black and grey tanks and put all outside stuff away .

    Bottled water is used for cooking and drinking during inclement weather

    and I have some 1 gallon plastic milk jugs to hold local fresh water if

    needed around the campsite .

    A small bottle of rubbing alcohol ( dollar store ) with a sprayer attached

    is the best way to defrost your truck windshield and mirrors .

    I do not use my RV heating system , as I prefer to use two small ceramic

    heaters and light bulbs in the storage areas when I am in a FHU site

    or have electricity .

    I do not like to leave water on .

    Be Safe !


    • Becky November 27, 2012 at 4:29 pm #

      I contemplated taking my hoses off, but my fresh water hose is so prone to leaking where it enters the RV because that connection is a bit off that I hate to do it then waste another half-hour trying to get the hose in just the right spot where it won’t leak, that’s the most frustrating part of setting up for me.

      • Hazel November 27, 2012 at 5:10 pm #

        Leave it connected to the Casita, just disconnect at the tap and drain it by gravity.

        • Becky November 28, 2012 at 4:54 pm #

          Yep. Looks like i’m going to have to pull it all off anyway, the water filter doesn’t drain well and it burst last time, next time I’ll bring it inside.

          • peter April 22, 2015 at 12:34 pm #

            I recomend attaching the base of the ceramic heater to a piece of plywood to stop it from falling over. One pulled cord can mess you up big time!

          • Becky April 22, 2015 at 10:13 pm #

            My heaters have a pressure switch on the bottom Peter, if they tip over or the pressure comes off that switch, they automatically turn off. I keep them on the floor, so they won’t fall off anything and cause damage. πŸ™‚

  6. Fireman Steve November 27, 2012 at 10:27 am #

    Brrrrr…..your adventures make me think of someplace warm and toasty….lol. Like sitting on a beach digging my toes into the sand while sipping on an adult beverage. πŸ™‚
    Hope you have extra blankets….
    Stay warm and be safe Becky.

    • Becky November 27, 2012 at 4:30 pm #

      I have 3 blankets in fact. Last night that still almost wasn’t enough. πŸ˜›

      And I’ll take some of that warm beach too!

      • Fireman Steve November 27, 2012 at 4:56 pm #

        It seems like sometimes you can never have enough blankets….lol
        We are expecting 5 days of rain along with high winds and flooding here in Northern California starting tomorrow….
        Stay warm.

        • Becky November 28, 2012 at 4:54 pm #

          And you stay dry!

  7. Hazel November 27, 2012 at 11:36 am #

    Becky, we also just disconnect the outside water hose, drain it by holding it up at the Casita end and work toward the other end. We open the bathroom door and cupboards and leave a space heater running on the floor. That’s it! It worked in our Airstream too.

    Often the temps only dip below zero for a few hours or, as here in North Carolina, for an hour.

    We’re trying to get further south to find some warmth, but we both have bad colds from visiting family so are laying low and taking our time. Your post was timely for us!

    Remember: Casita owners can KISS! πŸ˜‰

  8. Becky November 27, 2012 at 4:32 pm #

    Hope you guys get over those colds quickly! We got a little of that going around at work but I’ve avoided it so far thankfully.

    I already responded about the hose thing above.

  9. Hazel November 27, 2012 at 5:17 pm #

    Becky, tips from a Canadian on keeping warm:

    Do you have a microwave? I made a thick buckwheat hull bag 6″ x 6″ that I heat up in the microwave each night and place at the bottom of the bed. It stays warm for at least half the night. (If you get up in the night you can rewarm it!) We also sometimes wear a night cap…heehee…just a thin toque from our tenting days, enough to keep our heads warm. Flannelette sheets help, as does a duvet. Wearing long johns instead of pjs is another trick.

    Stay warm!

    • Becky November 28, 2012 at 4:55 pm #

      Yeah I don’t know where my long underwear have run off to, I did have a top and bottom set! I also bought cheap gloves at WalMart today when I was running in for the replacement water filter, my hands get cold.

  10. Hazel November 28, 2012 at 4:55 pm #

    Oh, one more thing: FYI there’s a bypass for the water heater so no water flows through there. We don’t use hot water either. We shower in the RV parks and wash dishes with water heated in the kettle.

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