Whether you camp in your RV year-round or store it for the season, take time to prep it for the cold weather to come
Before you know it, old Jack Frost will be getting his grip around the Northern Hemisphere, and RV owners will either flock south or prepare their rigs for winter. Regardless of whether you use your RV or not this season, there are some steps to take to prepare and protect it.
The majority of RV owners who stay in the northern climes from November to April put their RVs in storage for at least part of the winter, which means it must be protected from freezing, leaking, snow loads and pests. No matter what kind of RV you own, it’s a significant investment that requires care and protection, not to mention the fact that you want it available and usable when you’re ready to hit the road.
The first and most obvious thing to do is to protect the plumbing system. This includes the entire freshwater and sanitation systems. Failure to prepare these systems, even for a brief period of freezing temperatures, can lead to extensive damage.
Most, if not all, RVs manufactured today have PEX piping, which can withstand some exposure to freezing without damage, but the connections, terminations, valves and fixtures are likely to suffer some damage if water in them is allowed to freeze. Some older RVs have gray polybutylene piping, which will easily fracture if frozen.
The best way to winterize the plumbing system is to blow out the water using compressed air, followed by running RV antifreeze through the system. This is a pretty straightforward process, made easier with the right equipment, including a water-heater bypass kit and a water-pump winterizing kit. Many RVs built today come with these already installed, but if yours doesn’t, don’t worry; the kits are available in the aftermarket from companies like Camco, and are easy to install.
The water-heater bypass kit is a valve or set of valves, tubing and a backflow preventer that is installed on the back of the water heater, creating a loop in the plumbing system from the cold side to the hot side. Since most RV water heaters have a capacity of 6 to 12 gallons, filling the tank with antifreeze would be expensive. Also, filling the water heater — not to mention the freshwater tank — with antifreeze leaves a residue that can be smelled and tasted for some time afterward.
The water-pump kit installs inline at the inlet side of the pump, and consists of a valve with a hose to draw from gallon bottles of antifreeze. This makes it possible to switch the valve so the pump either draws from the water tank or the antifreeze hose, ensuring that the pump is protected without putting excess antifreeze in the tank and eliminating residual odor and taste.
For winterizing the plumbing, you will need:
• An air compressor set to 40 psi, with a male garden-hose/Schrader valve adapter to connect to the city-water inlet.
• At least 3 gallons of RV/marine antifreeze. Do not use automotive antifreeze! Note that RV antifreeze comes in two levels of protection, minus-50 degrees Fahrenheit and minus-100 F.
• A drain wrench or socket wrench with an extension to remove the water-heater drain plug or anode rod.
• A screw gun with a square-tip bit or a square-tip screwdriver to access the back of the water heater if it is behind a panel.
The first step in winterizing an RV’s plumbing is to make sure the water source is disconnected and the demand pump is off, and to release any pressure in the system by opening a faucet, then closing it. After opening the pressure/temperature-relief valve on the front, bypass the water heater and drain it, then drain the freshwater tank. Leave the water heater’s drain plug out for the winter and leave the freshwater tank’s drain open. If there is a little water left in the bottom of each of these, that’s OK. The concern is with burst protection, not freeze protection.
Next, screw on the Schrader valve to the city-water inlet and connect a compressed air hose to it, again, with no more than 40 psi of air pressure. While you can technically winterize without blowing out the system, I prefer doing this first. An alternative would be to also pump antifreeze through the city-water inlet to make sure that section of piping is protected, or to insert a small tool into the city-water inlet valve to allow antifreeze to backflow out of the inlet, expunging any water that might be trapped.
Once the air is connected, start your rounds. Go to each faucet in the system and open it until air comes out. Don’t forget the toilet, exterior showers, low-point drains and water-using appliances like washers, icemakers and so on.
Next, disconnect the air and recap the city-water inlet. Go to the water pump and switch the winterizing kit to the antifreeze pickup tube, open a gallon of antifreeze and insert the tube to the bottom. Turn on the pump and repeat the rounds, and leave each outlet open until you see pink at each one. If you don’t have a winterizing kit, a flexible clear hose and 1⁄2-inch female PEX fitting will work, screwed onto the inlet side of the pump.
Then turn to any special appliances you have, including the icemaker, washer or dishwasher. Once that is done, shut the pump off and pour at least 1 pint of RV antifreeze down each sink and tub/shower trap. You may have to open a new bottle of antifreeze during this process.
The last step is to dump any remaining water in the holding tanks. As long as they are completely drained, it is not necessary to put antifreeze in these tanks. The tanks should have been rinsed thoroughly at the end of your last camping trip.
To make sure your RV is ready to go the next time you want to take it out, there are some steps to take before putting it in storage.
Nothing attracts pests like food, so start by removing all edible items. Clear out the refrigerator and cabinets, and any crumbs or spills on the floor, counters and cabinet shelves. Remember, the base cabinets sit just on top of the flooring, so anything spilled on the floor can run into the cabinets, which is where mice prefer to play. Be sure to clean the appliances, paying special attention to the range top and around the burners, if the top opens. Leave the refrigerator open using the storage-lock position or the little storage locks that were included with it, depending on the make or model. Refrigerator-door props can also be purchased at Camping World, Walmart and other retailers.
Remove items that could be used for pest nesting or secure them in totes that are difficult for pests to get into. These include sheets, pillows, blankets, towels and clothing. It’s usually harder for pests to get into wall cabinets, so if you have to store these items, this may be the best place.
Thoroughly clean inside the RV, and vacuum the carpets, if you have them. Check in and around seats to make sure there’s no food left around them. Pest deterrents can be put in the RV if you think you’re likely to have a problem or want to be extra-cautious.
Clean the entire exterior, including the roof. It is imperative to check the sealants on the roof, which should be done three to four times a year, and reseal as necessary. Also do a visual check around the rest of the hardware and seals on the sides of the trailer for damage, and repair as needed.
Storage compartments should also be cleaned. If you have a barbecue grill, take it out for the winter. Mice love the smell of a grill, just like we do, and they’ll make a mess if they get into a barbecue. Check underneath the RV, if you can, for any large holes or openings, and reseal them. Spray-foam insulation from your local home center works well for this.
Batteries are best removed and stored in a cool (but not freezing) location, unless you plan to keep them connected to a charger. Temperatures need to dip down to a frigid minus-76 F for fully charged batteries to freeze.
Covering the RV is strongly recommended for long-term storage. Environmental exposure is very hard on any RV, and spending a few hundred bucks to save the exterior is a good investment. Using tarps is not recommended, as the waterproof material traps moisture and the coarse texture can cause wear. Commercially available RV covers do a better job, and those with Tyvek tops or adequate ventilation openings allow moisture to escape, which prevents mold and mildew from forming underneath.
Tires should be cleaned and covered while in storage, properly inflated and parked on a surface other than the ground, such as wood or plastic leveling blocks.
It is not uncommon for owners to shutter their RVs during winter out of habit, thinking there’s no practical option for traveling in cold weather when temperatures and road conditions can change at a moment’s notice. But with proper planning, winter RVing can be a great adventure, even when the snow is flying.
Some RVs have plumbing that is built to withstand the rigors of frigid weather, and there are those that can be modified to protect the water system and be comfortable inside. Many new RVs are even marketed as four-season ready, which means the factory took additional steps such as improving insulation, installing dual-pane windows and routing heated air to certain areas. Other considerations include a good-size battery bank for off-the-grid adventures and legal traction devices for icy roads.
When you return and put the RV back into storage, be sure to rewinterize it following the above steps. The process becomes easier after doing it a number of times, and you can rest assured that you won’t have repair bills as a result of freezing or improper storage. Best of all, your RV will be ready to go for another travel season.
All Antifreeze Is Not Created Equal
Most automotive varieties of antifreeze are made from ethylene glycol, which is toxic to people, animals and the environment, and should never be used in a potable water system or in the holding tanks of an RV. RV/marine antifreeze is made from propylene glycol and is considered safe. In fact, propylene glycol is even used as a food additive.
It’s important to know that RV antifreeze will freeze, and in fact, the minus-50-rated version will freeze at 10 degrees F. The difference is that RV antifreeze will not expand the way frozen water does, so it typically provides burst protection rather than freeze protection. It will expand at about minus-50 F. If temperatures where the RV will be stored will drop below that, the more potent minus-100-rated RV antifreeze should be used. Camco offers a concentrated antifreeze that comes in a partially filledjug and is mixed with water prior to use.
Winterizing Special Appliances
Many late-model RVs are equipped with icemakers, clothes washers, dishwashers and instantaneous water heaters that require special handling when winterizing. The most common of these is the icemaker. In the 1970s and ’80s, many higher-end RVs came with built-in U-line standalone icemakers. Today, many refrigerators installed in RVs
come with icemakers in the freezer.
Most RVs with residential-type refrigerators will require the waiting-and-running method, which means winterizing the RV, and then running the refrigerator-freezer until it makes ice and the antifreeze is passed through the system into the ice tray. If the winterizing process is started when the refrigerator has been off, it can take 24 hours or longer to complete this cycle with the RV plugged in and the refrigerator running.
This same process will work with an RV-style refrigerator; just remember that the RV still needs 120-volt AC power for the icemaker to operate. In the case of RV-style appliances, it is possible to apply 120-volt AC power to the icemaker valve to make it open out of sequence to winterize it, but this requires making a special cord set and is not recommended for those who aren’t familiar with the appliance and electricity.
In all cases, be sure to refer to the owner’s manual for each appliance or check with the component or appliance manufacturers for more specific instructions on winterizing.
To prevent cold-weather damage, Camco supplies a wide range of products including the Winterizing Hand Pump, the permanently installed Quick Turn By-Pass Kit and the permanent Pump Converter Winterizing Kit. The all-in-one RV Winter Readiness Kit (right) contains a bucket and a winterizing guide, along with antifreeze concentrate, a blowout plug, a hand pump, a mini dehumidifier, an odor eliminator and a fridge-door prop.
Chris Dougherty is technical editor of Trailer Life and MotorHome. Chris is an RVDA/RVIA certified technician and lifelong RVer, including 10 years as a full-timer. He and his wife make their home in Massachusetts and hit the road with their travel trailer every chance they get.