What to Do When Your RV Heat Goes Out

Apr 9, 2021 | Maintenance & Mods

What to Do When Your RV Heat Goes Out

In this installment of our RV Mishaps series, we learn from Where Wild Ones Roam what to do when your rig's heat goes out in subzero temperatures.

By Kris and Andy Murphy

Photo: Kris & Andy Murphy

Welcome to RV Mishaps, a content series written by RVers about problems they’ve encountered on the road, how they solved them, and lessons learned. Have a mishap story of your own that you’d like to tell? Send us an email at editorial@togorv.com

In 2019, we decided to upgrade from a Class C to a new fifth wheel, the Keystone Fuzion, so we could extend our travels over the winter months in colder climates, and through the higher elevations of mountain passes. Being from Texas, we dreamed of snow and taking part in fun winter activities. Our rig came with Keystone’s Blizzard Package, and with a hefty GMC 3500 dually truck, we had faith that we could tow into the mountains with ease.

Pickup truck and RV parked in snowy conditions
Photos: Kris & Andy Murphy

About seven months into our brand-new rig purchase, it was the week of Thanksgiving in Colorado Springs, and it had just snowed about 18 inches. While the snow wasn’t causing any issues, we started to notice that the furnace fan would kick on for about 20 to 30 seconds, then turn off, but the actual burner would never kick on. No fan means no burner, which means no heat.

Related Cold Weather Camping Gear: What to Pack For a Winter RV Adventure

With our particular RV, the furnace does a lot more than just provide heat to the interior space. It also runs heat along the underbelly to keep our water lines from freezing. We knew finding and scheduling repair work would be tricky, especially over a holiday. But we were preparing for a long, cross-country haul from Colorado to Maryland, and we needed to find a solution as soon as possible. Within 36 hours we had to decide whether to find a service technician over the holiday weekend, start the journey, and wait for repairs in our next location, or figure out a temporary fix. 

As full-time RVers, we know that you always need to plan around the weather, and the expected low that night was 9 degrees Fahrenheit. So we (two adults, two kids, and two animals) put the electric fireplace on high, grabbed our extra space heater, and piled into the main bedroom with every blanket we could find. 

If you’re using an electric space heater in your RV, make sure to not overload your electrical system. Don’t run them on the same circuit or use any power strips or extension cords.

After numerous calls to local techs the following day, we found someone, but they couldn’t get to us until after we were supposed to leave. We ultimately decided to delay our trip eastbound for a few days. Thankfully, we were able to park our RV next to a local family member’s house and sleep in a properly heated space. 

RV repair man working in storage bay of RV
RV tech visit.

When it was time for our repair appointment, the tech was able to determine, without even turning the furnace on, that the issue was a bad sail switch. He informed us that they get dirty with hair, which can cause them to malfunction. However, on a new, first-winter rig, it was a red flag that we should have paid more attention to.

The tech put more “pitch” to the sail switch to see if that helped catch the airflow better when the fan was on. He reinstalled the switch and put the furnace back in place, then on the first shot, the furnace fired up. Slightly irritated that we didn’t even need a new part, we took away that we needed to be more self-sufficient with our onboard mechanics. 

We thought our furnace issue was resolved, but quickly found ourselves in a 3 to 4 week cycle that involved removing the furnace, removing the sail switch, and then reinstalling the switch to get the furnace to work. We tried to get a new switch, but it was on backorder and unavailable for months. 

RV mechanical elements
The reinstalled furnace.

At the end of the following summer, we drove through Elkhart, Illinois—the homeland of most RVs. There, we stopped at a repair shop and were able to buy a new sail switch. 

While the new sail switch resolved the first problem we had, we discovered a new problem when we spent the next winter in Breckenridge, Colorado. Given the freezing temperatures, we were running our furnace constantly. This time, we would hear the furnace kick on, and the burner fire up, but instantly shut off. Sometimes, when we moved from location to location, the cycle would run for about 20 minutes since the propane was being pushed through the lines, especially when the propane was turned off for various state travel laws. However, the cycle would continue for hours if we didn’t turn it off. 

It was our second night in Breckenridge; the temperature was expected to be around 10 degrees, and we had no working heat. This time, we looked to Facebook RV groups and internet search results, relying on any sound advice we could find. We came to the conclusion that our flame sensor was either clogged or dirty. The purpose of this sensor is to tell the furnace that the flame has lit and it’s safe to continue burning and pulling propane. So we pulled everything out of the storage bay and took the furnace out. After about 45 minutes of removing screws and trying to find the flame sensor, we found it, and then removed and sanded the tarnish off. After about 15 minutes of reassembly, we fired up the furnace and with the first shot, it worked.

After spending two winters with an unreliable heat source, we’ve since made an improvement to the fuel line that feeds the propane to the furnace by replacing the fragile copper tubing with a flexible exterior LP hose that allows the tube to be bent and moved around. Now, we don’t worry about the line breaking and causing a propane leak. The furnace is now working as expected, and we’re able to continue to camp and travel in cold temperatures throughout the winter. 

Copper pipe connecting RV furnace
Furnace LP input.
Closeup details of RV storage bay with furnace opened
The furnace removed.

Lessons Learned

  1. Keep critical spare parts on hand. We like to talk to people with similar rig models, and if we hear of issues with parts, we gauge our system. In some cases, we order an extra part to have on hand for when failure strikes on the road. This can rapidly improve repair times to hours instead of days or weeks, and if you can’t fix it, there is typically someone close by who can help, if not repair it for you. 
  2. Understand the basics in your RV. After renovating an RV and performing repairs through the years, we’ve learned how things work and are less afraid of trying to fix our own problems. While it is cheaper, the main reason we like to do this is to understand how our rig works and how it can be fixed if we’re stuck somewhere remote and unable to find a technician. This gives us the confidence to fix it ourselves, or at least know how to assess problems and understand our repair options. The more we learn, the more we’ve realized that most problems aren’t as complicated to fix as you might think. 
  3. Sometimes, you have to be creative. Instead of focusing on the stress and the problem, think about items you have on board to help ease the problems at hand (for example, extra blankets and space heaters). Then, learn from the mistakes to reduce the effects should the same problem arise again.

Disclaimer: Togo RV is part of a joint venture, partially owned by Thor Industries, Inc., of which Keystone RV Company is a subsidiary.

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Kris and Andy Murphy

Kris and Andy from Where Wild Ones Roam have been on the road since 2018 and are traveling the country in their Keystone Fuzion. High in the mountains and deep in a forest is where we they feel at home the most. They are true nomads.