RV Propane

Propane runs your hot water heater, the stove, the furnace in winter, and most importantly, the refrigerator when not connected to an electrical power source. If you run out then chances are you’ll miss it. As mentioned in an earlier chapter, you can purchase propane in bulk at hardware stores and gas stations. Truck stops usually have it a few pennies cheaper, particularly the ones who cater to RV owners, like Pilot and Flying J. Stop by the fuel desk and get one of their loyalty cards. The card will earn you points redeemable for discounts on your purchases. I wouldn’t go out of my way to use that brand strictly for the points, but if you’re going there anyway because their prices are competitive then the discounts are just a bonus.

Propane is not very expensive but it is easy to find yourself using more than you really need. All that will do is cost money without good reason. The main culprit in excessive propane use is the furnace. It may be a nice luxury but it’ll drain your propane tank overnight. The other downside to running the furnace is that the amount power it sucks out of your battery is horrendous. A far more economical option is to pick up a catalytic heater from one of the big box stores. You’ll usually find them in the camping or outdoor section. Catalytic heaters sold for camping use are designed to be used in the closed environment of a tent and do not give off carbon monoxide, making them perfect for RV use.

Also running on propane is the refrigerator. Some RV fridges offer the option of three-way power, which means mains power when you connect the RV to an outlet, propane when boondocking or traveling, and straight battery power at other times. If you have this configuration then I would recommend avoiding the last option because it will drain your system quickly. If you park and go shopping for a few hours, it’s very likely that you’ll come back to a flat battery.

By far the most common setup for RV fridges is two-way, straight up propane and shore power. It’s a very simple setup and a steady source of propane use. The refrigerator in an RV is different to the one you have at home. There is no compressor and it works on the principle of absorption. What that means is that it sucks out hot air and when no hot air is present then all remains behind will be cold air.

There are some things that you can do to improve refrigerator efficiency and in turn minimize your propane use.  An excellent way to maximize performance is to buy one of the small fans sold at camping stores especially for RV refrigerators. They take D size batteries and will run for at least a month. The fan will move the cold air around and drop your cool down time by as much as half.

Don’t cram in as much in as you possibly can. Air must be able to pass around the food in order to adequately cool. If you go to the store, try to put the cold things away as quickly as possible because items that are already cold help the absorption process and also, warm items make your fridge have to work twice as hard. Lastly, try to park reasonably level whenever you can. Not only will this contribute to your overall creature comfort by not having to walk on an incline just to go to the bathroom, but also it will be a lot easier on your fridge.

You don’t have to go to the extremes as some people do, running around the outside with spirit levels and aiming for absolute precision but over the longer term, an RV fridge does need to be level to operate properly. This doesn’t apply when the vehicle is moving because the liquids in the pipes behind the fridge are sloshing around and that’s a good thing. When parked though, if the RV isn’t level then the unit has to work just that little bit harder to cool.
Speaking of travelling, a common school of thought is that, for safety reasons, you should turn off RV fridges while driving. This comes down to your personal comfort level. In the event of an accident, the chances of something happening to the propane lines going into the fridge are remote. The only way to prevent any leakage in the event of a line rupturing is to turn off the tap at the tank. The reality in the RV community is that most people drive with the fridge running on propane and never have any issues. There is a pilot light and I would recommend turning off the fridge for a few minutes any time that the law requires it, as in when having the propane tank filled or whenever common sense dictates that an open flame is a bad idea.

The other source of propane use is the hot water heater. Typically, they are small tanks, usually around six gallons. That may not seem much but like so many other things in an RV; the design is to be more compact and more efficient than the equivalent appliance sold for home use. RV water heaters run very hot, far hotter than domestic units do; the thermostats are usually set at around one hundred and forty degrees. Be careful running hot water straight out of the tap, especially with children, as water at these temperatures can be scalding. The design theory is that the hot water will be broken down with cold water thereby making the little hot water tank appear to hold a lot more than it actually does.

RV water heaters have good insulation and because of the high initial temperature, keep their water hot for a very long time, even if not running. They work very simply. When the thermostat sees that the water is cooling down, it fires up the propane burner that in turn brings it back up to temperature, before repeating the procedure endlessly throughout the day.

Get into the habit of flipping the switch when you’re done and you’ll dramatically cut back on your propane use. When you get up in the morning, turn on the hot water heater and by the time you’ve had your coffee, the water will be boiling hot. Turn it back off before you hit the shower so it’s not trying to constantly heat the water as you use it. After you’ve done with the bathroom and the breakfast dishes, flick it back on for a few minutes as you finish your morning routine then shut it down again. It will stay hot and will still be very warm by the end of the day, all without using much in the way of propane. At worst, you may need to turn it on for a few minutes to do some dishes on a cold night.