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Winterizing an RV: Treat it right this winter

Posted by: Erik Bjornstad

The great thing about the internet is that there's so much useful information out there, on almost any topic you want.  And there are blogs like this one for talking about the topics that interest you.  If you have an RV, like to camp or travel, and live anywhere other than Bell's home state of Florida, you might find that it's getting time to think about putting your RV up for the winter.

Winter at a glance, in black and white Recent tire tracks through snow on ramp to garageBut don't just shut it down and put a cover on it.  You spent a lot of money on your RV and there are things you need to do to make sure it stays happy and healthy during its cold winter storage period, so it will be ready when you take it out for use in the spring.

What Happens if you don't get your rV ready for Winter?

Winterizing is not a step you want to skip if you’re storing your RV in cold weather. Not following these steps could cause big problems.  Just ask RV owners in cold weather places like Montana.  They'll tell you that taking shortcuts here can leave you with big-time problems like broken pipes and water damage, even damage from condensation.  If you leave liquid in the drain lines then those can crack in the cold.  And there are things like damage to the water pump, toilet and sink valves, and drain traps. Winterization really is a case where you can pay me now or pay me later.

Ok, I'm Convinced. What do i have to do?

Web sites like koa.com offer great tips on winterizing an RV.  Here are the best of the recommendations. Keep in mind that these are general recommendations and your specific RV manufacturer may have other recommendations (or even different one) that they recommend you follow. Make sure you know what those are and adhere to those above anything else.

Make sure you have what you need

Doing something like this right starts with the right preparation, so make sure you have a few things that you will need:

  • Water heater by-pass kit (if your unit doesn't already have one installed)
  • A wand (for cleaning out holding tanks)
  • Basic hand tools (you'll need them to remove and install stuff)
  • Water pump converter kit (or at the very least, tubing to connect to the inlet side of the water pump)
  • 2-3 gallons of non-toxic RV antifreeze

Alright, let's get started. Here are some things you will have to do, to do this right.

Drain and back flush the water – you don’t want water freezing in any of the lines over the winter.  Professionals like Camping World recommend that you back flush the water system to ensure you get all of it out.  The process for doing all of this is a multi-step one, and if you’ve never done it before, it can seem like a lot of steps. Luckily, there are plenty of online resources and even YouTube videos that will guide you through the process, step by step. The general steps would include:

  • Remove inline water filters (if you have them) and bypass before starting the process
  • Drain both the fresh water tank and the black and gray holding tank(s). Clean out the black tank with a wand (if you don’t have a built-in tank flushing system on your RV) or add a product that will clean them. Lubricate the termination valves.
  • Drain the water heater, remove the drain plug and open the pressure relief valve. Do make sure that the water heater isn’t hot or pressurized before you start this.   
  • Open the hot and cold water faucets, as well as the toilet valve and outside shower.
  • Find your low point drain lines and open them (there are two lines, one for hot and one for cold).  You can use a water pump to help force water out, as long as you stop as soon as the system is finished draining.
  • Recap the drains and close the faucets back up

Add RV-specific antifreeze in, then make sure it comes out all of the faucets – never put automobile antifreeze in your RV’s water system.  The antifreeze made specifically for RV systems is non-toxic and something you can pick up at any RV-supply store.  Most RVs will need 2-3 gallons.

Again, check your manufacturer recommendations on the exact process they want you to use, but the conventional process for doing this will typically include the following steps:

  • Bypass the water heater so that it will not fill up with antifreeze later.
  • Disconnect the inlet side of the water pump and connect a clear piece of tubing.  Put the other end of the tubing a gallon of antifreeze (remember, RV-antifreeze).
  • Turn the water pump on to let it pump antifreeze throughout the system.  Turn faucets on (slowly) until antifreeze appears.  When you run out of antifreeze, replace with a fresh container.
  • Flush the toilet until antifreeze appears.
  • Once all the faucets have been done in this manner, go outside to the city water inlet.  Remove the screen and push in the valve until antifreeze appears. Replace the screen.
  • Take additional antifreeze and pour a cup down each drain and 2 cups in the toilet.  Flush the toilet antifreeze into the holding tank.
  • Turn off the water heater electrical element.
  • Make sure all faucets are closed.

Practice moisture control on the interior – it’s a good idea to put something like a bag of Damp-Rid inside the RV to absorb moisture from the air and keep mildew problems at bay.

Spray for bugs – insects can get in the weirdest places, especially spiders.  If you use propane appliances, you may know that spiders are attracted to the scent of propane. Technically, they’re attracted to the scent of the mercaptans used to odorize propane so you know it’s there.  So cap off the ends of any propane lines leading to the outside. And cover the stove burners in plastic to keep the bugs out.

Get rid of animal temptations - according to many RV insurance companies, animal infestations rank solidly in the top 5 most common RV insurance claims.  Rodents love to get into RVs, build nests, chew through wires.  And if you don't have Comprehensive insurance coverage for your RV, you'll be out of luck and out of pocket with the expense.  

The best thing you can do to prevent this is make sure you get all the leftover food out of your RV. This would seem to be common sense, but common sense isn't so common these days.  The only food you should leave in your RV is food in cans or sealed bottles.

The same goes for standing water. Pay special attention to your ice maker, if you have one. Many RV owners forget that ice makers can harbor enough standing water to attract insects.

Another thing people forget is that they should turn off their propane.  Many insects are attracted to the smell of the mercaptran odorant that's added to the propane gas.  And it doesn't take much to do it - insects can detect and swarm to tiny amounts of propane that you couldn't hope to detect with your nose.

Check the bottom of your RV and fill in any holes with something like steel wool or expandable spray foam. Consider using moth balls and dryer sheets to deter flying insects.   Some people swear by using some kind of mint oil on the outside of their unit, because rodents supposedly don't like mint.  You should also consider installing insect screens on the outside over the openings for the refrigerator, furnace and hot water heater.  These can be especially effective at keeping insects and rodents out.

Speaking of those, resist the temptation to use poison to get rid of rodents and small animals.  Not because we have anything against that, but you're more likely for a rodent to get the poison and crawl up into some place inside your RV where it will die and stink up your RV for the winter. Nobody wants that.

Check out some of other posts on Winterizing:

Editor's Note: This post was originally published in November 2014 and has been updated for accuracy.Ultimate Winter Weather Guide

This post was published on September 28, 2018 and was updated on April 15, 2021.

Topics: Car Care