Sometimes it feels like RV maintenance tasks never end, especially when it comes to RV water heater updates, like changing out the anode rod.
Many recreational vehicle hot water tanks have an anode rod, which helps prevent corrosion of the main tank. Changing it out is critical to keep your water heater from failing.
To help you learn all about RV water heater anode rod replacement and why it’s essential to inspect it on schedule, you only need to read this guide, where I explain all the details.
Regular RV maintenance is the best way to protect the investment you made in your motorhome, travel trailer, or fifth wheel, and the anode rod in your camper’s water heater is no exception!
What Is an RV Water Heater Anode Rod and Why Do You Need to Replace It?
An anode rod is a replaceable component that screws into your RV water heater.
The rod consists of a material that will attract minerals that otherwise would settle onto the main tank walls, causing corrosion and eventual failure of the heating element or metal walls.
The rod is meant to be sacrificial, which means it will erode first so you can save the interior of your RV water heater tank from damage and prolong its life.
Whenever you put metal and water together, a reaction called galvanic corrosion occurs. The anode rod is made of a lower, more negatively-charged material versus the steel water heater tank, so it pulls the minerals from the water and allows them to eat away at the rod instead of the tank walls.
The anode rod material is most often magnesium, or aluminum and zinc, which will continue to erode until nothing is left.
If you don’t install a new anode rod before the old ones disintegrate, your tank is in danger of quickly rusting out. Once the tank rusts out, it will leak water onto your RV floors, causing expensive and time-consuming repairs and the need to buy a new water heater, which can easily ruin your camping season.
Even if the tank doesn’t rust away, the mineral deposits can attach to the heating element and cause it to fail. Once the heating element quits working, you’ll need to replace the RV water heater entirely, which can cost up to $1,000.
It’s imperative to inspect your recreational vehicle water heater anode rod every few months and replace it when necessary. It would be best if you flush out the tank at the same time to remove sediments that can also rust the tank interior.
There’s no way to gauge how long you can go between anode rod changes until you inspect the rod every so often. How often you go camping and the quality of the water source plays a significant role in how fast or slow your RV anode rod corrodes.
You may find you can go a year or more without it needing replacement, especially if you have an RV water softener. However, you may also full-time RV in a region with very hard water and need to replace the anode every 3-6 months.
Now that you understand the importance of the anode rod in your camper’s water heater, you can follow the steps below to inspect and change out the anode rod as part of your normal RV maintenance schedule.
Do note that not all recreational vehicle water heaters have an anode rod. For example, many Atwood models don’t use one and instead make the tank from an anti-corrosive metal.
Check your RV water heater owner’s manual if you’re unsure your tank uses an anode rod.
Preparing to Check or Change Your RV Water Heater Anode Rod
Before you begin changing out your anode rod, here are the supplies that you’ll need for the task:
- 1-1/16″ socket wrench should fit most direct anode rods or a socket that fits the drain plug if that is the anode location
- Replacement anode rod for your specific model of RV water heater, which you can find online or at a local RV supply store
- Teflon pipe thread tape
Not all water heaters in RVs are the same. Suburban, Atwood, and Mor Flo are familiar brands, and each has several models and sizes in its line.
If you don’t have your original water heater owner’s manual, look online for your specific make and model to locate a schematic of your unit, so you know where to look for the anode rod.
Some water tanks have the anode rod attached to the drain plug, making it much easier to access and change the component since you can reach it from the exterior of your RV.
My Suburban water heater has the anode rod screwed into the front of the unit, which means fighting my way into a small under-couch cabinet to swap out the anode rod.
If you converted your RV propane and electric water heater to electric-only operation by using a Hott Rod or similar product, you would find the heating element attaches to the drain plug fitting.
This heating element doubles as the anode rod in some brands of conversion kits, but not all, which means you need to keep a closer eye on your water heater condition to ensure reliable operation.
Steps to Change an RV Water Heater Anode Rod
Follow the seven steps below to inspect and, if necessary, update the anode rod in your RV hot water tank.
Step 1. Turn off the Propane, Electricity, and Water to the RV Water Heater
Before you work on replacing the anode rod in your RV hot water tank, you’ll want to unplug your camper from shore power or turn off the circuit breaker to the unit at the RV breaker box.
If your water heater also runs on propane, shut the valve on the propane tank that is powering the unit.
The tank’s heating element cannot work without power, ensuring it won’t burn up when you drain the water.
Nest, turn off the main water supply to your RV at the spigot.
Step 2. Empty the RV Water Heater
After turning off the power and water to your RV, you can now drain out the water from the water heater tank so you can remove the anode rod for inspection.
Be aware that if you drain the tank immediately after turning off the RV power, the water in the tank will be very hot.
You can choose to allow the water in the tank to sit for several hours to cool down or take precautions when draining the tank, like wearing thick rubber gloves and standing to the side to avoid getting splashed.
You will find the drain plug by opening the exterior RV water heater access panel.
Look along the bottom of the tank for a large hexagonal fitting. The drain plug is often partially hidden behind the propane piping, but there is room to remove it with your socket wrench.
Unscrew the drain plug from the tank. Once you get it out, the water will drain out slowly.
To hasten the flow, reach up to the top of the tank and flip open the lever on the pressure relief valve. Then, go inside the RV and open the hot water faucet on any sink.
As you let air into the plumbing lines by opening the faucet and relief valve, the water should empty from the tank in a matter of minutes.
How to Flush and Clean an RV Water Heater (Video)
Step 3. Remove the RV Water Heater Anode Rod
If your anode rod connects to the drain plug, you’re lucky since you can now inspect it.
If the anode rod is on the outside of the tank but not part of the drain plug, you can now unscrew it from its port.
For RVs with six or 10-gallon propane water heaters with the anode rod in the front bottom of the tank, you’ll need to move to the interior of your camper to remove the anode.
Use your socket set to unscrew the anode from the tank. If you haven’t checked on the anode rod in a long time (or you bought a used RV), the rod may be stuck from excessive corrosion that reaches the threads.
You may need a breaker bar on your wrench handle to gain enough force to free up the anode rod from the threads.
A seized anode rod is relatively common on neglected RV water heaters. If the rod is really stuck, you should apply penetrating oil to the fitting every few hours for a day and try again.
You can also heat the anode rod end using a propane torch and allow it to cool down, as the bit of expansion and contraction of the metal can break the rod free from the threads.
If you can’t loosen the anode rod without damaging your water heater, you should leave it alone. Unfortunately, the anode rod is most likely entirely eroded at this stage, and the water heater in your RV is probably nearing the end of its life.
With a working anode rod, you’ll have no way to keep the galvanic corrosion from eating away at the main tank.
Flushing an RV water heater will help control some corrosion but do expect to invest in a new tank if you cannot replace an old anode rod or can find an RV anode rod to retrofit your current drain plug.
How to Remove the RV Water Heater Anode Rod (Video)
Step 4. Inspect the RV Water Heater Anode Rod
Assuming all went well and you successfully removed the anode rod from your RV hot water tank, you can now give it a visual inspection.
The metal on the anode should show signs of corrosion, from minor pitting all the way to full disintegration with only the slim inner rod left. Watch this short video on RV anode rod corrosion for a better understanding of what to expect.
If you only see a slight reduction in the rod, you can reuse it and check its status in another few months. It’s beneficial to have a new anode rod on hand to compare to the one you remove to determine how much the rod has corroded.
WARNING: If you see only a slight amount of corrosion after the rod has been inside the water heater for a year or more (with regular use of the water heater during camping trips), chances are the tank walls are taking the brunt of the galvanic corrosion effect. Expect to see lots of rust coming out during your RV water heater flush and a shorter lifespan of the tank.
If the anode rod shows lots of corrosion or it has lost more than 1/4 of its size, it’s time to replace the rod. I prefer to change the rod no matter how much corrosion I see since the replacements are inexpensive versus a new RV hot water tank.
RV Anode Rod Corrosion (Video)
Step 5. Replace the RV Water Heater Anode Rod
To install a new RV anode rod, you first want to wrap the threads with Teflon tape.
Wrap the tape over the threads clockwise several times to ensure a good seal against leaks. The Teflon tape will also help lubricate the threads enough for easier removal during future inspections.
Slide the new anode rod into the hole in the tank and use your socket wrench to tighten it firmly.
Hot Water Heater Anode Rod RV Replacement (Video)
Step 6. Refill the RV Water Heater and Return Power
Once you install the anode rod in the hot water tank, you can turn the water back on to the RV.
Open the pressure relief valve lever while the hot water tank refills. Once you see water flowing from the valve, close the lever.
After the water heater fills, you can now return power and propane to the unit, which wraps up updating an RV water heater anode rod.
Step 7. Check for Water Leak at Anode Rod Fitting
Any time you open or replace the drain plug or anode rod in your recreational vehicle water heater, always check on the fittings after a few hours to ensure the connections are not leaking.
If you do see a small leak, tighten the anode rod or drain plug until it stops.
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Once you master the art of RV water heater maintenance, tasks like changing the anode rod or flushing the tank will give you peace of mind the camper will stay in top condition.
I hope the steps above guide you through the anode rod replacement process and teach you about RV water heater components so you can keep track of how long you can go between updates.
A new RV water heater is expensive, so keeping it running smoothly with regular anode rod replacement will help avoid downtime for repairs and keep your camping adventures on track!
"Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore."
-- Andre Gide