For many full-time and part-time RVers, there is often the question of what to do during the cold winter months. Is it better to heat your RV with an electric or a propane heat source? What about some combination of both?
If you plan on doing some cold-weather camping, it’s crucial to have a game plan, so you’re not figuring it out when it’s 10 degrees outside.
The best way to heat your RV is by using both electric and propane heat sources. Electric heaters are generally the most cost-effective and work great in the fall and spring. For colder winter camping, use electric heaters to assist the RV’s primary heat source, typically a propane furnace.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the pros and cons of both electric and propane heat, and the best times to use each one. We’ll also examine the best kinds of electric space-heaters, as well as the best way to be prepared for winter in a camper. If you have any questions about heating an RV, then you came to the right place!
Electric heat for RV’s often comes in the form of space heaters, or fireplaces in newer makes and models. Let’s take a look at some of the reasons that people opt to use electric heat in their RVs.
- Electric heat is cheaper (often free!)
Most people don’t realize that electricity is often offered for free at most campgrounds. When this is the case, electric heat is ideal because, hey, it’s hard to beat free heat! Electricity at no cost isn’t a universal trait for campgrounds, so verify with wherever you’re staying. Additionally, the odds of free electricity go down for stays a week or longer, but there’s still a good chance that you might get it.
- Electric heat seems safer
As someone who used to work with gas lines for a living, I’ve found that many people are apprehensive about using gas sources for heat. If you are worried about having propane in your RV, then electricity is a much safer option.
- Electric heaters can be quieter
A gas furnace in a small area can be very noisy when it turns on in the middle of the night. Electric space heaters are often much quieter than their propane counterparts.
- Electric space heaters are portable
As long as you have an outlet nearby, you can put your electric heater anywhere. Electric heaters also don’t need to be vented to the outside as propane heat does, which means it can be in the middle of a room or wherever you might need it the most.
- Many newer RVs come with some form of electric heat preinstalled
While it’s still standard for most RVs to come installed with a propane furnace, changes are being made to bring electric heat into the picture. Some newer models have started using electric heat pump systems, while others often have an electric fireplace. The fireplace is mostly for show but provides adequate heat in certain situations. An electric fireplace may be all you need to be comfortable for cool spring or fall mornings and evenings.
- Electricity doesn’t run out like propane does!
As long as your electric heater is plugged in and you have power, you’ll never be without heat when you need it. On the other hand, propane heat requires the use of propane tanks, which will often have to be refilled to sustain your heat use. The colder it gets outside, the more propane you’ll use and the costlier your gas bill will be. Plus there’s the risk of running out of propane in the middle of a cold night!
While some newer RVs have a main heating system that operates with an electric heat pump, the vast majority of campers will have a propane furnace as the primary heat source. Below are some other benefits or “pros” to using propane to heat your RV.
- Nearly all RVs come with a propane heater
This is the number one reason that many people never add an electric heat source. If you already have a propane furnace and don’t mind paying the gas bill, purchasing an electric heater may be overkill.
- It keeps your water pipes and underbody from freezing*
A propane furnace operates the same way that a standard residential heating system works. There are a series of heat ducts and pipes that run through the underbody of your RV and force heat through registers on the floor of your camper, which is also where the water lines run. When you use the propane furnace in your RV, it will also heat underneath the flooring and can help heat the water lines to prevent freezing. That’s not the case with above-floor electric space heaters.
*Note: this only works if the underbelly of your camper is insulated for cold-weather camping. If not, the heat will likely escape to easily and the pipes could still freeze.
- How expensive is propane in your area?
Depending on where you live, propane might not be overly expensive. The average cost to refill a 20 lb. propane tank, which is the size of most RV tanks, is $20 to $30. If your only heat source is a propane furnace, you will most likely burn through a 20 lb. tank in a week or less. This means that you could easily spend $100 to $200 per month refilling your propane tanks.
- Propane heat burns hotter than electric heat.
Propane gives off a hotter and more intense heat than electric heaters do. This means that electric space-heaters might not give off enough heat to keep you and your family warm in extremely cold temperatures. Many people also prefer the heat from propane as it tends to feel “less dry” than electric heat.
Things to Consider:
The decision to heat your RV with primarily electric or propane heat sources should be based on several different considerations. Here are a few questions to ask yourself that will help you choose the right option.
If you own an RV or are preparing to purchase one, you likely have an idea of what type of camping you will be doing. If you plan to camp in cold weather and extreme conditions, having a heat source capable of handling these conditions is crucial.
If you plan to do summer camping or light spring and fall camping, then an electric heater will be sufficient for your needs. For any form of long-term RVing, having both an electric and a propane heat source is a good idea. Different types of weather will require different heat sources.
You may also find yourself at a campground one month with free electricity and at a new location with expensive electricity the next. If using propane is cheaper than electric, then going with propane could save you a buck or two.
Whether or not electricity is included at your campground is completely dependent on where you’re staying. Different campgrounds in the same city or town even might have different rules about electricity. You might be paying for electricity at one place, and a mile down the road, a campground is offering it for free.
By calling or visiting the website of the campground you’ll be staying at, you can quickly find out if they offer free electricity or not. Campgrounds don’t try to hide whether or not they charge electrical fees and will readily let you know about their rules regarding this.
Boondock camping is a form of camping where you aren’t at a formal campground. For this type of camping, you will not usually have access to any form of electricity unless you have a generator. If you don’t have a generator, then propane heat will be your only option. For this reason, having a readily usable propane furnace is crucial for boondockers.
Regardless of what type of heating system you decide to use, having a backup source ready and handy is a great idea. You can’t be too prepared when it comes to staying warm, and having both a propane and electrical source of heat will never backfire on you.
You should make your ultimate choice of heating source based on your personal situation. If you have electric heaters and the campground provides electricity included with your site fees, then using propane seems a bit frivolous.
However, if propane is cheap in your area, or you aren’t getting free electricity (many long-term sites don’t include this) then propane might be a better choice. And when its REALLY COLD out, electric heaters typically can’t keep up – so propane is your best option.
But why choose? Having both is a great idea! If electricity is free (well, included), then having your electric heaters do most of the work is really cost-efficient. On cool nights electric heat should be sufficient enough to heat your RV. On really cold winter nights, let your electric heaters run to carry the bulk of the weight, and then set your propane furnace to a setting where it will only kick in for a few minutes when the electric heat can’t keep up. By doing this, you will conserve propane without running the risk of freezing in the middle of the night if the electric heaters can’t keep up.
Well, there you have it. Hopefully, I’ve covered everything you want (and probably don’t want) to know about electrical heat versus propane heat. What you decide to use to heat your RV is entirely dependent upon your needs and situation. By taking everything from above into account, you should be able to make the right decision about the best way to keep you and your loved ones warm.
Jalin Coblentz is a full-time RVer, along with his wife (Kate) and their goldendoodle (Harper). They became full-time RVers while Kate was in physical therapy school and doing clinical rotations. Home is their 2019 Palomino Puma, which is currently touring the southeast US. Jalin writes and works for a grocery delivery company full-time, and prior to that he worked as an HVAC technician. Jalin and his wife enjoy hiking, running, and basically anything outdoors activity.