How does an RV propane system work?

Modern camping is one of the most enjoyable and memorable things that you can do. Camping has evolved to the point where it feels like you don’t even have to leave home to enjoy the outdoors. Most RVs now even have appliances powered by propane gas, which allows you to camp anywhere, anytime.

What Runs on Propane in an RV?

Most modern appliances can be purchased to operate on gas or electricity depending on what your needs are. Both gas and electricity are readily available at most campgrounds, so it largely comes down to preference and cost efficiency.

Here is a list of the appliances that typically get powered by propane gas in your RV:

  • Furnace
  • Water Heater
  • Refrigerator
  • Stove
  • Fireplace

Some of the above appliances can also run on electricity, so you can decide to use electric or propane (gas) depending on your situation and what is available.

In this article, we will go into more detail about each of the above appliances, specific to powering each with propane. We will also discuss anything and everything there is to know about the propane tanks on your RV and how they work.

The type of gas that’s used in RVs is propane gas, also known as liquefied petroleum or lp gas. Let’s take a more in-depth look at each of the appliances that operate on propane in an RV.


In most RVs, the furnace is the main source of heat, and it nearly always runs on propane. Some newer RVs are being made with electric heat pump systems, but this is still fairly rare. If you have a furnace in your RV, the odds are that it runs on propane gas. A gas furnace in an RV will use around 1 gallon of gas every 3 hours.

Hacker Tip: Also check out this post – Which is better for heating an RV, propane or electricity?

Water Heater

You have a ton of options when it comes to the type of water heater you have in your RV. A standard tank water heater can be anywhere from 4 gallons to 16 gallons and can be gas or electric. A gas water heater, on average, will use around 2 gallons of gas per week.

You also have the option of having a tankless water heater, which can be purchased as gas or electric as well. Tankless water heaters can be installed in any RV, but only luxury RVs will come with them standard from the factory.

Some water heaters even come with a unique dual option feature, where a water heater can be either gas or electric operated. This is extremely handy if you’re at a campground with free electricity. All you have to do is flip a switch, and your gas water heater becomes an electric one.

If you have the option of using either gas or electricity on your water heater, it’s entirely up to you as far as which one to utilize. Electric water heaters are usually quieter than gas ones, but gas water heaters can produce hotter water.


Refrigerators are also unique in that some can operate with either gas or electricity. Much like water heaters, if you have the option, it’s entirely up to you which one you want to use. An average refrigerator will use around 1.5 pounds of propane per day, which can add up quickly.


While some RVs use electric stoves, it’s very common for stoves to be gas-operated in RVs. RV stoves will usually have anywhere from 2-4 burners and use very little propane. Even if they are used daily, it could take up to 3 months to use an entire tank of propane on a stove.

How Your RV Propane System Works

Your RVs propane system may seem complicated, but it’s quite simple. Here is a step-by-step explanation of how individual appliances get the propane that they need to operate.

  1. Turn the gas on by twisting the valve of your propane tank to the open position.
  2. Gas will flow through the tank’s valve and to a regulator located directly downstream from the tank itself. A regulator is needed because propane gas is extremely high pressure and must be regulated to an appropriate level so your appliances don’t get too much gas flow.
  3. The main gas “trunk line” will run the length of your RV from the propane tank to the back of the camper.
  4. Smaller gas lines will branch off of the mainline to individual appliances. This is accomplished by periodically installing compression T’s of different sizes throughout the gas line to ensure that each appliance gets the right amount of gas.
  5. Each appliance that receives gas should have its own “shut-off valve” to make so that you can control the gas to each appliance. If you want gas running to your stove but not your microwave oven, then simply turn your oven valve to the off position rather than turning gas off to the entire RV.
  6. Upon initial installation, your RV gas line should have been pressure tested to ensure that there are no leaks. It’s a good idea, however, to periodically check and make sure that leaks haven’t occurred during your travels. Hitting a bump while driving 60 mph down the road can jar a lot of things loose, including a gas connection.

What Sizes do RV Propane Tanks Come In?

Propane tanks come in several different sizes, usually based on the size of the RV. Most campers come with one or two propane tanks that are 20 pounds, 30 pounds, or 40 pounds. Many RVers will also opt to carry small 1-pound camping-size propane tanks too for outdoor grills.

A 20-pound tank will hold 4.6 gallons of gas, a 30-pound tank will hold 7 gallons, and a 40-pound tank will hold 9.4 gallons.

How Long Does a Propane Tank Last in an RV?

The answer to this question is completely dependent on how many gas appliances you have and how often you use them. If you use all your appliances all day long and have a 30-gallon propane tank, then you will use roughly one tank per day.

If you are camping when it’s cold outside, and you have a large family that uses a lot of water, then it’s possible to go through 30 gallons of propane in a day or two. However, this would require the furnace, refrigerator, water heater, and stove to running basically all day.

On average, an RV that utilizes a gas refrigerator, furnace, and water heater will go through a 30-pound propane tank in one to two weeks. Throw in a microwave oven and a stove that gets used every day, and that timetable goes down to 5-7 days.

It’s also worthy of note that many larger RVs come with two propane tanks. This means that your gas supply will last twice as long, but it will cost twice as much to refill. Having two propane tanks is extremely handy for people who like to boondock or camp off the grid for weeks at a time.

Is using propane in an RV safe?

Properly using propane gas in your RV is perfectly safe, as long as you’re responsible with it. Having said this, propane gas is highly flammable and is more dangerous than natural gas because of how heavy it is.

When natural gas is leaking, its composition is lighter than air which means that the gas vapors will rise and float away. On the other hand, propane gas is heavier than air, which means that if it leaks, it will sink to the ground and “pool up,” so to speak.

For this reason, some people are very hesitant to use propane in an RV, my wife included. Our RV is equipped with a gas furnace, a gas stove, and a dual-option water heater. We don’t use the furnace or the stove and only use the electric option for the water heater.

Personally, I don’t have any qualms about using propane as long as the proper precautions are taken. Here are a few safety tips to keep in mind when using propane in your RV.

  • Never allow anyone except you to start up a gas appliance.
  • Always keep your propane tanks covered up and out of direct sunlight. Propane tanks are designed to withstand high heat, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
  •  ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS make sure that the gas is turned off on your stove when you’re not using it. Leaving the burners and oven on is the easiest way to have a propane disaster in your RV.
  • Make sure that your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are working and operational.
  • Keep open flames like candles and cigarettes to a minimum when using propane. Also, keep them at a safe distance.
  • Never store your extra propane tanks inside your RV near food storage areas or playing areas for your children.
  • Periodically inspect your gas lines and gas connections for leaks. Do a visual test and also use a gas leak sniffer detector.

Can I transport my RV with the gas turned on?

You can technically leave the gas on in your RV when transporting it, but this isn’t recommended unless necessary. Unless you need to leave your refrigerator on for cool storage during transportation, turning the propane off in your RV during transportation is safer.

Hacker Tip: Keep the refrigerator cold by including some ice or frozen meats in the refrigerator (and/or freezer).  The refrigerator itself is well-insulated and can keep food items cold with a little help.  Its basically the same as packing a travel cooler for the day – start with some frozen items and you should be in good shape for any drive under five or six hours.

Where can I refill my propane tank?

There are a surprisingly large amount of locations that refill propane tanks, including gas stations, campgrounds, hardware stores, farm suppliers, and even some UHaul stores. Here is a list of stores and locations that typically refill or replace propane tanks.

  • Lowes
  • Menards
  • Tractor Supply Company
  • Ace Hardware
  • True Value Hardware
  • UHaul rental stations
  • Most campgrounds
  • Gas stations, particularly travel stops (larger is better)
  • Most hardware or farm supply stores
  • Costco

How much does it cost to refill a propane tank?

Refilling a propane tank will usually cost you an average of about $25 for a 20-pound tank. Refilling your propane tank isn’t cheap, but it certainly costs less than exchanging tanks or buying a new tank. If you have the option, refilling is usually the best option unless you have an older tank and want to replace it with a newer one.

Propane prices are much like other gas prices in that they fluctuate from area to area. They may also go up and down depending on the economy and other external forces that affect inflation. If you have a tank larger than 20 pounds, then the cost of refilling increases relative to the size of the tank. In other words, you won’t save money simply by having a bigger propane tank.

Something that might be worth noting is that it’s usually cheaper to refill propane tanks at stores like Costco and Sam’s Club. The cost right now at Costco to refill a 20-pound propane tank is $10, which is half the price or even a third of the price as most other places.

Sam’s Club is $14. So if you plan on using a bunch of propane, it might be worth it to purchase a membership to one of these two stores.

Final thoughts on RV propane systems

Gas appliances on an RV are extremely handy, depending on how you like to camp. If you stay at campgrounds where electricity is readily accessible, then it’s not quite as big of a deal. If you enjoy boondocking or camping off the grid, then propane will be the only way to stay warm during the winter, keep your food cold, and get a hot shower.

Propane is safe to use as long as you take the proper precautions and handle it responsibly. Your tanks are also readily refillable as long as you know where to go. Hopefully, this article has been successful at informing you about using propane in your new camper or RV. Happy camping!

1 thought on “How does an RV propane system work?”

  1. It’s great to learn how propane gas can be used to heat your room or heat your water with ease. My friend is thinking of living off-grid for a year once the pandemic ends. Perhaps he should try looking for a delivery service that’ll give him the propane he needs.


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