How to Winterize Your RV & Travel Trailer

Winter is one of the most beautiful seasons. From the magic of the first snowfall to bonding with the family over the holidays, it’s a truly special time. Alas, winter is also a time for severe environmental hazards. 

It isn’t just us braving the cold, though. Our homes and vehicles must do so as well. Winter poses unique threats and challenges to the structures we use for homing and transportation. That’s what winterization is all about.

The winterization process protects our infrastructure’s most vulnerable parts from the dangers associated with very low temperatures. There are three major fronts for an RV or a travel trailer: interiors, exteriors, and plumbing.

Winterizing interiors and exteriors largely depends on what your vehicle looks like, its materials, and general conditions. However, plumbing is a particularly critical area that requires a very specific winterization process. In this article, I’ll walk you through that process, step by step, and provide some supporting content at the end.

Why Do You Have To Winterize Your RV or Travel Trailer?

If you’re new to owning RVs or travel trailers, you may be wondering if all this commotion is really necessary. Do you HAVE to winterize your RV? What’s the worst that could happen if you skip the process? Could it really be so bad?

Well, the short answer is, yes, absolutely. Failure to properly winterize your RV results in a broad range of issues, like leaky fittings and cracked lines. In the worst-case scenario, you could be looking at a completely totaled plumbing system.

Repairing that sort of damage can cost thousands of dollars. Not to mention putting your RV out of commission for a long time, possibly well into camping season. It’s a lose-lose situation that’s clearly best avoided.

This holds true whether we’re talking about a travel trailer or a full-fledged RV. In fact, the potential damages extend beyond the plumbing. Depending on the surface materials in your interior and exterior and the chassis’ nature, additional troubles are possible.

The alternation between cold nights and warm sunlight can cause constant freezing and thawing, which can crack some surfaces. Tires tend to deflate in winter, as they lose pressure more rapidly. If winter storms are big in your area, unsecured objects may be knocked over.

The more severe the winter climate is where you live, the more important winterization becomes. More radical temperature drops pose a bigger threat to your travel trailers and RV than milder winter seasons.

What Do You Need In Order To Winterize Your RV or Travel Trailer?

Winterizing your RV or travel trailer shouldn’t be a costly endeavor. After all, it’s something you need to do year in and year out. Nevertheless, you need to have a few things on hand to thoroughly winterize your vehicles.

Fortunately, most of the items you’ll need will be useful for years to come. The rest are still fairly inexpensive. You can find most of the tools in any regular hardware store. A few kits might be a little harder to track down unless you go directly to an RV parts shop.

Here’s the list of materials you’ll need:

  • A water heater bypass kit (available at any RV parts store and selected hardware stores. Some RVs or travel trailers may already have a water heater bypass kit installed. It may also be incorporated into some water heaters).
  • A water pump converter kit (also available either at an RV parts shop or certain hardware stores. In a pinch, you can substitute this for sufficient tubing to connect to the inlet side of your RV’s water pump).
  • A cleaning wand for clearing your holding tanks (unless your tanks have a self-cleaning mechanism. If you’re unsure, consult your owner’s manual or supporting content).
  • Basic tools for working on plumbing (your basic set of adjustable and pipe wrenches, pliers, and anything else you may need to work with tubing and piping).
  • RV antifreeze (the nontoxic kind, sold by the gallon. The exact amount you’ll need depends on how much piping you have installed. Normally, it shouldn’t be more than 2 or 3 gallons).

Winterize Your RV or Travel Trailer: Step-by-Step Instructions

Now, without further ado, let’s jump right into the action. The steps up ahead will guide you through the process of fully winterizing your RV’s plumbing system. Follow them carefully, and make sure you don’t skip any steps.

1. Identify & Bypass In-line Water Filters

In-line water filters are very common in RVs and travel trailers. They are located on your pipes right before particular fixtures that need a water supply. For example, your kitchen sink may have an in-line water filter right before the pipe reaches the faucet.

In-line water filters can be ruined by the chemicals you’ll flush through the system during the winterization process. Bust out your water filter bypass kits and follow the instructions. While you bypass your filters, use this opportunity to examine them, and see if they need replacing.

Alternatively, your unit might have a built-in bypass system for some or all of your in-line water filters. If that’s the case, consult your owner’s manual for winterization instructions.

2. Drain Both Your Holding Tanks

The next step is extremely important: you have to drain both your black and gray water tanks. Otherwise, you’re looking at a pretty nasty situation. Letting your sewage water stew inside your RV over the winter is the perfect environment for bacteria to breed uncontrollably.

Furthermore, the water can freeze while in the holding tanks, which causes an entirely different set of issues. It could ultimately ruin your tanks and the lines that feed them. So make sure you drain them down to the last drop.

Start with the black water tank, then move on to the gray water tank. When you’ve successfully dried them up, take out your cleaning wand. Scrub up your black tank thoroughly. Alternatively, you can use a special black tank cleaner or any built-in tank cleaning system in your unit.

3. Drain Your Heater & Lines

Next up, it’s time to completely drain water from your plumbing system. That means emptying both your water heater and all your water lines. This protects them from bursting under the pressure of frozen water over the winter.

First, you need to turn off your water heater and let it cool down. It’s very important that you don’t proceed if the heater is still hot or pressurized. Once it’s cool, remove the drain plug and open your pressure relief valve. You should see clean water begin to drain out of the heater.

Now, you’ll want to go to each faucet in your unit, including both hot and cold lines. Open both drain lines as well. Eventually, the system will be completely drained of water.

4. Bypass The Heater

Much like your in-line water filters, your entire water heater needs to be bypassed as well. This is when that water heater bypass kit will come in handy. The chemicals used for winterization aren’t something you want in your heater. Not to mention you’d waste a good 6-10 gallons!

To install the water heater bypass, follow the instructions that come with the kit. Keep in mind that some RV units have their own water heater bypass system already in place. If that’s your case, you need to consult your owner’s manual for specific instructions on how to winterize.

If you have issues installing a water heater bypass on your own, you can always visit an RV shop. Most will be happy to assist you with the installation.

5. Pump RV Antifreeze Into The System

In order to pump your RV’s plumbing full of antifreeze,  you’ll have to install the water pump converter kit. It’s a relatively simple process, though the staff at your RV shop can help you out if needed.

Alternatively, you can disconnect the water pump on the inlet side. Run a length of tubing between the water pump inlet and your antifreeze gallon or reservoir. At this point, check that all your faucets and drain lines are closed, or you’ll lose the fluid quickly.

Finally, turn on your water pump. This will progressively pump the RV antifreeze through all your lines until it becomes fully pressurized. Add antifreeze as needed.

6. Run The Antifreeze Through The Pipes

Properly pressurizing your RV will consume roughly two to three gallons of antifreeze. Make sure the plumbing system is completely full of fluid. To do that, you have to let the antifreeze run to every line.

Go from faucet to faucet, opening each until you see the antifreeze coming out. Turn them off and move on to the next one. Start with all the hot water faucets and lines, and then move on the cold water ones. Go from closest to farthest away from the pump. Remember the shower, too.

Go to the toilet and flush it as many times as needed for antifreeze to show. Finally, turn off the water pump.

7. Check the Inlet, Sinks, and Faucets

For the next step, you’ll have to head on outside. Locate the city water inlet, where you usually connect to your water supply. Remove the small screen that covers the inlet. You’ll see a valve. Push in on it using a screwdriver, until antifreeze shows. Put the screen back on.

You also want to take a cup of antifreeze and pour it down each of your drains. Pour another couple cups of antifreeze down the toilet and flush them to get the fluid into your holding tank. Finally, check every faucet to make sure they’re all closed.

It’s also a good idea to double-check your water heater to make sure that you turned off the heating element. 

8. Check Your Owner’s Manual for Custom Winterizing Instructions

Before you declare your winterizing finished, you should always give your owner’s manuals a thorough read. Most RVs and travel trailers have some sort of section or instructions dedicated to winterizing.

You’ll find custom processes to take care of to fully prepare your unit for exposure to the harshness of winter. If you’ve made any custom installations to your RV, make sure you check their manuals for any special winterizing instructions. Manufacturer websites can help as well.

Winterizing Your RV FAQ

The following are some of the most common questions from readers online about winterizing RVs and travel trailers.

Can You Winterize an RV Without Antifreeze?

Yes, but you’ll need access to a decent air compressor. If you have a hard time getting some antifreeze, but happen to have an air compressor handy. Simply plug your compressor to the plumbing system and make sure you blow all the water out. It’s not as safe or effective as using coolant agents, but it’ll keep the pipes from cracking.

How do you Winterize an RV Ice Maker?

If your RV or travel trailer has an ice maker, you’ll need to take a few extra steps during your winterization process. It’s pretty straightforward, though, so no need to worry.

First, turn off the water supply for the ice maker, right from the source. Next, drain the holding tanks and remove any water hook-ups. Lift the ice maker shut-off arm until it locks into position. 

Disconnect the water supply from the water solenoid to the ice maker. Avoid messing with the heater wire in the process.

Finally, let the water drain out from the supply hoses and the ice maker itself. If you have an air compressor at hand, blow some air through the hoses to clear any leftover water.

At What Temperature Should You Winterize An RV?

Are you wondering when you should start the winterization process on your RV? Well, the answer depends. As a general rule of thumb, pipes begin to freeze when your RV has been below 32 F for more than 24 hours. However, many different factors affect this estimate, such as insulation, heat tapes, enclosed underbellies, and similar measures.

Is RV Winterizing Fluid Toxic?

Not at all. That’s the main distinguishing feature between RV winterizing fluid and regular automotive antifreeze. While RV fluid is nontoxic, most automotive antifreeze fluids are very toxic. The two most common bases for RV winterizing fluid, ethanol and propylene glycol, are both nontoxic.

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