When The Plumbing Freezes

when-the-plumbing-freezesIt’s the bane of cold weather RVers everywhere, frozen plumbing. Winterized, a RV can sit outside during the harshest winters and come out next spring unscathed as long as proper care is taken to prepare it, they are really quite tough. When you’re living in it though, the water system is definitely the weak point. While not having running water for a day or two can be a problem, especially if the campground you’re staying at doesn’t have facilities, the worst case scenario everyone fears when their lines freeze up is burst pipes which can cause a lot of damage and be very costly to fix.

Yesterday night parts of my water line froze up for the second time this season as Coffeyville experiences the coldest weather seen in three years.

Last Friday when the low got down to 8 it was bathroom sink that stopped, it took me over 24 hours to thaw out. When I woke up yesterday afternoon I could only get a drip out of the cold water line in the kitchen sink โ€“ I had the stronger heater sitting in the bathroom to try to keep that area clear. When I checked at 4 am before going to bed both were working, but the weather app on my phone said it was down to 7 outside so I wasn’t real surprised to wake up to a problem again.

So what do you do if you should happen to experience an issue with frozen plumbing? I’m not expert, but here’s what I did.

Put localized heat on the area where the freeze is. If you don’t have a chart in your owner’s manual showing you where the plumbing runs in your RV, locate one online. That should give you a general idea of where the problem is.

I learned by looking at mine that as far as less expensive three season trailers are concerned, I’m actually at a bit of an advantage over others staying here at Big Chief who’ve had more generalized line freezing and more difficulties thawing out. See my Casita for the most part is not double walled, the water lines run along the floor inside my lower cabinets and are easily visible from the inside, so getting heat to them is as easy as keeping the cabinet doors open. There’s one five foot or so section where the line for the bathroom sink runs behind between the outer wall and the bathroom wall, and that’s where I had my one freeze up the first night โ€“ where the heat did not reach as well. I learned from that first night and now I keep one heater in the bathroom pointed at that wall when I go to work, and I haven’t had problems with it since.

Also, ask other owners with the same or similar to RV as you if they have any tricks. For my first freeze up I got on the Casita forums and got some advice to point my other heater into the hole where the water lines enter between the wall to try to get heat in from that direction.

Part of what makes frozen lines so frustrating is that once it’s happened, there’s usually no quick fix to undo it. It’s a lot of waiting and hoping once you’ve got as much heat on it as you can get. The waiting is the worse, wondering if it’ll come unstuck, worrying about what will happen if it doesn’t.

If it makes you feel any better, the plastic used to make RV pluming improved considerably about 20 years ago or so and it’s really quite strong and resists a lot of pressure. The newer pipe is white, and if I remember correctly from conversations I’ve had, the older pipe that use to be used is gray (correct me if I’m wrong) so it’s pretty easy to tell which you have – if your RV is newer than the early 90’s, you should have white pipes. Since this newer plastic is less likely to break, the joints where pipes come together are where problems are most likely to develop, that’s where to keep an eye out for leaks. I’ve talked to several people working here at Amazon who’ve had problems with their indoor plumbing freezing up this season, and yet no one has reported leaks or bursts so that’s encouraging.

Of course, even though it seems modern RV plumbing can withstand being frozen at least for a while, it’s best to avoid the chance of something happening by not let things get to that point to begin with. I’ve talked about skirting the RV, letting the water drip from a faucet, ways to keep the outdoor water hose from freezing, using materials over windows and vents to keep heat pumped inside from escaping so easily, and of course, driving south until it gets above freezing (can I mention the high today in Gainesville, FL is 72? Less than a month and I’ll be there!). Preventative measures are key, and I hope none of you ever get to find out exactly what temperature causes your plumbing to start freezing.

Image courtesy of Anthony Quintano

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  1. Lara on August 26, 2016 at 11:54 pm

    Hi, I see you covered a bunch here too (I got here from the newest post on RVing in various weather situations) and figured I’d add that you could get the foam tube insulation – I’m blanking on the actual name, however, I got some and easily slipped it over the water pipes inside under my sink. I did this because I’d read it can reduce noise and vibration from the water pump. It acts to insulate as well. It kind of depends on your set up and how much you can access.
    I’ve winterized and lived some in my RV in very cold temps and just decided to travel with the weather because I prefer it warmer. That said, earlier this year in central Florida we had a couple of freeze watches! I was thankful to find propane to fill my tank before the night so I knew I could run my furnace as much as I needed then as I boondock almost exclusively so using my electric heater was out then. These days, going to a campground for unexpected extreme weather would likely be on my radar more. ๐Ÿ™‚
    Lara recently posted..Mackenzie Center, Portage, Merrimac, and Wisconsin Dells, WisconsinMy Profile

    • Becky on August 27, 2016 at 2:47 pm

      Yes I often use that foam pipe insulation on my hoses outside as I’m sure you saw. the big problem for me once things get in the single digits is the plumbing behind my bathroom, which I can’t get to to insulate and pointing a heater at it is less effective as it has to get through the wall.

      Cold weather RVing sure has it’s challenges but occasionally it’s worth it. Take care!

      • Lara on August 27, 2016 at 8:06 pm

        Hey, I actually didn’t see that. It looks different than what I have so was thinking it was a different type. Cool.
        I so hope to avoid any more freezing temps, especially single digits.
        I get what you mean. I have a class B camper van and can access quite a bit, thankfully. Like you said, very few RVs are really built for 4 seasons. Maybe that will change as more people fulltime. Either way, we make do! ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Hazel Owens on May 4, 2016 at 9:13 am

    Frozen pipe lines are never fun, whether you live in an RV or a normal house. I’m glad that your pipes were durable and didn’t burst. Even if you did have to wait a bit for the water to thaw, that’s not as bad as having to replace the pipes entirely. Do you know if RV pipes can be insulated like metal house water lines can? Thanks.

    • Becky on May 4, 2016 at 10:10 am

      I know that there are RV manufacturers out there that make “four season” RVs meant to withstand winter temperatures (Arctic Fox is one), I imagine they probably insulate the plumbing but you’d have to do some research.

      I think it would be a lot of effort to insulate pipes in an RV that’s already built, you’d have to tear apart walls and put things back together. Probably more effort than it’s worth but depends on your skills I suppose.

  3. Silas Knight on April 11, 2016 at 2:42 pm

    Having frozen pipes is no fun, that’s for sure. You are right, once they freeze over, there isn’t much you can do but wait. It’s good to know that the newer models of trailer have better pipes, we’ll have to look into getting a new one!

    • Becky on April 11, 2016 at 8:32 pm

      Sounds like a plan Silas. I’ve avoided the issue this last year by staying where it’s warmer, that helps a lot too. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  4. Dave on January 27, 2016 at 4:37 pm

    Super late comment, but no one seems to have mentioned the Captain Obvious solution. If you have to stay in cold weather climes..winterize your rv with non toxic anti freeze and use a simple water jug as a spigot with your fresh water “tank”. I knew a guy…who lived in his rv in up to -10 F, he’d only bring on the water he needed on board for a day or two. He’d use a 2 gallon igloo insulated water jug suspended over his sink for cooking, cleaning and drinking, at night he’d boil some water on the stove, put it in the igloo and he’d still have liquid water in the morning no matter how cold it was outside. He had a plastic basin he kept in the sink so the water didn’t go into his grey tank, and during the cold he’d just toss his grey water outside. He’d sponge bath for the winter and occasionally bum showers off friends like me. When it warmed up in the spring he resumed “life as usual”.

    • Becky on January 28, 2016 at 2:46 pm

      My first and third years at Amazon that’s pretty much what I did Dave, but most often I get questions on how to keep the water running from the tanks in the winter which is why articles from my second year when I didn’t winterize is what got put in the “Useful Links” page. (https://interstellarorchard.com/2014/12/15/photo-camping-and-dishes/ is an example from the third year when I winterized.)

      Thanks for sharing your friend’s experience, rigging a water jug above the sink would be a clever way to have “running” water in the winter!

  5. Sheryl on December 13, 2013 at 7:03 pm

    Lots of good information in the post and the comments regarding how to deal with plumbing lines, fresh water tank and dripping, rather flowing the water hose if hooked up, leaving the grey water open. No one addressed the black water tank.The problem for me was the great freeze-up on the black water tank. Fortunately our thaw came on day 9. How does everyone else deal with the black water?

    Also, thanks Becky, for sharing about your uphill slides in relation to the tank on Cas and that you cannot flow water through the grey tank. How would the high lift axle change that?

    • Becky on December 17, 2013 at 3:29 pm

      Hello Sheryl,

      Because if I sat higher off the ground I’d be ‘uphill’ from the sewer connection and could rig my hose so water would drain from my tanks without my having to help it along.

      I put anti-freeze in both my tanks to keep them from freezing up, but to be honest I just didn’t use them when it got real cold, I washed dishes in a pan and dumped it outside and used the park facilities for shower and toilet.

  6. longdog2 on December 13, 2013 at 11:26 am

    They’ve opened a huge new Amazon warehouse near San Antonio which would be a MUCH better location for RVers to work at Christmas but have never heard if they plan to do that.

    • Becky on December 17, 2013 at 3:27 pm

      Probably not longdog because they’ll be able to get enough local workers from San Antonio without bringing RVers in (which costs more for them). That’s why we work the locations we do – no large city nearby to pull workers from during the holidays.

  7. gene on December 12, 2013 at 9:37 pm

    At 8 degrees, even with the ceramic heaters (if I have followed everything), how are you able to stay warm? (or does warm mean closer to 60 than 72?) Casitas are nice, but the carpet on the walls sure don’t have a high insulation factor!

    • Becky on December 17, 2013 at 3:26 pm

      With two heaters running on Low 24/7 (the High setting for both gets dangerously hot, I wouldn’t keep them running like that for long) I can keep the average temp inside Cas 50 degrees warmer than outside, the area the heaters point directly at will be warmer than that. So at 8 degrees yes I’m closer to 60 than 72. I wear layers, have a lot of blankets, and am use to cold weather camping. When it’s 20 outside, I can keep the inside at what most would find an acceptable temperature.

  8. John Hussey on December 12, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    Florida. For nine months of the year the weather is outstanding. Well, barring a quick appearance of a hurricane or two but, thanks to global warming, we havent had many of those in a long while. Summers can be gruesome, though, July, August, September, but you get used to it. I cannot get used to the cold. But, I’m a Floridian. Come on down, it seems like most of the north is down here this year.

    • Becky on December 12, 2013 at 8:21 pm

      Less than a month John. ๐Ÿ™‚ SC gets pretty miserable in high summer too, extremely humid, I imagine Florida is similar.

      My overtime got called off at the last moment, so I had time to respond to everyone’s comments after all.

  9. Jim Morgan on December 12, 2013 at 10:41 am

    Don’t know if you do this as a rule, but what I do at night during freezing temps, (or when I’ll be gone a few hours), is to shut off the water pump, and open all the water valves in the house. Water in the lines mostly drains back into the tank due to gravity so it’s very unlikely that I’ll get a freeze up in a pipe.

    The pumps are designed to tolerate freezing, but as it gets around the 20’s, I add a 100W light bulb to the water compartment.

    Then of course I do all the regular stuff, like opening cabinets and keeping heaters pointed at some areas.

    Shutting off the water and opening all the valves in the house is probably the easiest way to avoid frozen pipes.

    Great post.
    Jim Morgan recently posted..Grand Canyonโ€ฆPart IIMy Profile

    • Becky on December 12, 2013 at 8:19 pm

      I can’t use my fresh water tank right now so that’s not how I’ve been doing things, but it’s all very solid advice Jim. In a Casita the water tank is slightly higher than the plumbing though, so there’d still be water in the lines.

  10. Arlon on December 12, 2013 at 8:43 am

    White pipe isn’t the real clue. White could be PVC or PEX (cross linked polyurethane). The newer PEX pipes are way tougher than the pvc. It will expand a good bit before it splits. PVC generally has “PVC” stamped on the outside of the pipe. If you have PEX, you’re lucky. It’s seems to be pretty good stuff. Good luck with the cold! Keep er warm.
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    • Becky on December 12, 2013 at 4:34 pm

      Thanks for the clarification Arlon, and yes PEX is what I have inside anyway, never checked my waste pipes underneath the RV. Take care and stay warm.

      Running out of time to respond to comments, I’ll get to more of them tomorrow!

  11. Dave on December 12, 2013 at 8:41 am

    My home is prone to frozen pipes, so I learned to leave water running in a sink or tub (a thin stream, not just dripping). That’s great in an RV if you have full hookups with the gray tank valve open, but not workable otherwise of course.

    Think warm thoughts ’til you can skedaddle out of there,

    • Becky on December 12, 2013 at 4:32 pm

      At least I personally have stayed pretty warm, I still have most of my cold weather gear from living in Wisconsin which helps a lot. I personally can’t leave my lines dripping/running in this site because the sewer connection is slightly uphill from my tanks, what silly planning that was. Oh well, less than 2 weeks now! Take care Dave.

  12. Paul on December 12, 2013 at 8:38 am

    Thanks for an informative piece. Merry Christmas! ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Becky on December 12, 2013 at 4:30 pm

      You’re welcome Paul, have a merry Christmas as well.

  13. Kirsty on December 12, 2013 at 5:07 am

    Campers at Amazon in Fernley, NV have not seen temperatures rise above freezing for at least 5 days, with lows of -1F. We are allowed to take this afternoon off if needed to ‘thaw out’ any problems, seeing as the daytime temperatures are finally to rise into the 40s. Everyone’s getting ready to whisk off to warmer climes as soon as peak ends! Thankfully my class C motorhome is doing ok…as have been following lots of online advice such as your blog!
    Kirsty recently posted..100 Days on the RoadMy Profile

    • Becky on December 12, 2013 at 4:29 pm

      Today finally broke our streak, we’d had 8 days since Coffeyville was last above freezing, it’s a balmy 43 outside right now. Luckily 7 was as cold as it got here, I think at -1 all of my lines would have frozen up. Glad to hear you’re staying warm in Fernley, take care!

  14. Pleinguy on December 11, 2013 at 11:31 pm

    This is an important topic, and I’m glad you’ve shared your experiences. I never hook-up to city water; always manually filling my fresh water tank, and using it. So I don’t have to worry about a frozen hose. The fresh tank and water pump are on the interior of the rig, as are the water lines. I keep a cabinet door open where the tank and pump are located; hopefully that lets heat circulate there. I also turn on the water heater when the temps will go below freezing. Then run hot water through the lines; thinking that might help the hot water lines and faucets. The weak links are the holding tanks underneath the floor. The space inside the tanks do allow for some expansion, but the valves are more likely to freeze up. If a short episode occurs it’s not a problem. But, long term freezes would need warming methods or thawing afterward. Thankfully, that hasn’t been needed yet; even though two nights ago it went down to 14 overnight.
    Pleinguy recently posted..Land of EnchantmentMy Profile

    • Becky on December 12, 2013 at 4:27 pm

      Glad to hear you’re doing okay Plein. I’m going to be getting my fresh water tank stuff looked at after Amazon (I can’t use it right now), next year I’m thinking about trying it this way since my fresh tank and pump are inside as well. It got above freezing today for the first time in over a week, thank goodness.

  15. Dave on December 11, 2013 at 7:35 pm

    Lived in a 5th wheel in Arkansas for 6 of my 22 years there, and had a few freeze-ups, but nothing bad. Lucky in that I always had water hookup (which even with a covered hose froze up a few times), and was able to keep water on all night at steady drip (which when I forgot to do caused the freezing that I had). Now we are in a Class C, the three tanks are heated, but the lines are not, and I had to insulate exposed lines running under the vehicle. So far it has worked (had 22 degrees the other night), and we don’t have sewer hookups so we can’t keep water running…and who would want to hear the pump all night?) We even faced 17 degrees up at Lake Tahoe…thank goodness we have not had any problems YET. –Dave (GoingRvWay.com)
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    • Becky on December 12, 2013 at 4:25 pm

      I don’t drip my line here because my Casita has the low rise axle still and the sewer connection rises a few inches out of the ground, so I can’t insure that the water will drain from my tanks without assistance, haha. I’m actually not using my waste tanks right now, they’ve got antifreeze in them and I’m washing dishes in a tub.

      Good luck at Lake Tahoe, I hope you never have to see how you’d do in single digits.

  16. David on December 11, 2013 at 6:38 pm

    Being a full timer freeze ups are a real concern. We are in Mission, Texas and the temps got down into the lower 30s the other night with high winds.

    Since my water softener and filter are outside I put a cardboard box over the top of them to block the wind. Happy days! No freeze ups.

    Before we went full time we had our lines freeze up one time and it was no fun. You are right in that the breaks were where the lines came together instead of the lines themselves.

    I hope you don’t have any further problems before you head south.
    David recently posted..2013-12-11 – Long time no postMy Profile

    • Becky on December 12, 2013 at 4:22 pm

      If it doesn’t get any worse than it’s been I’ll be alright, although I am hoping for above freezing temps the day I pull out since I have no way to heat things up as I’m driving. My water filter is external too and I wrapped it in heat tape and put foam around it like I did with the rest of my water hose and that’s kept it from freezing.

      Good luck down in Texas, and I hope things warm up for you too.

  17. Richard Myers on December 11, 2013 at 5:06 pm

    Hi Becky,

    Great advice!

    I also have a Casita, though it is a 16 foot. I purchased one of the Camco blowout plugs


    and use a bicycle pump to empty my lines. I do the hot, then the cold and then drain the boiler. A little antifreeze in the traps and gray/black tanks and I am good to go if the heater fails.


    • Becky on December 12, 2013 at 4:21 pm

      Good advice for a cheap way to winterize without buying a motorized pump or paying money at a RV service place. Thanks Rick!

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