How to Winterize Your RV

The ultimate guide to protecting your vehicle from cracks, creaks, critters, and more.

Introduction

Before you begin

Flurries? No worries.

You heed the call of the road. That’s why you bought an RV, and it’s why you crave new terrain. But old Jack Frost is on his way—bringing an end to your exploration for now. So follow our simple but necessary steps to protect your RV from the nastiest chills and fiercest flurries Jack can muster. Not to mention pesky varmints like mice.

Come springtime, you don’t want any surprises.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure

Before we jump into how to winterize your motorhome, travel trailer, pop-up camper, or fifth wheel, here’s a list of everything you might need. You can find these items at most RV parts stores, hardware stores, or online retailers.

  • Air compressor
  • Awning cleaner
  • Bug screens
  • Caulk
  • Caulk gun
  • Dehumidifier (optional)
  • Holding tank flush wand
  • Jack stands
  • Mothballs
  • Mousetraps (2–3)
  • Non-toxic RV/marine antifreeze (3 gallons)
  • RV storage cover (breathable)
  • Screwdriver
  • Silicone spray
  • Steel wool
  • Wash and wax cleaner
  • Water heater bypass kit
  • Water pump converter kit
  • Waterproof sealant
  • Wrench

Your plumbing system

A burst pipe breaks the bank

The best place to start is protecting your RV plumbing system from freezing temperatures. Frozen water in lines or tanks can crack or break pipes, tubing, and fittings. This leads to expensive repairs and ample amounts of stress.

You can protect your pipes in one of two ways:

  • Fill the lines with antifreeze so they don’t freeze, or
  • Blow the water lines out with compressed air.

We’ll look at the antifreeze method first. Here’s what you do:

Antifreeze is plumb important

One of the keys to your endeavor will be protecting your plumbing system. Here’s what a system typically looks like:

Remove and bypass any inline water filters.

If your inline filter is at a faucet, locate the bypass hose you can install when the filter is out.

Drain your fresh water holding tank.

Drain and flush your black and gray holding tanks at a dump station approved for RVs.

Drain the water heater.

Caution: Never drain the water heater when it’s hot or under pressure.

With the water disconnected and the 12-volt pump turned “off,” turn on a hot water faucet to remove any pressure in the system. Now wait until the tank cools before removing the drain plug or anode rod. To help drain the tank faster, open the pressure relief valve at the top of the water heater.

Turn on all hot and cold faucets, then flush the toilet.

This will get the remaining water out of the plumbing lines. Also turn on the outside shower, if you’ve got one.

Find and open the low point drain lines.

There’s a plug for both the hot and cold water lines. A water pump can help you drain out the rest of the system, but turn this pump off as soon as it’s done to prevent damage. Now recap all drains and close all faucets.

Flushing the system

Bypass your water heater.

Otherwise, you’ll waste six to ten gallons of antifreeze as the tank fills before the antifreeze flows through the water lines. Most RVs are equipped with a water heater bypass kit. If yours isn’t, you can install one or have it installed by a local RV service facility.

Install a water pump converter kit.

This will get RV antifreeze flowing through your water system. Alternatively, you can disconnect the inlet line coming from the fresh water holding tank and connect a section of that tubing into your jug of pink RV antifreeze.

Turn on the 12-volt water pump to pressurize the plumbing system.

Starting with the faucet closest to the pump, slowly open each valve until you see the pink antifreeze appear. Repeat this process on all faucets, working your way out from the water pump. Don’t forget the outside shower, if you have one.

Flush the toilet until you see the antifreeze.

Pour a cupful of antifreeze down each drain.
Then pour some antifreeze in the toilet and flush it into the holding tank to keep any remaining holding tank water from freezing. Finally, turn off the electric heating element, if your water heater has one, and close all the faucets.

See now, that wasn’t so hard, was it? Consult your RV owner’s manual for specific instructions on winterizing your washing machines and icemaker.

Blow-out victory

If you do not want to fill your plumbing system with antifreeze, your other option is blow out your system with compressed air. You’ll need a portable air compressor and a special “blow out adapter” that you can buy at most RV parts suppliers, as well as a gallon of antifreeze. Here’s what you do:

Disconnect your vehicle from your outside water source.

Turn off all power and shut off your propane.

Bypass your water heater.

Install a bypass kit, if necessary.

Check your owner’s manual for specific instructions on winterizing your refrigerator, dishwasher, ice maker, and washing machine.

Open all the faucets and flush the toilet.

Don’t forget your tub and shower. Then open your drain valves and let the water empty. Can’t find the valves? Check your owner’s manual.

Connect the blow out adapter to the municipal water inlet.

Make sure you connect the inlet, and not the fresh water tank.

Adjust the air compressor to a maximum pressure of 30 psi to avoid pipe damage.

Connect the air compressor hose to the blow out adapter.

Turn on the compressor and let it run. Then go from fixture to fixture to let the air out, turning on each faucet, shower, and toilet for about 15 seconds. Finish with the low point drains.

Turn off the compressor and disconnect the blow out adapter.

Clean and flush your gray and black water tanks, and drain the fresh water tank before closing the drain valves.

Pour one quart of RV antifreeze into the gray and black tanks, sink, and shower drains. Add a pint of antifreeze to the toilet bowl.

Empty the water heater tank by opening the drain plug. Then flush out any sediment with a rinsing wand.

Leave the drain plug open until you de-winterize.

How to empty and flush your tanks

You’re probably aware that you’ve got two waste tanks on board: a gray one that collects water that goes down the drain of your sinks and shower, and a black one that collects waste from your toilet.

Find an approved place to dump these tanks. After reading your manufacturer’s specs, hook the waste hose to your RV, and secure the other end to the dump station.

Always empty your black water tank first. If you’re curious why, it’s so the “cleaner” water in the gray tank can flush out any waste left in the hose from the black tank. When it’s emptied, close the valve, and then open the valve to empty the gray tank.

Both emptied? Now you’re going to eliminate potential clogs by flushing the tanks to take care of any waste and tissue build-up. Many RVs are equipped with a black tank flush valve; if that’s you, just hook a hose to the rinse valve and run water into the tank.

If your RV doesn’t have a built-in flushing system, you can clean the black water tank with a flushing wand. There are also products, like Flush King, to help clean both tanks.

Okay, now you can declare victory in what could have been an awfully crappy experience.

RV Interior

No creature could enter. Not even a mouse.

Mice would love to find a cozy corner in your RV to spend a few months and, well, multiply. Birds want to nest. Even squirrels might squeeze in. So check all your vehicle’s seals and seams and plug up those nooks and crannies with steel wool. Don’t forget your exhaust pipe.

Next, remove food, clothes, and valuables. If you insist on storing clothes in your RV over the winter, you can bust out the mothballs. But why tempt moths with your t-shirts?

Stop odors from taking hold indoors

Now check the floor for soft spots (a telltale sign of water damage). Step down hard around all the edges of your kitchen where the floor touches the cabinets. If you do find a soft spot, show it to your dealership or a professional immediately. Don’t start ripping up vinyl! Replacing or fixing an RV floor is a major undertaking.

Before you call it a season, leave your refrigerator and cabinet doors open to prevent mold from growing—not to mention unpleasant odors. If you’re concerned about moisture, you can place a small dehumidifier in the main area of your RV.

Finally, go ahead and set a few mouse traps just in case. Better snap than sorry.

Now let’s move to the exterior of your vehicle.

RV Exterior

Sprayed. Sealed. Delivered.

Begin the exterior work by giving your vehicle a good wash and wax. Once it’s dry, spray your RV with silicone spray to waterproof it and take care of any leaks. Silicone spray works on plastic, wood, and metal surfaces.

Next, check the roof of your RV for any cracks, cuts, or holes where water might leak through and seal them with sealant. Then, if your roof looks like it’s aging, coat it with liquid rubber. (It is recommended that sealants be inspected yearly.) While you’re on the roof, now is a good time to inspect vent caps, stink pipe vent covers, and air conditioner shrouds for damage or bird and wasp nests.

How to earn the seal of approval

Now inspect all the body seams of your RV, as well as the seals around your doors and windows. Check around air conditioners, TVs, vents, and other openings for any soft spots or discoloration. Open your overhead cabinets to check the top corner where the wall and ceiling meet. Look at your water heater and furnace for any signs of water damage. Also, mark your calendar for another inspection in the fall. Leaks just met their match!

  • If you see cracks, call your RV dealer to see what sealant they recommend. Then get to work.
  • If you see actual water damage, take it to the RV dealer for a professional repair.

If your vehicle has an awning, use some RV awning cleaner to clean and moisturize it while removing any mildew. Don’t use dish detergent as that can dry it out.

Everything look good? Now spray your doorway with a natural pest repellent. Then close the vents to your furnace and water heater and install bug screens over them. Otherwise, spring could bring new meaning to “being bugged”.

Winter Storage

Stash it under steel

Once you’re done with your vehicle’s interior and exterior, it’s time to think about storage. First off, keep in mind that open-air storage can be unkind to your RV’s exterior. The best storage space is an enclosed steel garage where you can regulate the temperature, according to Popular Mechanics. If you don’t have an enclosed garage space, your next best option is a covered steel structure that will protect your vehicle from the elements—but not freezing temps.

Once you’ve selected a storage space, here are some more boxes to tick:

  • Check your radiator hoses and clamps by looking for wear or soft spots. Replace them as needed.
  • Check your heater hoses and clamps. Replace them as required.
  • Remove the propane tanks from your RV. Top them off, then shut them off and store them in a separate safe location.
  • Check the air filter. That way, you’ll have clean air when road trip time returns.
  • Check all your lights, including your turn signals, headlights, and bright lights. Now is a good time to replace any burnt-out bulbs.

Healthy battery. Happy camper.

When you’re done with all your inside inspections, make sure you’ve turned off the circuit breakers for electricity, heat, and air conditioning. Disconnect your battery and store it in a warm, dry place. You want your battery healthy so you don’t have to buy a new one when adventure beckons.

If you’re going to store your vehicle outside, cover it with an RV storage cover that’s made from

a breathable material to keep mold and mildew from growing underneath it. Make sure that it covers any roof vents or windows.

Take a load off. And a walk through.

One of your final steps is to take some weight off your tires. First off, take a look at your tires and make sure it’s not time to replace them. You’ll want to look at tread depth and casing quality and check the sidewalls for any weathering. If your tires have less than 6/32” tread depth, you may need to replace them to maintain safe traction and handling performance, according to Goodyear.

Tires in tip-top shape? Great. Now inflate them to the correct pressure to avoid any flat spots. Then park with your emergency brake and use wheel chocks to keep pressure off your tires and your vehicle stable and in place.

It’s not a bad idea to walk through your RV every few weeks in the off-season. Check the mouse traps and give things a once-over to make sure nothing is amiss.

 

For Motor Coaches

Mind Your Motor

You folks with a motor need to take some extra steps. (Consult your owner’s manual for anything specific to your model.) Make sure you take care of any recommended maintenance based on your mileage and length of ownership.

You’ll want to check for any fluid leaks; if you find one, get it repaired at your nearest RV service department. Then top off your engine oil, transmission, steering, brake, and windshield fluids to prevent moisture build-up in the off-season. Heck, top off the gas, too.

You also need to:

  • Test your roof air conditioner and clean or replace the filter.
  • Check your refrigerator and all other appliances to make sure they’re working properly.
  • Test the charge, water level, cables, and connections of your auxiliary battery.
  • Check your accessories and 12-volt interior lights.
  • Make sure your generator works properly under load. Check the filters and service it per manufacturer recommendations.
  • Check your fire extinguishers, smoke alarm, and your carbon monoxide and propane gas leak detectors.

Whew! Now you’re all set when you turn the key come April.

Conclusion

Nature Calls

When the weather warms up, you’ll be ready to see what’s around that next bend sooner if you’ve properly winterized your vehicle. When that time comes, be sure to check out our How to Dewinterize Your RV guide.

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