Odors in the RV Water System

I cannot tell you how many articles I wrote, and videos I produced about “how to sanitize the RV water system” but it’s quite a lot. I always explain if you notice an odor in the water system it needs to be sanitized. When I was thinking about this topic I realized I what I didn’t explain is the source of the odor in the water system. So, here it is, “what is causing an odor in the RV water system?”

The first thing you need to do is determine if the smell is coming from the hot water or both the hot and cold water systems. This is easy to do. Turn on a hot water faucet and smell the water coming out, then turn it off. Do the same for the cold water side. This will help steer you to the cause of the odor. If you smelled the odor in both the hot and cold water, the issue is likely to be the fresh water system itself. The odor is typically attributed to bacteria in the fresh water system. To eliminate the odor, the fresh water system needs to be flushed and sanitized. I mentioned a moment ago I have several articles and videos on this topic, but I will include it here so you don’t need to search for it

How to Sanitize the RV Water System

I recommend you sanitize the RV water system when you take the RV out of storage, and any time you notice an odor. Start the process by draining all the old water out of the system, and then close all of the drains. Do not drain the water heater when it is hot or under pressure. Relieve the pressure by opening a faucet. Next, take a quarter cup of regular house-hold bleach for every fifteen gallons of water that your fresh water tank holds. For example, if your fresh water holding tank capacity is 45 gallons, you would use 3/4 cup of regular house-hold bleach. Mix the bleach, with water, into a one-gallon container and use a funnel to pour it into the fresh water holding tank. 

Caution: If you have an on-demand water heater with a copper heat exchanger, the water heater must be by-passed. Do not run chlorinated water through the water heater. 

Now, fill the fresh water tank completely full of potable water. Turn the water pump on, open all the hot and cold faucets (one at a time) and run the water until you smell the bleach at each faucet. Close the faucets and let it sit for twelve hours. Drain the entire water system and re-fill the fresh water tank with potable water. Open all of the faucets and run the water until you no longer smell any bleach. It may be necessary to repeat this process again to eliminate all signs of bleach from the water system.

Now we can get back to other causes of odors in the RV water system. Sometimes when you use the water heater you might smell a rotten egg smell coming from the hot water side. This is especially true if it is a suburban water heater with an anode.

If you smell an odor similar to rotten eggs, only coming from the hot water system it can be caused by a high level of sulfur or bacteria in the water reacting with the anode rod. When you camp at different locations with different water sources you will eventually encounter water supplies with sufficient amounts of sulfur to produce an odor. It is not harmful, but unpleasant to smell. The solution to this odor problem is the same as above, you need to sanitize it. Prior to sanitizing, turn off any water supply going to the RV, relieve pressure by opening a water faucet, and let the water in the tank cool down. Then remove the anode rod and drain the water heater tank and reinstall the anode rod. Now follow the procedure for sanitizing the water system, above.

RV 101 Tip: Another solution is to add a water filtration system that removes chlorine and prevents sulfur water. If the odor problem continues, flush the system again as described earlier.

aluminum anode rod

A by-product of the anode rod reacting to sulfur in the water is hydrogen sulfide which also smells like rotten eggs. Suburban explains, to slow this reaction down, you may want to use an anode rod made of aluminum instead of the standard magnesium anode rod. They continue by adding, it has been suggested that removal of the anode rod and replacing it with a plug will eliminate the smell. This is not recommended as this will significantly reduce the life of the water heater tank.    

 When the water heater tank is filled with water, current flows from the anode rod to the tank through a process called electrolysis. This process makes the anode rod corrode rather than the tank. After the anode material is depleted, the electrolysis process will start to eat away on the tank, so you need to replace the anode rod when it is 75 percent depleted to prevent damage to the tank.

Watch our Suburban Water Heater Video Series

By following these simple steps, you can properly maintain your RV water heater which can extend the life of the water heater. To learn more about using and maintaining your RV, visit RV Online Training

Happy Camping,
Mark Polk
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