If you have central air in your house, you also have central heat. The same system that keeps your house cool in the summer is the same one that keeps it warm in the winter. Generally speaking, your home is heated using propane heat, gas heat, or electric heat. You have to pick one or the other.
In an RV on the other hand, if you have the equivalent of central air, you also have propane heat and gas heat and there’s a reason for it. It’s not always the best idea to use electric heat in an RV just like sometimes using electric heat is a far more efficient option than burning a bunch of propane.
First generation RVs were all built to run on propane using a built-in furnace. Most if not all modern RVs still come with a furnace that runs on propane heat but many come with the option to use electric (central heat/air) also. What makes it all possible? RV heat pumps.
So what is an RV heat pump? If it’s not always a good idea to use electric heat, when should you use propane and when shouldn’t you? How do you know if you have the right heat pump for your RV, and where can you find the best RV heat pumps? We’ll answer all of those questions and more in this ultimate guide to RV heat pumps!
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How does a heat pump work in an RV?
You only need one clue to know when to turn on your home’s AC in the summer and that’s the day that you start sweating balls just sitting on the couch. In winter, you switch it to heat when you wake up shivering like a wet cat. It’s not quite the same in an RV. In fact, you can’t use your RV heat pump in cold weather. Anything 45 degrees and below is going to break it!
When it’s hot outside, a heat pump draws the outside air inside, rakes it over some refrigerated coils and then blows the cool air out of vents inside of the RV. Your RV is divided into two different zones. The front of the vehicle near the driver’s seat is zone 1. In the rear by the bedroom is zone 2.
Some RVs go so far as to have separate thermostats that control the different zones separately so you can conserve energy in areas that are not being used. RV heat pumps need electricity to run. They can be hooked up at campsites that provide electricity or can be powered using a propane or gasoline generator for shorter periods of time.
RV AC Heat Pump
If you are not somewhere that has electrical hookups for your RV, you are going to need propane to generate heat. For that reason, if you are a boondocker planning on boondocking in the woods a.k.a. living like a minimalist with no electricity or civilization for long periods of time, you’re going to have to use your RV’s furnace instead.
Glam campers are going to find having both options a life saver. Having both helps you run all of your niceties efficiently. Like if you want to go camping but still want to be able to get online or watch TV or cook inside if need be, you’re going to need electricity and therefore your RV will have to be equipped with heat pumps.
As you can imagine, if you spend even a week in your RV burning electricity to run everything, you’re going to run up a hefty electric bill at the end of your stay at a campground. Like all things, there are pros and cons to both using your RV’s furnace and using your heat pumps:
Pros of Using RV Furnaces
- You don’t need electric hookups to use your furnace if you want to go completely off the grid.
- The furnace is built in so you don’t have to buy a heating and cooling unit that needs to be installed or pay someone to install.
- Furnace heat helps keep the entire RV warm so your pipes won’t freeze.
- You can use your RV furnace in extreme cold (as long as you have enough propane).
- You have greater climate control throughout the RV using furnace heat.
Anytime you are traveling somewhere in an RV where the temperatures outside are going to be pretty cold, plan on stocking up on propane. Most furnaces today go up to 30,000 BTUs which is a lot higher than anything electric heat can produce in an RV. Of course, there are downsides:
Cons of Using RV Furnaces
- In cold climates, you’ll need to use propane to power everything including appliances which means bringing along an ass load of propane—and there’s always a chance you could run out!
- It’s louder inside of the RV when you’re running your furnace as opposed to your electric heat pump which can be annoying when you’re trying to sleep.
- If you run out of propane, you’re fresh out of luck—you could actually freeze to death if you’re not careful!
All that said there are definitely times when it makes much more sense to let electricity save the day. The heat pump is the piece of the puzzle that converts outdoor air into heated air or cool air. Whether you need just a bit of heat to knock the chill back or you need some extreme AC as you’re driving through the desert, you need to know the pros and cons of using your RV AC heat pumps:
Pros of Using RV AC Heat Pumps
- Although they suck in the cold, RV AC heat pumps are perfect in mild temps.
- Campsites where you can hookup your RV are everywhere – you can find one in every state in America.
- If you can’t find electricity, you can run your RV AC heat pumps using a generator (as long as you have some gas or propane for the generator).
- Some RVs come with one heat pump in the front and one in the back so that you have better control over inside temperatures.
Being able to use your RV heat pump frees up propane that can be used to power all of your other appliances. Together, it is much more efficient to use a combination of propane and electric ergo, traveling by RV in mild temps. Modern RV AC heat pumps typically range from 11,000 BTUs up to 15,000.
Cons of Using RV AC Heat Pumps
- RV AC heat pumps can eat up a lot of power, especially if you are running multiple heat pumps at once.
- Campsites charge you for the amount of electricity that you use and that bill can get pretty high the longer you stay.
- You can’t use them in cold weather without ruining them while failing to warm the RV up.
- The only way you can go boondocking in your RV using RV heat pumps is by using a generator since you won’t have access to another power source.
- Single pump RVs struggle to provide consistent heat throughout the RV.
- In really cold weather, your pipes could freeze leaving you stranded without running water.
RV Rooftop Heat Pump
You’ve probably seen RV rooftop heat pumps before. It’s the thing that looks like a square vent popping out of the roof of the RV. What you’re looking at is the RV rooftop heat pump. Not all RVs are built this way though. You have to remember, when RV trailers first came about in the 50s, AC was scarce.
Even when AC became standard, it was powered through the RVs furnace using propane heat. That’s why the furnace is still standard in RVs. Back then if you needed to cool the RV down, you couldn’t run it constantly for days at a time – you’d very quickly run out of propane.
So you would have to use the AC sparingly. With RV heat pumps, you can stay cooler longer and sacrifice comfort way less than you would if you had to solely depend on the furnace to keep your RV cool. Plus, since they are on the roof, they are out of the way giving you more room inside. And if you don’t have indoor AC, you can have an RV rooftop heat pump installed.
Adding an RV rooftop heat pump will add height to your RV which affects clearance under bridges when you’re traveling. Naturally the taller (higher profile) the heat pump is, the more powerful it is. You can find low profile rooftop heat pumps that are more fuel efficient but they may not cool as well.
Dual Use with a Heat Pump
If you don’t understand how your RV heat pump works, you could end up wasting a lot of money on fuel and electricity. For example if you are driving your RV to the Grand Canyon, you’re going to need a lot of cool air. That means you’ll need a heat pump and enough propane to fuel your gadgets and your AC. Remember, you won’t be able to plug into a power source if you’re on the move!
On the other side of the coin, if you are camping in a cold climate, you are going to destroy your heat pump if you try to use it as your primary heat source. No matter how many BTUs it can push out, it will never be enough to heat your RV. That’s why people are willing to spend a little more to have the dual use option as opposed to a furnace alone.
How do I know if my RV AC has a heat pump?
Knowing whether or not your RV AC has a heat pump is very easy. Just look at the thermostat and if it says “electric heat” then you have a heat pump. Keep in mind that just because your RV has a heat pump doesn’t mean that it cools (or heats) the same way.
Some RVs are built the same way homes are with air ducts throughout the RV so that hot and cold air is distributed evenly from front to back. Some come with heat pumps for hot air only but a kind of window AC unit for cooling, particularly small RVs.
The Best 2 RV Heat Pumps
Buying a new RV eliminates the need to add an RV heat pump. Most will already have one built into it. But if you are driving an older model RV or you simply want to upgrade to a more powerful RV heat pump, the number one maker of these types of air conditioning units is Coleman.
Coleman brand RV AC heat pumps will run you anywhere from $500 to just over a thousand bucks. There are several different models to choose from based on the type of RV you are driving and the kind of power you need.
The latest versions of Coleman RV heat pumps are some of the best on the market. We found two that we think top them all: