How to Replace RV Water Heater Element (Atwood or Suburban)

No matter where you go and where you live, some mechanical device will have a part that doesn’t last. When it happens to your Atwood or Suburban water heater, you could be out of hot water until you get the right part. That is never any fun.

Different companies have different designs and usually, with the Atwood water heater, you need to remove the whole heater just to get to the heating element. The element is placed at the back of a 6-gallon water heater and tough to get the whole unit out.

To learn more about replacing the heating element in an Atwood or Suburban water heater, just continue to read our article. It has the information you want to know about so you can DIY and save a little money.

How do I Know if My RV Water Heater Element is Bad?

A few signs that you may be having trouble with your water heater element is if you turn on the hot water faucet but the water does not stay hot for very long. Or the water remains lukewarm throughout your shower, or even better, you get no hot water at all.

But these are just signs you may have a bade element. There would be other sources for these problems and it won’t be the fault of the element. To verify that it is your element going bad, you need to place the probes of the multimeter on the device and check the ohms. If you do not get any reading, then the part is bad.

The bad news is, you have to take the whole water heater out to verify this possibility. If it isn’t bad, you have to put the whole unit back in again.

How To Test An RV Water Heater Element


The first step is to check the continuity of the thermostat first. You want to eliminate that part as a source for the problem. If that tests well, then you check the continuity of the element. Use your multimeter to do this and place the probes on the terminals to get a reading.

You may have to check the 20-amp fuse in the distribution center as well. This will give you a clear idea that the element is bad. A clamp on amp meter is the best tool to check the black wire coming out of that location.

Through all of this testing make sure to have water in your water heater’s tank or you could ruin the element if it is not the source of your troubles. When you see that the element is bad, you will need to replace it.

RV Electric Water Heater Element Location

On the Atwood model, the element is at the rear of the water tank. But it is not that easy to get to. Once you remove the water heater, you will see a black box. You have to turn the power off to remove that box. Underneath it is the water heater’s element.

The only good aspect of this design is that Atwood’s elements are the screw in model. That makes it easy to remove and replace. For the suburban, the element is behind the gas mixing tube on the lower part of the heater.

There may be a plastic cap with 3 screws to remove before you get to it. when you go to remove the elements, avoid buying the RV store tool and use a 1/2 inch drive and 1 1/2 inch 6 point socket to get the element loosened or tightened.

RV Water Heater element Socket Size


There is supposed to be an RV tool that is specially designed to handle the loosening and tightening of the elements. However, we have seen nothing but bad reviews for this tool. It is not supposed to have a very tight fit and keeps slipping off the head of the element.

The proper tool to use would be a 1/2 inch drive socket set with a 1 1/2 inch socket. It is said this is the best tool to use to get a tight fit. The socket wrench will provide better torque for you to loosen the element.

But before you use it, spray some penetrating oil or WD 40 on the threads. That will loosen them up and make it easier to remove the element. Then when you put the new one in place, spread some anti-seize compound on the threads before tightening them up.

RV Water Heater Element Wrench

You can find this tool at Amazon and it is made by different brands including Camco. The price is reasonable and if the reviews can be believed, it may be a good tool to have around. Out of almost 450 purchasers, 60% said it was a great tool and gave it 5 stars.

However, Amazon is the only place we have seen good reports about this wrench. Most owners have had a bad experience and one reason they do not like it is that it does not work at the angle needed to remove the element.

Another reason many people did not like it is because it is made from plastic and not metal. The price is reasonable and affordable but you could do better by buying a socket at a lower price. This is not the best tool to have around as it may not work on some models of RVs and trailers.

How to Replace an RV Water Heater Element


The first step will be to turn off the power to the water heater, etc., and then turn off all the water. After that, you need to release the water pressure and there is a little valve that you pull up and some water will come out of the valve.

Once that is done, you need to remove the two screws holding the cap in place over the element. These instructions are for a Suburban water heater as there is a gas line in the way of the element.

After removing the cap, you need to loosen that gas line and move it out of the way. With that out of the way, you can now remove the two wires that are attached to the heating element.

Next, use your RV tool wrench or a socket and socket wrench to loosen the element. Once the seal is broken, you should be able to unscrew it by hand. Drain the tank at this time as well.

Move the gasket from the old to the new element and screw the new one into the old one’s place. Then reverse your steps and get everything connected and tightened up again.

Adding an Electric Element to RV Water Heater

This is simple handyman work as this is another easy RV repair that only takes minimal tool skills to get done. As long as you put the wires on the right terminals, you should be fine.

Both Suburban and Atwood are screw in designs so that makes it very easy to replace. The trouble with the Atwood water heater is its location. The element is placed at the rear of the tank and the company states that you should let a trained technician do this work.

The reason they say this is because you have to remove the water heater to gain access to the element. Then you have to remove the wires and the black box to get to the element underneath. It is a little more work than the Suburban model but it is not complicated to do.

Replacing Atwood RV Water Heater Element Replacement


The difficulty in this procedure is as we have already stated. The location of the element is at the back of the water heater and is not as accessible as the Suburban model. It will take knowledge of how the water heater connects to your RV to remove this feature and get to the element.

Once you get the water heater out, you still have to remove wires, possibly move a gas line, and then you have to remove the black box. This is just time-consuming but you should remember where everything goes to make sure you connect everything up right.

This is why Atwood tells its customers that a skilled technician should be handling this task. It is just a lot of work and you need to know where everything goes when it is time to put the heater back into place.

Replacing Dometic RV Water Heater Element

There may not be much of a design difference between a Dometic water heater and an Atwood model. The reason for saying that is that Dometic owns and makes Atwood water heaters.

The instructions we received were the same for this brand as it is for the Atwood brand. You will need a skilled technician to handle the task because the water heater element is at the back of the Dometic tank just like it is for the Atwood models.

If you want and like to do the work, you are free to do so if the water heater is not still under warranty. The key is to take your time and make sure you remember where to connect all the parts you unconnected when removing the tank.

It is said that a special socket is needed to handle the removal of the element but the technician making that comment is referring to the element RV removal tool. A 6 point socket will work just as well.

Replacing Suburban RV Water Heater Element


The good thing about this brand is that the element is upfront and easy to access. You do not have to remove the water tank at all when you do this task. You just move the gas line, remove the cap and wires and unscrew the element. It is that simple.

If you do not want to buy the brand-name element, you can save a little money and purchase an off-brand model that is compatible with the water heater tank in your RV. You may need to ask a clerk to help you find one of these options as they are not all the same and do not work with all elements made by those brands.

Check with the many RV parts stores and Amazon to see what is available and if they truly are cheaper than the branded models.

RV Water Heater Element Stuck

This can happen and if you have not replaced your element in the past few years, you should expect to come across this situation. This is a common occurrence that is not really that hard to rectify.

All you will need to do is spray some WD 40 or penetrating oil onto the threads as best as you can. Let the element sit for a few hours or overnight before attempting to loosen it.

There may be other similar options you can try but these are the two best ways to get those threads unstuck. When you go to loosen the element be careful. Apply steady pressure and not a hard jerk on the wrench.

Even though you are replacing the part, you do not want to damage it and leave some pieces inside the water tank. A little patience and a little pressure should do the trick.

Some Final Words

If it wasn’t for the location of the element for your water heater, this repair would be so simple a 6-year-old could do the work. However, because other parts are in the way and the water heater is heavy, an adult needs to take care of the problem.

The repair won’t take long to get done as the elements simply screw in and out. The difficult part is maneuvering the water heater in and out of its location when it is an Atwood brand.

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