When there’s a chill in the air, it’s great to be able to crank up the heat inside your motorhome or travel trailer. Sometimes just a few degrees are all it takes to go from misery to comfort. An RV heat pump can make all the difference.

A heat pump is one of many options for heating an RV. It’s not a perfect solution in every situation, but it sure is a good thing to have on board.

What Is an RV Heat Pump?

Most modern RVs have a built-in furnace that runs on propane. They also have a rooftop air conditioning system, and some of those A/C units also include a heat pump. We actually have two heat pump air conditioners on our rig.

A heat pump uses electricity rather than propane to warm up the interior of the RV. As the name suggests, it uses a pump to move warmth from one place to another. In this case, it absorbs heat from outside the RV and pushes it inside through the ventilation system.

A heat pump is a great way to keep an RV warm, and is especially popular on larger rigs. Some RVers rely on electric space heaters, but it’s good to have options, especially since they can act as a team to increase warmth while cutting costs.

How an RV Heat Pump Works

The simple explanation is that it’s an air conditioner running in reverse.

When it’s hot outside, an A/C unit blows air across coils containing a refrigerant. It moves the cooled air through ducts and expels the heat collected by the refrigerant through a condenser coil. In the process, the AC unit also removes humidity from the inside, which adds to the sensation of cooler air.

An RV heat pump, by contrast, has a reversing valve that changes the direction of that flow of refrigerant. It takes heat from the outside air and transfers it to the RV’s interior.

Are RV Heat Pumps Efficient?

An RV heat pump sits on the roof of your RV.
RV heat pumps sit on the roof of your RV.

Modern RV AC heat pumps typically range from 11,000 to 15,000 BTUs. They are considered to be significantly more energy-efficient than conventional electric heaters.

The heat comes from the air outside, so most of the energy consumed is from running the compressor. That said, running a heat pump does require a lot of electricity (just like your A/C does), so you want to be sure you have a good shore connection.

Advantages of RV Heat Pumps

A big advantage to using an RV heat pump is that it doesn’t consume your propane. Because a heat pump uses electricity, if you’re staying at a campground and you’re plugged into shore power, you can relax knowing the electricity is included in the price of the campsite. Of course if you’re staying on a monthly rate, the cost of electricity is usually extra, so that cost savings might not apply.

Heat pumps do an excellent job of warming your rig, and you can have more than one heat pump to create different temperature zones. While a 30-amp electric connection is sufficient to run one heat pump, you may need 50-amps for two or more… OR you can install Micro-Air EasyStart 364 units into your heat pump air conditioners. The Easy Starts reduce the start-up power spike that occurs when the compressor cycles on, so they enable you to run your heat pumps (or air conditioner) on a small generator OR a smaller electrical connection… like 30-amps.

Watch our video about how we installed our Micro-Air EasyStarts… and the difference they made (works when running the unit in A/C or heat pump modes):

If you’re interested, you can save $25 on each Micro-Air EasyStart 364 using the following discount code:

Of course, you can also use your generator to power a heat pump. Though, again, the power demands of the heat pump will mean that your generator will burn through a fair amount of fuel to keep you warm. You’ll have to decide if it’s worth it.

Another plus is that a heat pump creates dry heat. It can help to reduce moisture and condensation inside your RV. This is particularly important when it’s cold out. Since you tend to close everything up, you’re trapping all of the moisture from breathing, cooking, showering, etc. inside the RV. Running the heat pump helps to reduce the relative humidity of the air, reducing/eliminating the buildup of condensation (which, left unchecked, can lead to mold ????).

Disadvantages of Heat Pumps

RV heat pumps do not work in very cold weather.
RV heat pumps will not work when temperatures drop below about 40 degrees F!

There are limits to what a heat pump can do. They’re great when it’s moderately cold, but not when it’s freezing. This is because they draw warmth from the outside air. The critical point varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, but in general, about 40 degrees Fahrenheit is the point at which an RV heat pump stops being useful as a heater. There’s just not enough heat in the outside air for it to extract.

For this reason, they can’t be used to keep your pipes from freezing, for instance. And when it’s below about 40 degrees F, you’ll need to be sure you have at least one other source of heat available.

As previously mentioned, a heat pump uses quite a lot of electricity. This isn’t as problematic if you’re plugged into shore power and are paying a flat rate. If you’re using a generator, however, it means you’re going to have to make some sacrifices or have plenty of fuel on hand.

An RV heat pump also adds a few hundred dollars to an air conditioning system’s upfront cost. For this reason, many RVers pass on them without investigating whether they’ll pay for themselves in the long run.

RV Heat Pump vs. RV Furnace

One of the main problems with a furnace is that it can burn through propane pretty quickly. A furnace uses more propane than your refrigerator, stove, oven, and grill combined. If you’re boondocking, a furnace can tax your electrical power supply as well, since the blower fans are generally quite large and can pull a fair amount of 12V power when running. But of course if you’re boondocking, you can’t run a heat pump without running your generator to power it.

Furnaces generally heat from the floor up, while vents from a heat pump are typically in the ceiling. Because heat rises, furnace heat may be more efficient from this perspective as well. And, if you have a basement, the furnace heat can be routed there to keep your plumbing and tanks from freezing.

With a furnace, however, once the propane is gone, so is the heat!

Conclusion

Outside temperatures can drop dramatically.
Outside temperatures can vary widely even during the course of a single 24-hour period!

Weather can change dramatically when we’re camping, and we all need a good plan for staying warm when the temperature drops. An RV heat pump may not be the ultimate solution, but it can certainly be a great part of the mix. Working in conjunction with other types of heating solutions, a heat pump can help keep the temperature in your RV comfortable when the thermometer dips.

If you’re not sure if a heat pump is right for you, or if you already own an RV that doesn’t have one, be sure to check out our full run-down of RV heat sources. We go over the pros and cons of each of the common options for heating your RV.

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6 comments
  1. I prefer electric heat strips. I camp of cold weather and heat pumps just don’t cut it. A heat strip for my purposes works much better.

  2. We use our heat pump selectively. When we need heat all night long, we use a cube heater – much quieter when it cycles. When we need a quick warm up in the morning, we use the heat pump – much faster. Condensation that builds up on cold glass surfaces overnight is largely from human bodies in a closed space. Any heater that can warm these surfaces sufficiently to evaporate the water will reduce condensation. A heat pump provides much more heat and moves much more air than a cube heater, although noise can be an issue.

  3. “Running the heat pump helps remove that moisture from the air”

    Not true. Unlike running in cooling mode where moisture is actually condensed and physically drained from the system, in heating mode no moisture is removed. The relative humidity is lowered because the temperature of the air is increased – warmer air can hold more moisture, but the absolute humidity remains unchanged.

    1. Please allow us to rephrase. Running the heat pumps has the effect of lowering the relative humidity. We’ve routinely run our heat pumps in temperatures down to about 40 degrees for the past 16 years of full-timing, and we can confirm that using them dries the air out, and prevents condensation. It’s a go-to heat source in cool weather for preventing moisture build-up. Regardless of the technical explanation, the effect is the same.

  4. I have seldom used the heat pumps but one time when I was doing a generator run it was cool so turned on all three units. Wow, was I surprised how much hot air was coming out after three minutes of running.

    It’s good to know that the coach can warmed up from ‘Northern Fall’ to ‘Arizona April’ in about ten to fifteen minutes just using heat pumps if necessary.

  5. Guys,

    Good informative article for people that are shopping. I’d like to include something else. They are loud (just as if you’re running the a/c portion.) For our use we prefer using a stand alone heater which is silent- and as stated, you’ve already paid for the electric in the campground. Our first rv came with a heat pump but when we bought the second, they were a/c’s only…a blessing in disguise. I thought your readers would appreciate that info.

    Thanks again!

    I’m glad I know chimneys, stop lights, and cross walks.

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