Indoor Propane Heaters: Alternative Ways To Heat Your RV
(Camp Addict does NOT accept payment from any company to review or endorse their products.)
'I want to go camping and freeze my butt off' said no-one EVER.
Because most humans desire comfort, almost all RVs come with at least one type of built-in RV heating system.
Still, there are many occasions when a supplemental RV heater will come in handy.
A portable propane heater is a great go-to choice when you want to use something other than your rig's built-in heat system.
(Usually a loud, propane guzzling furnace)
Which type of small portable heater is best for your RV somewhat depends on how you camp.
Freezing your butt off? Want to know which indoor propane heater is the best? Click the button to read our reviews.
Indoor Propane Heater Guide
The two most common types of RV heaters pre-installed in RVs are heat pumps and propane furnaces.
Both systems have their pros and cons, somewhat depending on your particular camping style and needs.
Still, there are many times you might want a supplemental system.
Reasons You Might Need a Portable Gas Heater:
There are a few different options out there when it comes to choosing which RV heating system will work best for your RV lifestyle.
Some systems work better when you are camping without utility hookups and some are best when you DO have hookups (shore power).
Many reasons that we shall get into as you read on.
First, let's look at the ins and out of the two main pre-installed types of heating systems typically found in RVs.
Built-In RV Heat: Heat Pumps and Furnaces
Many RVs come equipped with a furnace.
An RV furnace uses power from your rig's house batteries or from shore power to power the fan.
However, it also requires and uses propane to create heat.
Furnaces are controlled by a thermostat much like the kind you probably use or have used in a house before.
The controller can be basic or a little fancier, using digital technology.
This makes a furnace familiar in terms of operating the device.
Because installed furnaces are vented to the outside, there is no (or very little) chance of poisonous emissions invading your space.
It doesn't use up oxygen inside the RV, nor does it emit any carbon monoxide into your space.
This makes it totally safe to use.
However, like most everything else, there are some nuances to know about.
The furnace is built-in to the RV so there's nothing extra to buy or do to have heat.
You simply have to make sure you have power, and that you have propane for the furnace to burn.
There are no additional components to purchase. Furnaces run 'dry'.
What we mean is that you don't have the moisture build-up that happens in cold temperatures that you get with portable propane heaters.
Because furnaces are vented to the outside.
Portable heaters are not.
Because it is vented to the outside, there is no chance for any carbon monoxide buildup (unless there is something wrong with your heater, but under normal conditions, it's not an issue).
Nor does it use oxygen from inside of the RV.
While a properly functioning propane RV furnace will not cause carbon monoxide buildup inside your rig, you still need to have a working carbon monoxide detector just in case this deadly gas makes its way inside your RV.
Also, you need a working propane detector since you are using a propane appliance.
Use a combination carbon monoxide and propane detector and you'll be covered.
Lastly, if you have a 'basement' in your rig, your furnace might be vented to heat that area as well.
This is beneficial in keeping your water pipes from freezing during winter.
You may also find your RV's furnace will heat your holding tanks if they are enclosed and you have what is commonly referred to as a four-seasons package.
An RV furnace runs off of propane to produce heat.
However, it ALSO uses power from your batteries if you are dry camping (camping without being connected to an external power source).
It needs this power to run the power-hungry blower fan.
Without being connected to an external power source, this can put a considerable drain on your batteries.
However, if you are plugged into an external power source, you have endless power and don't need to worry about battery drain.
You only need to make sure you have propane.
Please note that furnaces DEVOUR propane compared to portable propane heaters.
About 30% of the propane you use will be wasted.
In contrast, a portable propane heater will just sip propane, being upwards of 99% efficient.
This will save you on fuel costs.
Another negative about RV furnaces is that they can be quite noisy.
At best, it takes away from the peace and quiet.
At worst, the cycling on and off could keep you awake at night.
RV Furnace Pros and Cons:
RV Furnace Summary
If your RV comes with a furnace, that's great.
It's useful for good dry air in moist or cold climates, and it's best to use when plugged into shore power.
Being a pretty big propane and electricity sucker, this is not ideal for dry camping without a generator.
It's also noisy and may wake you at night.
RV Heat Pumps
A heat pump in an RV is another heating system that might come with your RV setup.
It will be a part of your air conditioning system and will be controlled by a thermostat just like your home's HVAC system would have.
Heat delivery is usually through a duct system in your rig, which allows for even distribution throughout your rig.
These are best used in moderate climates as most won't work in temperatures under 40-45 degrees.
(Which totally defeats the purpose, right?)
Better have a backup system if you have a heat pump, in the event you find yourself stuck in cold or worse, freezing temps.
So for temperatures below 45º F, you WILL need supplemental heat.
You might also have a furnace in your RV.
If not, you will need portable propane or electric heater for the lower temperatures.
RV heat pumps are also power-hungry.
If running only one, you can run it off of 30-amp power.
If you are running two of them, you likely need to be hooked up to a 50-amp power source.
If you pay for campsites where you are charged per kilowatt-hour, a heat pump will slam your pocketbook in very cold temps.
Another issue with these is that if you have only one unit (some RVs have two), you can't select zones to heat in the RV.
If you have two, you can heat either the front or the back section (or both, if necessary).
Portable heaters are great for heating one section at a time, which can conserve money one way or another.
You will save money by only heating the rooms you are using.
However, if you have kids or a large number of people in your RV and use the entire thing all day or evening, you might be happy to have the entire RV heated.
A heat pump will come pre-installed, nothing extra to purchase.
It's powered by electricity, so you are good to go if you have a generator or are connected to shore power.
A big plus of a heat pump is that because it is electricity powered, it puts out a dry heat.
This prevents the moisture build-up that most portable propane heaters will cause.
Another bonus of using this type of heat is that there is no risk of carbon monoxide poisoning or lack of oxygen while it is in use.
This is because it doesn't use propane as the heating source.
If you like to dry camp/boondock, peace and quiet will not be found as you have to run your generator to use the heat pump.
They can be noisy.
Forced air makes noise.
In contrast, a portable propane heater, for example, is completely soundless.
With an RV heat pump, there is no freezing pipe protection.
Since most don't work in freezing temperatures, pipes won't be protected..
RV Heat Pump Summary
A heat pump is fine if you are always connected to shore power or you have a generator that you don't mind running for long periods.
But you had better be parked where it never gets very cold (say, south Florida).
It's also a 100% safe method of heating in that it doesn't produce carbon monoxide or use propane.
It's a very good idea to have backup heat for a heat pump in the event you are in lower temperatures than around 45 degrees, where many RV heat pumps lose operation efficiency.
RV Heat Pump Pros and Cons:
Portable Heaters For RVs
When you have an RV, there are plenty of times when supplemental heat may be desired.
Supplemental heat comes in the form of portable RV heaters.
There are quite a few different types of fuel sources for portable space heaters.
The most popular (and best) types are electric or propane-fueled. Kerosene is a very dirty and smelly fuel, so we aren't going to cover kerosene.
The different types of portable heaters for camping have pros and cons, just like the built-in types of heaters that come with RVs.
There is also much controversy as to the safety of different types of using propane heater indoors, which we will also cover.
There are other non-conventional ways to heat an RV such as using wood-burning fireplaces and clay pot radiant 'heaters'.
We aren't going to go into those as they are pretty non-conventional and not as ideal, or easy, for the typical (campground)RVer to use.
We know, we will probably get the comments now about how amazing and cheap these heating methods are.
That's to be expected.
Well, if you are interested in these methods, simply Google them and you can learn more about it.
Now that you've read about RV furnaces and heat pumps above, you should understand why an additional heater might be necessary.
Now we will elaborate on the different types of portable heaters for RVs and we will discuss their pros and cons.
How Does A Portable Indoor Heater Work?
If you want to use a portable heater indoors, you should understand a few basic concepts.
Just like an RV furnace or an RV heat pump, their job is to generate heat.
Heat needs to be generated from a fuel source, common sources (for a non-electric heater) being wood and propane.
You need three things to start a fire (provide heat): A fuel source, an ignition source, and oxygen.
The two most common portable heater types (heating methods) are convection heaters and radiant heaters.
Let's look at the differences in how they heat your environment.
Radiant Heat (Olympian Wave Heaters)
Propane radiant heaters heat the OBJECTS in their path, as opposed to the air.
Therefore, your walls, floors, and objects the heater is pointed at get heated.
This type of warmth is felt immediately.
The warmed objects then heat the air in the surrounding area.
Some radiant heat is also released through convection (explained next).
Radiant heat is how the sun heats.
For example, it may be 45º outside, but it feels warmer because you feel warm from the sun's rays hitting your skin.
This is radiant heat.
Therefore, you should orient your radiant LP heater to direct the rays towards the intended space you wish to heat, or to your person.
It works similarly to how you would position a floodlight.
A propane radiant heater is also good for large rooms that would not otherwise get totally warm.
Instead, you can keep your self warm by being close to the propane radiant heater and having it aimed at you.
Convection Heat (Buddy Heaters)
This type of heater warms the AIR in the room.
This is also how a fire heats.
You have to be close to feel the heat, which rises immediately.
Convection heating is heat transfer due to the movement of molecules in a gas.
The gas here is air, and the heat rising from the convection heater causes a column of warm air to rise while causing colder air to fall.
Convection heaters cause air currents in the room, and these currents eventually disperse the warmth.
You may feel a little heat outwards from this type of heater, which is simply a little radiant heat.
Still, in a convection heater, the heat will always rise. (If the room is colder than the heat, which it will be if you are needing a heater.)
The rising heat fills the room and the room temperature rises.
Mr. Heater calls their Buddy Heaters 'radiant heaters', but in actuality, a major component of heat is via convection.
Just stand above one that is lit and you will feel the warm column of air rising.
Portable Propane Heaters
Portable, lightweight, QUIET, and very energy efficient, an LP heater (propane heater) could be the perfect supplement to your RV's built-in heat system.
Portable propane heaters are available with different types of heating methods.
For example, there are ceramic, blue-flame, and catalytic propane heaters.
Propane heaters can also either produce radiant heat or convection heat.
For the sake of simplicity, we are going to simply categorize propane heaters as catalytic or non-catalytic.
Because there are some significant safety differences for RV use between catalytic heaters and any other type of non-catalytic heaters.
Is Using An Indoor Propane Heater Safe?
In a word, YES.
However, you MUST NOT have a propane heater, or any propane appliance for that matter, without having a carbon monoxide detector on board.
Make sure your RV has one that is WORKING.
Some detectors run off of batteries, while some run off of your rig's12-volt system (hardwired to your RVs battery).
We suggest getting a 12v detector (hardwired) so you don't have to fool with replacing batteries.
If you have or get a 12v detector, it should also alarm you when your RV batteries are low (but they only sound an alarm at a ridiculously low voltage, so if they alert because of this, your batteries are in really sorry shape).
Carbon Monoxide & Propane Detector
If you are looking to get a carbon monoxide detector, you might as well get a combination carbon monoxide and propane detector.
If you are wanting to detect the presence of carbon monoxide, then most likely you have some sort of propane appliance on board.
So you should have a way to detect this gas as well.
Below is one example of a combination RV carbon monoxide and propane gas detector.
This particular unit is the Safe-T-Alert brand and is hardwired into your RV's 12-volt electrical system (no batteries to replace).
The deal is, ALL propane heaters (catalytic or non-catalytic) use up oxygen, emit carbon dioxide, emit water vapor, and yes, they emit carbon MONOXIDE (CO).
(Not to be confused with carbon dioxide, which is CO2 and is emitted when we breathe.)
Carbon MONOXIDE is the deadly gas that also comes from automobile exhaust.
Inhaling too much carbon monoxide for even a short period is deadly.
Properly functioning propane heaters generally put out VERY LITTLE carbon monoxide, but they still PUT OUT CARBON MONOXIDE.
Therefore, they CAN be deadly.
You could even die IN YOUR CAR if it's idling and the fumes are getting into the car for too long.
Just like a car, a propane heater is not a death trap.
You simply need to provide adequate ventilation (by following the propane heater manufacturer's instructions).
Carbon DIOXIDE is what our bodies exhale, which is toxic in large quantities.
EVEN if there is sufficient oxygen, if CO2 levels are high enough, you can get hypercapnia. (Too much carbon dioxide in the bloodstream.)
How much carbon monoxide different types of RV propane heaters emit varies.
Great combination, eh? Either die of carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide poisoning, Heh heh.
(But it's TOTALLY SAFE and ONLY HARMFUL if you DON'T follow the simple directions.)
Which begs the question- are indoor RV propane heaters really safe???
YES, BUT ONLY IF YOU FOLLOW THE MANUFACTURERS DIRECTIONS ON VENTILATION. (Are you getting the gist of our point yet?)
Proper Ventilation IS Required
Use of indoor propane heaters requires proper ventilation.
They use up oxygen (this is what happens when a flame burns) and produce carbon monoxide (a deadly gas).
You MUST provide adequate ventilation (by cracking open one or more windows and/or overhead vents) when using an LP gas heater inside.
Follow the recommendations outlined in your indoor propane heater owner's manual.
Propane catalytic heaters produce the least amount of carbon monoxide than any other type of heater.
Still, you could DIE from lack of oxygen from a propane catalytic heater if you don't ventilate properly!
Burning (combusting) propane will always result in the emission of carbon dioxide, water vapor, and carbon monoxide.
How much each type of heater emits will vary.
The emission of water vapor is what makes a 'wet' heat and fogs up your rig's windows.
They sure do. Thousands and thousands of them do.
Try not to be too scared from our warnings, it's all about using your head and FOLLOWING DIRECTIONS.
Make sure the camp heater you choose is rated for use inside of a recreational vehicle.
Difference Between Catalytic And Non-Catalytic Heaters
For the sake of simplicity, we are going to simply categorize propane heaters as catalytic or non-catalytic.
Because there are some significant safety and mechanical differences for RV use between catalytic heaters and any other type of non-catalytic heaters.
Let's look at the differences.
Non-Catalytic Propane Heaters
One of the most popular non-catalytic LP heaters is the Mr. Heater Buddy Heater line of propane camping heaters.
This is one of the few LP heaters we found that is safe for indoor use.
More importantly, it is also rated for use in a recreational vehicle.
Therefore, we are going to use the Buddy Heater for our non-catalytic heater example.
If a heater is 'non-catalytic', then it's not as efficient at burning LP as its counterpart, but it's very close.
Efficiency is one of the main differences.
However, propane indoor heaters are all quite efficient.
At least they are much more efficient than your RV furnace will be.
RV furnaces tend to be only 70% efficient, meaning you lose around 30% of the heat produced by burning propane to the outside of the RV.
Put your hand near the furnace exhaust and you will feel this wasted heat.
A non-catalytic heater is likely to have an oxygen depletion sensor.
This sounds like a good thing, and of course it is.
However, this means that if you like to camp at elevations, you will start running into problems with having enough oxygen in the air for the heater to turn on.
The Buddy Heaters will only work reliably up to about 7000 feet.
If you want to camp higher, this may not work so well for you.
If elevation isn't an issue for you, then either a catalytic or a non-catalytic heater will work just fine.
Camp Addict Kelly has been successful at getting her Big Buddy Heater to work in Silverton, Colorado at 9,300 feet, but not without some fights.
There were other times it simply didn't have enough oxygen to work at elevation.
Buddy Heaters use a ceramic burner plate to generate heat.
Let's talk a little about the ceramic benefits of the Buddy Heaters.
The Mr. Heater company offers three different sizes of portable ceramic heater:
- Big Buddy Heater
- Portable Buddy Heater (and the very similarly sized Hunting Buddy Heater)
- Little Buddy Heater
The Mr. Heater portable Buddy Heaters emit heat through convection heating (hot air rises causing cooler air to fall).
Ceramic LP heaters are perfect for boondocking/dry camping with less than substantial solar.
They save battery power since they don't use the furnace.
Buddies warm FAST and can be left on all night.
You will be saved from having frozen pipes, depending on where pipes are located.
These heaters are totally silent when they are working properly.
How do Buddy Heaters get their fuel?
The simplest method is to attach the small green propane tanks to it.
Or for the Big Buddy only, you can buy a hose which allows you to tap into your RV's propane line.
Or one could connect the Big Buddy hose to a propane tank sitting outside the RV, if there's a place to run the hose through the camper.
Mr. Heater makes a few different sizes of heater, but not all of them are made for indoor use.
THIS IS VITALLY IMPORTANT TO CHECK.
You need to get an indoor safe propane heater.
Be sure the propane heater you pick is made for indoor use.
(All heaters recommended on this page are indoor safe propane heaters with the exception of the Mr. Heater Golf Cart Heater.)
There is much debate online about whether these are truly safe for indoor use.
Yes, they all DO emit a small amount of carbon monoxide and they all consume oxygen.
THIS IS WHY ALL MANUFACTURERS INSTRUCT YOU TO VENTILATE PROPERLY.
Even if you used a catalytic heater which doesn't emit much carbon dioxide at all, it DOES consume oxygen.
In the wrong room/RV/camper/tent, you could DIE from lack of oxygen without ventilation.
We shouldn't even have to tell you this, but you should always have a working carbon monoxide detector inside your RV if you use ANY propane at all for ANY appliance.
Using a non-catalytic heater is really easy.
Just follow the directions.
Make sure you ventilate and make sure nothing can close your ventilation accidentally without you knowing about it.
Do this, and you will be nice and alive AND super warm.
Non-Catalytic Heater Pros and Cons:
Catalytic Propane Heaters
Catalytic heaters work differently than other propane heaters.
How? The heater has a 'pad' in it full of platinum. (Whaaat?)
You heard that right.
These heaters work differently from other propane heaters in that the propane is combined with oxygen in the presence of a platinum catalyst (normally a catalytic pad).
The catalytic pad is where the heat is generated and 'burns' at a much lower temperature than a non-catalytic propane heater.
Once this style of camper heater is ignited, there is no flame present.
This reaction converts propane and oxygen into heat, water vapor, and carbon dioxide.
(Which is harmless, unless there is an absence of oxygen. Which COULD happen. Ventilate, people.)
There is very little carbon monoxide produced.
As far as safety goes, catalytic heaters have two big positives over the non-catalytic heaters.
(Again, if you just ventilate properly, this is a moot point.)
Still, the Internet will forever argue this point, so that's why we decided to give catalytic heaters a category of their own as far as safety goes.
Two reasons catalytic propane heaters can be considered safer:
There you go.
A third argument could be made to the benefits of this style of camp heater.
Since the catalytic heater is even more efficient than the already efficient non-catalytic propane heater, you will save money by burning less propane in the long run.
(But this is splitting hairs as it will be a very long time before you'd save a substantial amount of money).
The only catalytic propane heater we recommend and that is rated for use in RVs (The Camco Olympian Wave) is not cheap.
It costs more than other propane heaters, but if you want the extra benefits, we think it's well worth the cost.
The Olympian Wave Heaters are likely to last longer than the Buddy Heaters as well.
You can find numbers of reports on the Internet stating that Buddy Heaters have died for one reason or another.
Catalytic Heater Pros and Cons:
Portable Propane Heater Hoses And Fittings Guide
Which hose for what heater/part?
It's too confusing to try to explain!
Instead we will send you to this guide by Mr Heater.
Click on this guide HERE (PDF) to find out what hose you need as well as any applicable fittings.
Wait, I'm Still Scared I'll Die From A Stupid Propane Heater!
Sorry to burst your bubble, but it's not the heater that's stupid.
It's only ever the human who is 'stupid'. Just READ THE DIRECTIONS AND VENTILATE when using your camper heater, and life shall magically be granted to you.
Well, Camp Addict Kelly and Marshall both use Mr Heater Buddy Heaters in their rigs and they ventilate and they are still alive. (Update: As of late 2019, Kelly has the Wave 8 Heater. Also, still alive.)
We have many friends who use the Camco Wave gas catalytic heater as well as Buddy Heaters, and they are not dead, either.
No word on whether our friends ventilate or not (but we assume they follow manufacturer directions and do ventilate).
Nobody we know has died, and we haven't heard about any deaths in our large RV community.
These heaters are widely used in the RV world (and in other worlds) and have been for a long time.
And think about this... The lawyers that these companies had to hire for the legal jargon would NEVER sign off on the products if they saw that they were going to kill people when used properly.
Don't be afraid. Just read the instructions and use your head, human.
RV Electric Heaters
If you are looking for the best electric heater for RVs, you don't have to find anything that is specifically labeled for use in an RV.
However, there are some things to look for that are important to know about.
Electric heaters are great IF you are plugged into shore power or have a generator as they require a 120-volt power source to operate.
However, there are drawbacks if you rely solely on RV electric heaters to keep warm.
If you don't have a generator or a crazy battery bank with a ton of solar as backup, you could be up s*** creek if power goes out in your park.
Not a great situation if you are parked where the lows get close to or below freezing.
Please do NOT use these heaters with a small regular household extension cord!
MANY RV fires have been attributed to people using inadequate extension cords.
RV wiring is just not made to handle the wattage that may be asked of in an RV when using an electric space heater.
Extension cords are best not used at all.
But if you must, use an extension cord of at least 14 gauge, which may seem mighty rugged for a space heater.
Still, there are a lot of amps running through it.
The longer you ask that many amps to run, the more resistance there is, the more likely you are to have a fire.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, space heaters are the second-leading cause of home fires in the United States, and the third-leading cause of home fire deaths.
This means thousands of fires and deaths are caused by those portable space heaters everyone loves to use in the colder months.
Use them carefully!
Why do fires happen? It's a little complicated, because electricity IS complicated.
A good rule of thumb is to only use an electric heater rated under 1200 watts.
Using a heater with more than 1200 watts will put more amps through the outlet and most outlets are only designed to have about 10 amps going through continuously at a time.
Using a heater under 1200 watts will keep the amps around or under 10, which is a fairly safe amount of electricity for the outlet to not heat up excessively.
To help you understand how the math works out on the watts vs amps, here's an explanation. (Pulled from RVTravel.com:)
Wattage is simply volts multiplied by amperes. That suggests we can divide the wattage of the appliance by the voltage and find out how many amps it draws.
A 1,500-watt space heater on a 120-volt outlet is 1,500/120 = 12.5 amperes. And an 1,800-watt space heater works out to 1,800/120 = 15 amperes. And while that’s a 20-amp circuit, in reality the electrical code originally designed that outlet for 15 amps of current, and assumed you would be drawing maybe 10 amps each on two separate outlets on a single 20-amp circuit breaker.
If you really do draw 15 to 20 amps continuously from an outlet, it will begin to heat up. That heating will cause the outlet contacts to oxidize and increase their resistance. And that resistance will increase the heating effect, which causes more resistance, which leads to something we engineers call cascade failure.
This is why homes, as well as RVs, have fires due to electric heaters.
We suggest the utmost caution if you want to go with an electric heater.
Keep it under 1200 watts.
Or don't use one at all.
Go with your RV furnace, heat pump, or portable propane RV heater.
Electric Space Heater Pros and Cons:
Propane Heater Safety
Safety First, right? Absolutely.
It's easy not to read labels and directions, but in this case, one MUST be diligent or, as we hope we have drilled into you already, YOU COULD DIE.
Here are some things to be aware of when using an indoor portable propane heater:
- Be familiar with what color flame your portable propane heater should have. Each style of propane heater potentially has a different flame color. Read your manual to understand what your heater looks like when running properly. If the flame looks different than it should, something is amiss and the unit needs special attention.
- When detaching from a propane tank or hose, keep area well ventilated in the event of a failure
- Don't use your propane camper heater if you are sleepy
- Be ABSOLUTELY SURE to keep the area ventilated per the instructions on your particular propane heater. Failure to do so can cause death.
- Do not expose your propane tank to excessive heat. This can lead to explosions.
- In the event a leak is detected, shut off all surrounding appliances and ventilate the area ASAP
- NEVER leave a space heater running while unattended
Well, did you think that this page would be this long?
WE sure didn't! There is a TON to know about heaters in your RV.
Play it safe, ventilate per the manufacturer's instructions, and never keep a propane tank larger than a one-pounder inside of your rig.
Be extremely careful when using portable electric heaters in your RV, never get one over 1200 watts, and don't use an ordinary household extension cord.
Try not to use an extension cord at all.
There's a lot to know. Please read carefully before purchasing any heater for your RV.
Kelly Beasley is co-founder of Camp Addict and loves sharing her enthusiasm for the RVing lifestyle. As a full-time RVer since May 2015, Kelly's playful writing style helps make learning about the sometimes dull subject of RV products a bit more interesting.
Camp Addict co-founder Marshall Wendler brings his technical expertise to help explain RV products in an easy to understand fashion. Full-time RVing since April 2014, Marshall loves sharing his knowledge of the RV lifestyle.