Tank Heaters

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This was the project that scared me to DEATH. We call this our home. It IS our home. But it’s also a little different than a stuck to the ground house made of sticks and bricks. Our home is made of everything flammable you can imagine and when they catch fire… Let’s just not go there.

So the idea of messing with the electrical, I mean BIG-time messing with the electrical, was daunting. Knowing that the fuse box and everything we were installing was directly underneath my daughter’s bed was…terrifying. Seriously, the entire electrical panel makes up the base under my daughter’s pillow. Fun, huh?

We needed those tank heaters though. We’re wintering in the Pacific Northwest this year and our camper is definitely NOT a winter model. First, we researched the hell out of tank heaters. Turns out, there aren’t many options. And there are even less videos on YouTube explaining how to get it done.

I understand why there aren’t a lot of videos. Electrical recommendations are a HUGE liability. You need to talk to a professional about your specific wiring requirements before moving forward with this project. I AM NOT THAT PROFESSIONAL. My wiring instructions will probably be 100% different than yours.

I’m still just impressed that I didn’t set myself on fire.

While we’re doing disclaimers, you’ll notice the product links. These are affiliate links that help to support our family at no additional cost to you. Thank you for using them to start your own DIY project. And I’ll repeat the first disclaimer too because it is so very important. Please consult a wiring professional regarding your own specific wiring requirements. There is no shame in asking for help outside of your expertise.

For us this was also a very long drawn out process. I knew the basics. I ordered everything from Amazon. I knew it would make sense once I started doing it. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Terrified, remember?

The weather finally pushed me to get started. It has to be above a certain temperature for the adhesive on the tank (and pipe) heaters to stick. So one day we checked the weather, bit the bullet, and finally got down to business. Half business.

First we cleaned the tanks exceptionally well with soap and water and then went over the entire thing again with alcohol. The bottom of your rig is unbelievably covered with road grime. When you think you have it clean, clean it again. My partner in crime for this whole operation was my teenage girl. Just so you know, girls can do anything. And if we can do this, you can, too. Just consult a professional for wiring instructions.

Once we were pretty sure everything was as clean as it was going to get we dry fit the heating pads to get a general idea of where everything was going to go. You want to position your pad near the outlet of the tank since that is its lowest point. You also want to pay attention to the wires coming off the pad. You’re going to need to connect those wires to something eventually and it would be nice if they were on the right end. Then peel of a small portion of the end of one of the pads to expose the adhesive. Stick the exposed portion of the pad onto the tank and press firmly. Slowly expose more of the adhesive and kind of roll the pressure along the pad so that it adheres strongly and evenly until the entire pad is on the tank. Go ahead and press the entirety of the pad a little longer for good measure. You do not want this thing falling off at 60 mph.

We have two grey tanks and one black tank so we just repeated the whole process three times. We also ordered pipe warmers. These are for the pipes that run from the tank to the sewer outlet where you empty the tanks. Anything that you put into the tank will empty immediately into these pipes and sit there so I wanted a way to keep those pipes warm. Trust me, we’ve been out in ten degree weather with the heat gun trying to dump our tanks before. It’s not fun. These were a little trickier to place because you don’t want them overlapping themselves but the overall procedure was the same.

And that’s where we left it for probably another month. We moved twice during that time and everything stayed nicely in place so I was ready to move forward. It also gave me the extra time to talk to my local rv repair guys about the wiring.

Tip #1: Don’t ask the service department. They want you to actually come in and schedule service for them to do the installation. Go to the parts guys. If they’re worth a damn, or maybe you just stress the whole not wanting to set your kids on fire thing, they’ll grab a service guy to come in and go over the installation with you. I love parts guys.

Okay, so we had a wiring diagram specific to our rig in our hands thanks to our visit with the parts department. Now we just had to do it. Step one, make sure you have everything you need. Our wiring instructions had us send everything through the fuse box instead of running it straight off the battery. We needed some spray foam insulation, a fuse, some self tapping screws to attach the ground to the frame, some wire (we used a spool of red and a spool of white), some connectors, some electrical tape, some wire protector, and…oh yeah, the control panel! We were set.

The teenage girl was poised to hand me any tool we might need. As it turns out I need emotional support.

You see, the next part is one of the scariest things I’ve ever had to do in my life. We had to drill a hole from the inside of the camper through the floor to the outside of the camper.

Oh yeah. All the way. And it had to be big. Really big. Like an inch wide to accommodate the bundle of wires that I was shoving through it.

I grabbed my biggest drill bit and giggled a little maniacally. I was going to have to drill three or four overlapping holes to make a hole big enough. Why didn’t I just go buy a bigger drill bit? Because town was like an hour away.

I stood there with my drill pressed against the floor for what felt like fifteen minutes. We had checked and rechecked that nothing was in the way. It would be a clear hole, straight down. I could do this. My daughter reminded me repeatedly that everything was fine and we could do this. I finally worked up the courage and pulled the trigger on the drill.

I couldn’t do this.

No, I mean literally.

My drill couldn’t do this.

It went all the way down the bit to where it meets the drill, but it didn’t pop out the other side! My drill bit wasn’t long enough.

So now we had two choices. Go outside and drill UP in the hope that we connected with the original hole (which we would have to do three or four times until the combined hole was big enough) or drive to town and get a bigger bit.

We drove to town.

I have never had a hardware guy try so hard to simultaneously try not to laugh and hide his terror at what we were describing doing. No, the regular tool section wasn’t going to work. We were in the big boy tool section. I needed an inch wide, foot long drill bit. Momma wasn’t playing any more. I paled a little at the price but pressed on.

When we got home, there was no more hesitation. I walked right up to the floor, stuck my drill against it, and got the job done.

Oh my God! There’s a hole in my floor! A freaking rat sized hole! What had I done?!

There was definitely no stopping now. Bishop took the little girls trick or treating so that maybe…just maybe Abby and I could finish this before dark.

Side note. Do not send your teenage son with his little sisters to go trick or treating. All the young moms and sweet as can be grandmas will confuse him with a single dad, and you’ll have to listen to him calling himself The Faux Father for at least a week.

At this point we crawled back under the camper. Remember all those wires hanging off the heating pads? It was time to connect them to some longer wire, run it to the control panel inside and then run that to the fuse box.

We probably went overkill on the wire that we chose but my electrician father and I both felt that it was better to err on the side of caution and get a wire that was capable of handling way more energy than we needed that to get one that couldn’t quite handle the load. Aside from electrical current capacity, the most important thing about this wire is that it needed to be made up of as many tiny little wires as we could find. More automotive wire than house wire. I’m not 100% sure about the why of this except my father was adament. We also got the heavy duty, heat shrink, waterproof connectors like these.

This is actually the super easy part.

And this section is for the RED wires.

For us, we had a different switch on the control panel for each tank heater and then a single switch for all of the pipe heaters. That means we simply connected the wires hanging off of each pad to their own long wire running into the rig all the way to their switch. The wires hanging off the pipe warmers all got connected to the same long wire running all the way into the rig to the switch. If you’re keeping count that means we have one switch and one heating pad left for our fresh water tank that we did not install. Once everything had long wires connected we bundled it into some wire protector and ran that inside through the hole in the floor.

Tip #2: Label your wire ends so you know which wire goes to which switch when you get inside.

Painters tape totally works for labeling purposes.

Tip #3: Zip tie your wire protector to various sections of your underbelly so that it doesn’t hang down and catch on anything.

Now for the WHITE wires.

These are your grounds. Connect the heater white wires to the extension white wires and connect them to the frame with ring connectors and self tapping screws. That’s it!

Tip #4: Use a tool with some oomph for this step! Our entire project almost ground to halt here because we couldn’t get the self tapping screws to go into the frame. An impact wrench, some creative cursing, and a banshee scream finally got the job done.

If you’ve made it this far, crawl out from under your rig. It’s time to go inside.

You can trim down your wire protector is you have too much sticking out of the hole. Check the labeling on your wires and attach each wire to the back of the appropriate switch. Read the directions to make sure you put them on the right terminal. After all of your wires are connected to a switch we’ll connect the switches to some power. In our case it ran straight to the fuse box.

This is where I’m leaving you completely in the dark. Sorry. I do no accept responsibility for anyone else’s combustability. Talk to an electricican. Ready… Set… Voila! It worked.

There is only one more thing to do. Remember that rat sized hole in the floor? Time to seal it up. So with the last dying light of the day we crawled back under the rig and spray foam insulated the hole. No rats allowed in this camper.

I hope this wasn’t too confusing. Electrical is definitely not my thing. But it works. It has kept working, and the best part? No fires! So don’t be afraid to do something scary yourself. Just make sure that you’ve talked to enough people or watched enough videos that you feel confident that you can get the job done safely. Then push down the fear and do it.

Can we have a serious moment? I know this is a DIY post, but even more than the heaters (and I am super thankful for those!) it’s also about being afraid and doing a thing anyway. That’s what I hope the kids see. Their momma isn’t perfect. She doesn’t know everything, but she isn’t afraid to ask for help or try new things.

If I can do it, they can do it.

You can do it.

This is lifelong learning.

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