Suburban's electric switch and much more
Just a few basics for anyone else who may read this thread later on in life. There are SIX posts in this thread, and please read all six.
WARNING: Always make sure the water heater is full of water before using it either by propane or the electric heating element. This is explained in more detail below:
The Suburban SW6DE model number means you have a 6 gallon water heater that has a Direct Spark Ignitor (D.S.I.) and an Electric powered heating element. The following also applies to the SW10DE, SW12DE, and SW16DE models. This water heater can be powered by propane, electricity, or both at the same time. You can use the electric option when you are at campsites that have electricity, and the propane option when at places that don't.....or a combination depending on your needs.
Airxcel | Suburban Manufacturing Service
Operating on propane
If using the water heater on propane, you must first make sure your propane tanks have fuel, the valves are open, and the lines aren't full of too much air going to the water heater. You can usually turn on your stove in the camper and this purges a lot of air from the lines first.
You will now turn on your Direct Spark Ignitor (D.S.I.) switch inside your trailer/coach. Your particular RV may just have a switch that says water heater, heater, htr, or heat (and may be by itself or in a panel of other switches). It can also be on a digital touchscreen panel if equipped. The DSI is a low voltage ignitor (12 volt DC power) that takes the place of the old fashioned pilot lights that gas powered water heaters have. You can usually hear a rapid clicking sound at the water heater as the DSI is making sparks to ignite the propane. By not having a constantly on pilot light that burns all the time, the DSI is safer and uses less propane.
You just leave the DSI switch on, and whenever the water heaters thermostat calls for heat using propane, the DSI will provide the sparks to ignite the gas. If you turn the DSI switch off, then you won't be able to use the propane option.....thus turning off your water heater using propane.
The DSI uses a 12 volt current (DC/battery) to make sparks which lights up the propane to start the burner to heat your water. If the DSI system fails to light the propane after a set number of attempts/time, you will get a fault and the system shuts itself off (including propane). If you keep getting faults you may have a propane delivery problem somewhere. My switch has a fault/reset light next to it that illuminates until the propane ignites, which can take a few attempts. Once the propane ignites, the fault/reset light goes off.......................but after so many failed attempts the whole system locks itself out and won't retry to light (the reset/fault light will stay on). You can reset the lockout by turning the switch off and back on after about a minute. If there is air in the propane lines, you may have do this a few times.
Operating on 120 volt electricity
Now for the 120 volt electric option. Some trailers/coaches MAY have another inside switch to turn the electric heating element on (See post # 4 below for information on the SWDEL model), which this element is located inside the water heater. This element works only off of 120 volt AC power, and you must be plugged into some form of 120 volt power for this heating element to work.
However, many (including all of my trailers), do not have an inside on/off electric heating element switch......but this black switch is located on the front of the water heater itself...near the left hand bottom side. It is hidden just a little. You will have to open/remove your outside water heater panel to get to this switch. The switch may also have a hairpin cotter pin thru it that prevents it from accidently getting turned on, that you will have to remove first before you can use it....or can also have a piece of foil tape over it. See pic below, which shows the switch in the ON position
And here is a pic with the cotter pin installed, with the switch in the OFF position.
Now, if you turn on the electric heating element, you must always make sure the water heater is full of water first. If you turn it on and there isn't water in the heater, the element will burn itself out in a matter of seconds, usually before you can even say "OH CRAP", and turn it back off. (EDIT UPDATE 11-2-17: Suburban now installs a new type element that will last longer before burning up in dry-fire scenarios. See post #6 below)
Probably the easiest way to verify there is water actually in the water heater, is to briefly flip up the lever on the temperature/pressure relief valve at the top of the water heater (pic below). If water comes out here, then the heater should be full of water. Just turning on the hot water faucets inside the RV, cannot be a trusted way to verify. If you have your water heater bypass valves still in the winterization mode, then the cold water line is actually merged into the hot water line, and you will get water out of the hot water faucets.......but it's not coming from the water heater, which would be bypassed and dry inside....and since it's dry, you'll burn out your electric heating element if you turn the switch on. (See post #3 below for more information on bypass/winterization valves)
WARNING: In case the water is already heated, DO NOT stand directly in front of the temperature and pressure relief valve when flipping up the lever. Stand off to the side so you don't get splashed with possible hot water.
When using this switch, it's a good idea to make yourself some kind of tag or something to remind yourself it's on (and to turn it off when breaking camp/draining water lines). Many, many a camper has forgot to turn the element off, when breaking camp. They drain their water and/or heater, and pull their trailer home. When they get home they plug back into shore power and IMMEDIATELY burn up their electric heating element. You can easily use a clothes pin and write WATER HEATER on it with a sharpie. Just attach this clothes pin to your RV's coupler hitch when you have the electric heating element turned on, and it will remind you to shut it off before you can attach your trailer to your truck. You can leave the clothes pin in the water heater compartment when not in use.
If you do burn the electric heating element up, you can still most likely use the water heater on propane only. Sometimes though, with a burned up heating element, it will trip your breakers in your trailer.
You can power your water heater by propane with the DSI making sparks to ignite the propane....as well as using the electric heating element (as long as you have a form of 120 volt shore power/generator) at the same time and get the fastest heated water.......or either one individually. Just remember that if there is only one switch inside the RV to the water heater, it is going to ONLY control the DSI/propane side of the water heater. The switch outside on the face of the water heater ONLY controls the electric heating element.
According to Suburban, the electric element has a recovery rate of 6 gallons per hour, the propane burner has a recovery rate of 10.2 gallons per hour.....and if you use both at the same time, the recovery rate is 16.2 gallons per hour.
The door to your water heater, that is accessed from outside of the RV, should look similar to the one pictured below. It may be painted to match the color scheme/striping of your particular RV.
Around the 2002 model year and later, the Suburban water heater came stock with a 1440 watt electric heating element. What this means is it will take 12 amps to power it with 120 volts, when the element is on and heating the water. You may need to keep this in mind when hooked up to 30 amp power supplies, as it may cause breaker(s) to trip if you exceed the maximum amount of amps on a circuit. You may need to turn the electric heating element off... if using other high amp 120 volt appliances at the same time, like microwave, air-conditioning, coffee pots, hair-dryer, etc.....as you would only have 18 amps available to power these other things. (30 amps total minus 12 amps for the heating element = 18 amps available)
In other words 40% of your available power is going to the electric heating element when using 30 amp RV's/power supplies.....but this only applies while the element is energized. Once the water is heated, then the thermostat will turn off the electric element until the temp of the water falls enough that the thermostat turns the electric element back on(energizes) to begin the heating process again.
Let me add to Bobby's great post below.
See his photo?? Note the round black cover directly in-between
the AC switch and the open drain hole??
The electric heating element is behind that center cover.
Remove that cover to test for voltage at the heater element or to remove/replace
The element is most likely a screw in element and you can get a
replacement AND a stamped out sheet metal socket to fit it at most
Home Depot, Lowes, plumbing shops and even a well stocked hardware
Just BE SURE to get a 120v element. Most home heaters use 240 volt
elements but there are a few small apartment sizes that are 120v
and that's the one you need for most RVs.
Instructions on how to replace the element can be found here:
Once you do get to the backside of the water heater, then you may see either one, two, or three valves total on the water lines. The three valve system seems to be the most common.
If so, then the cold water inlet valve needs to be open, the hot water outlet valve needs to be open...and most importantly, the bypass/crossover valve, which ties the cold water line into the hot water line for winterization/antifreeze purposes needs to be CLOSED.
The valves are open when the handle is parallel with the water line it is on, and closed when the handle is perpendicular to the water line it is on. It's easy to confuse the crossover/bypass lines handle direction since the line itself runs vertically usually...but you need to make sure the handle is perpendicular to that particular line.
If the crossover/bypass valve is open, then cold water is coming in to your hot water line.
The top diagram is how you want it for normal use... and then bypassed is the bottom diagram:
This thread link below will more fully explain the winterization valves as well as the different kinds you may encounter per different RV's.
SWDEL model water heater
Suburban also makes another model water heater that has a switch inside the RV to turn the electric heating element on/off. This is the SWDEL model. (note the L in the model number)
If you have the Suburban SWDEL model, you will have a 12 volt DC electric heating element switch similar to the one in the pic below (second switch top row) in addition to the propane/dsi switch discussed in post # 1 (which is the third switch top row in pic below)
With the SWDEL model, although there is a switch inside the RV for the electric heating element, there is still a 120 volt AC second switch on the face of the water heater as shown in post # 1 of this thread. You can control the on/off function of the electric heating element from this inside switch as long as the outside switch, on the face of the water heater, is in the on position. It will not work if you switch the outside secondary switch off.
You can use this second switch to turn off the electric heating element when draining, etc. Then it won't matter if someone accidentally turns on the inside switch with no water in the tank, since the outside switch is off, thus saving your element.
The difference between the SWDE model as explained in post #1 of this thread and the SWDEL model, explained here, is the addition of a 12 volt DC switch inside the RV that is connected to a relay that turns the 120 volt AC on/off.
Here is a schematic of it:
The SWDEL model functions similar to the SWDE model, in all other aspects.
DSI Fault/Flt/Reset red lamp
The Suburban water heaters have a RESET/FAULT/FLT red lamp (which will vary in size and shape depending on switch/panel. Examples at the bottom of this post) that will usually initially illuminate when you first turn on the water heater switch that controls the Direct Spark Ignitor (DSI) to ignite the propane. You only use this switch when you want to use the propane side of your water heater.
What that red lamp is telling you is that the DSI hasn't lit the propane yet. Once the propane ignites, then the lamp goes off. When you first turn on the switch, this lamp may come on briefly until the propane ignites and then it goes off. It may also illuminate when the thermostat calls for the burner to turn on later to maintain the heated water temperature.
If the propane fails to ignite, the lamp will illuminate steadily alerting you to a problem. This is why it's sometimes called a fault light...as you have a fault in the ignition sequence.
The newer model Suburban water heaters will go thru a 3 try sequence. When you first turn on the water heater DSI switch inside your RV, it will go thru a few seconds of trying to ignite the propane. (You will hear this clicking noise at the water heater).
If the propane doesn't ignite, then the clicking will stop for a short interval (the fault lamp will stay illuminated)...then the system will try a second time to light the propane (you will hear the clicking again).
If it lights on the second attempt, the lamp goes off and all is good. Now if it fails on the second attempt (the lamp stays illuminated) the system will try a third FINAL time to ignite (you hear the clicking) after a short interval to give time for the excess propane to clear.
If it fails to light after a third time, the system goes into lockout mode. It will not try a fourth time and the red lamp will stay illuminated, so you know you have a fault. You have to turn off the switch, then turn it back on to reset this lockout, so the system can try the 3 times again. This is why on some systems you may see the lamp labeled as RESET instead of FAULT...but they both mean the same thing. You have a problem with the propane igniting.
What can cause the FAULT/RESET lamp to illuminate and the propane NOT to ignite, is if you have a propane problem. This could be you are out of propane, the cylinders are closed and you forgot to open them, or you could have air in the lines.
You want to make it a habit of watching for that red lamp being on, if using the propane side of your water heater.
Here are just a few examples of different type DSI switches and the corresponding RESET/FAULT/FLT lamps you may encounter. They will vary in shape and size. Some will be labeled as such, and some may just have a small lamp beside or on top of the DSI switch that doesn't state what it is. Hopefully after reading this post, you will know though.
Suburban has been installing a newer type electric heating element in it's products that will hopefully allow more time before it burns out, if a member accidentally turns on their electric heating element without water in the tank.
BooBoo23 has pointed out an important caveat about these new elements that he was taught at a Forest River seminar. If you do energize/heat this element with no water in the tank, you must let it cool down before adding water, or the sudden shock of cold water to an already heated element could damage it.
Here is Suburbans excellent response to an email that the FRF site team sent them:
Your e-mail was forwarded to me for review.
The current element part number 520900 has been installed from the serial number listed below into any of our 120 VAC water heaters that have the electric option. The same warning that is in current manuals was transferred over when we made the change.
As to operation we always want the tank filled with water before energizing the water heater circuit as stated in all our Installation manuals. The current element will still dry fire if energized with no water in the tank, however it can last a longer time frame before the occurrence than the previous element.
As to the time difference that this could occur each element can be different. You would not want to energize the element circuit and go out for dinner and be away for thirty minutes as an example.
I always err on the caution side ensure the by-pass valve is in correct position (if installed ) and that water source is available and open a faucet (hot side) inside the RV and allow water to come out before energizing the circuit.
If you have any further questions I will be happy to review and provide an explanation.
Airxcel,- Suburban Division
676 Broadway Street
Office: 423 775-2131 Extension 7007
Fax: 423 775-7015
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