Heat Pump Vs Heat Strip – Which Is Better for Winter RV Camping?

Curious about the difference between a heat strip and a heat pump? Or which one costs more to heat your RV in the winter? Let’s find out!

What’s a Heat Strip in an RV?

A heat strip is just a resistance heating element stuck inside your air conditioning unit. It’s not much different than the electric space heater you keep in your guest room at home. Even though it’s housed inside your air conditioner, it doesn’t use the compressor cycle; it just funnels electricity into an electric element.

Here is an example of a heat strip (see below).

coleman-mach replacement heat strip

Heat strips come in different shapes and sizes, but all are a combination of a main heating element with fins to better dissipate the heat. They are installed in front of the evaporator so the blower fan will blow hot air through your RV. The warm air will be distributed through your distribution shroud or ductwork, same as regular air conditioning. 

Pros of a Heat Strip

The good thing about a heat strip is that it works in any temperature – so long as you’re plugged in to shore power.

Also, most heat strips, unlike space heaters, are wired into the air conditioner’s control system. That means they’re controlled by your thermostat. Very useful if you’re running the heat strip over night.

Another potential benefit to a heat strip is that it uses no propane. You can conserve your precious LP gas for dry camping. Or many campers use heat strips to reduce cycling the furnace on cold nights. 

Cons of a Heat Strip

The bad thing about a heat strip is that it slurps up power like a dehydrated elephant. (If you’ve ever lived in a home with baseboard heating, you know what I mean.) Heat strips convert 100% of their energy into heat and no more. 

A 5,000-BTU heat strip will draw about 1,500 watts. That’s a lot of power. For instance, you would never want to run a heat strip off a house battery. You’d drain a 100Ah battery to 50% capacity in about 20 minutes. Yikes.

A heat strip is not a replacement for a forced-air furnace or hydronic heating system. They are designed for supplemental space heating only. Remember, they don’t heat your tanks or warm your pipes. 

They are best used in the spring and fall to top off your temperature, not to warm your RV for full-time winter living. Some people call them “chill chasers.” They are better at maintaining warm temperatures than heating up an RV from scratch. Usually, the can only heat the outgoing area about 5 degrees, which doesn’t even feel warm on your hand!

The other big problem with a heat strip is that hot air rises. Sure, it’s making hot air, but the air in your RV is stratified, so the cool air just sinks to the bottom (where you’re sleeping). That really reduces their effectiveness.

Heat Strip FAQ

Heat strips don’t have the same BTU rating as their air conditioner. Most are around 5,000-6,000 BTU. For reference, a 5,000-BTU heating element will draw about 1,500 watts (3.41 BTUs per watt). 

Some air conditioners can accept a heat strip; some can’t. If yours can, you can add or replace the heat strip by:

  1. Removing the air conditioner air distribution shroud or control box
  2. Install the heating element subassembly using the provided hardware
  3. Plug in the heating element to the factory harness
  4. Reinstall the shroud.

If your factory air conditioner didn’t include a heat strip, you may need to replace your thermostat. Consult your Owners Manual. 

Heat strips get very hot! Don’t touch a heat strip when it’s turned on, and ensure your blower fan stays on for a few minutes after turning the heat strip off. 

What’s a Heat Pump in an RV?

A heat pump is an air conditioner that can run in reverse. Nothing too fancy about it. It absorbs heat from the outdoors and releases it to the indoors. Essentially, a heat pump is an air conditioner with a reversing valve and extra electronic controls. 

Heat pumps tend to be the higher-quality air conditioners. They are available from most major OEMs such as Dometic, General Electric, Airxcel (Coleman-Mach), and Advent. A few OEMs do not currently offer a heat pump option, such as Furrion.

Pros of a Heat Pump

The big advantage of a heat pump is the energy efficiency. Simply put, for the same amount of power, a heat pump usually generates more heat than a heat strip. Pay less; get more. It’s not uncommon for a heat pump to be 2-3x as energy-efficient as a heat strip in moderate temperatures.

But like a heat strip, a heat pump requires a grid power connection. They operate on 120-volt AC electricity and cannot be powered by your house batteries.

Many campers use heat pumps as their main source of heating when connected to shore power. They don’t consume propane, just electricity. And depending on your ductwork, they may be quieter to operate than a forced-air furnace. 

Both heat pumps and heat strips offer zoned heating, unlike space heaters.

Cons of a Heat Pump

If you’re wondering, “How does a heat pump absorb heat from outside when it’s freakishly cold?”, that’s a question that keeps engineers up at night. Basically, there’s always heat outside. If it’s warmer than -459.6 degrees Fahrenheit, there’s heat. 

There are high-performance mini-split heat pumps that can provide indoor heating at outdoor temperatures as low as -13 degrees Fahrenheit. Unfortunately (you guessed it), those heat pumps aren’t used on RVs.

The rule of thumb is that RV heat pumps rapidly lose efficiency below 40-45 degrees, and below freezing, they’re close to useless. However, some manufacturers, such as General Electric, state that their heat pumps can be used down to 25 degrees ambient temperature. I have not tested that claim myself.

Below 40 degrees, switch to your furnace. If you ignore my advice, there’s a good chance the coils will freeze up (if your heat pump doesn’t have an automatic defrost cycle), and you’ll be standing beneath your heat pump defrosting with a hair dryer. Or your thermostat won’t let you make the mistake, since many heat pumps will automatically turn off at 30-35 degrees. 

Heat Pump FAQ

Unlike a heat strip, heat pumps usually have the same or similar BTU ratings for both heating and cooling.

Generally, you cannot upgrade a stock air conditioner to a heat pump. You will need to purchase and install a new unit. Both rooftop and basement air conditioners are available as heat pumps.

Which Is Better: Heat Pump vs Heat Strip?

Heat pump, all the way. I used to give heat strips some credence, but nowadays, I wouldn’t even bother (nor would I use a space heater unless you know you’re plugging into a high-quality outlet!).

A heat pump is a worthwhile investment for full-time and seasonal RVers who can recuperate their cost in electricity savings. When the temperature drops below 40-50 degrees, turn on the furnace! You just can’t beat 30,000 BTUs!

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