Water Heater Bad Design Problem

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Well-known member
Apr 28, 2005
Greenbrier, Arkansas
I thought I would post a recent problem I had just in case it can save money for somebody else. I was charged $502 for this fix!

We have a 2003 Winnebago Adventurer 33V motorhome on a Workhorse chasis which we purchased new in Dec. '02. It now has almost 14k miles on it. We have been very happy with this rig and this is the first real problem we have had.

The Atwood water heater stopped working on electric power. It still worked on propane. Not being much of a techie myself, but fairly capable of understanding and following instructions, I got out the handy-dandy manual that came with the rig. The Winnebago manual said to follow the Atwood manual. The Atwood manual said the first thing to do with this kind of problem would be to hit the reset switch on the back of the heater unit. After removing the metal front cover, I noticed a partialy burned wire. Somehow, while traveling, the overly long thermostat wire from the harness had fallen down very close to the flue and the insulation on it had melted. Thinking this might be the problem, I found a nearby RV repair facility and tried to purchase a replacement wire. I was told you can't do that because it is all one unit so I bought a new harness for about $25. It was when I tried to replace the harness that I really ran into the problem.

I discovered that Winnebago had completely enclosed the whole heater unit in a wooden container which had been screwed (with about 4 dozen screws) and glued together and the plumbing lines had then been attached to the outside of the box. The wiring harness was on the outside, but the wires attached to the heater through a little hole which had then been sealed with black rubber epoxy or something. I sat there for about 30 minutes trying to figure out how to get to the unit without having to take apart the box it was enclosed in along with the plumbing lines. Seeing that the wire itself appeared to be ok (it was just the insulation that had started to melt), I decided to just wrap it in electrical tape until I could take it in. I went to hit the reset switch and found that I couldn't get to it as there was no hole to reach through the box to the unit. After sitting there stuffing my hand in every nook and cranny trying to find a way in and feeling like an idiot who was missing something simple, I finally gave up. The next day I took it to the repair shop.

They confirmed that there was no way to get to the unit without taking apart that container. They had to unattach and take apart the plumbing lines and remove 2 of the box panels. After replacing the wiring harness (fortunately they used the one I had bought) the tech pushed the reset switch and it then worked fine. They then cut a hole in the side of the box before replacing it so I can now reach the reset switch if needed. They had to clean and re-assemble the plumbing lines and put the box back together. I haven't had any problems since. They indicated they have had to do this to several '03 Winnebago models and that beginning with the 2004 models, there was an access hole through which to reach the back of the heater. I haven't confirmed this yet.

I wrote a complaint letter to Winnebago (with documentation) fully explaining that the problem was the design which did not allow a way to hit the reset switch which is what their manual said to do and asked if they would be willing to at least partially reimburse me for what I thought was an outrageous bill. They responded with a letter stating that since the unit was out of warranty, they would not offer any help. I have since written another letter telling them the heater was not broken, it was, in my opinion, a design flaw. I haven't heard anything back yet. I'm still pretty steamed at having to pay over $500 to hit a reset switch!? Live and learn.
Thanks for sharing that story Ken. It sure sounds like a design boo boo to me.
If Winnebago doesn't respond with some assistance, you might send your story to the Hotline column in Motorhome magazine.
Ned said:
If Winnebago doesn't respond with some assistance, you might send your story to the Hotline column in Motorhome magazine.

And the FMCA , Trailerlife, Escapees and any other magazine you can think of.  If you can't win you can sure make them miserable and wishing you had won. ;D
The Good Sam magazine has those kinds of columns also.  It is amazing the response people get when they send their problem to those magazines.

Sorry about your problem, but I think it goes beyong just finding the reset button. There had to be a reason the wiring insulation melted, and just replacing it and being able to hit the button is not the solution. Sounds like Winnebago, not Atwood, is responsible for improper routing of the harness and just replacing it will not solve the problem. As was suggested by others, the threat (and actual follow-thru) of bad press is your best chance of a resolution which should include both parts AND labor! 
Thanks, eveyone. I agree, Karl. The thermostat wire on the new harness was shorter than the one that melted, but it was still long enough to hang down close to the top of the burner flue. The repair guy wrapped it together with the other wires with a plastic tie so it now cannot hang down so far. The first one though was long enough to actually hang down inside the flue. I'm sure one of the times we used propane was when it melted. I think, but don't know for sure, when that wire melted, it tripped the reset switch. I've tested after the repair by running it on propane for a few days and then on electric for a while and it works fine on both. Unless the reset trips again without there being a melted wire, I can only assume the problem was identified correctly and resolved. What I'm confused about though is why, after the reset switch was activated, it still worked on propane, but not electric power?

I'm still waiting on a reply from Winnebago from my second letter. I want to give them another chance before contacting media resources such as Motor Home, etc. I also want to confirm that they changed the design of that enclosure with the next model. In my opinion, that would confirm they knew there was a design flaw.
Any chance the repair shop can give you a list of the other Winnebagos on which they had to make the same repair?  Strength in numbers and all that.  I can't imagine that Winebago is unaware of this error.  Imagine how many other repair shops have worked on the same error. 

In fact, isn't there some US agency that collects dangerous design flaw information?  Should have been a recall by Winnebago the first time this was discovered. 

I am taking my 04 Winnebago in for a failing water heater. It stopped working in the electric mode. I can't get my hand behind the heater because it is to tight. I can't tell if the reset is tripped or not. Who puts a reset button in a place that can't be reached? It goes in Sunday and I thought it would be the element but it may be that unreachable reset button. Mine is a 10 gallon Atwood and they should be horse whipped with a real horse. If the reset button and the element were accessable from the front it would take five minutes to fix the problem. Must be made in America.
KenR said:
What I'm confused about though is why, after the reset switch was activated, it still worked on propane, but not electric power?

My water heater has two resets. One for electric and one for propane. I hope that's not the case with yours, and they should have cut two holes so you could reset both.
On my suburban, the electric and gas system are two independent circuits.  There is a 12v and 120 v thermostat, both with their own reset buttons.  That's probably the case with the atwood and why the gas still worked.
Wow. I didn't get back on here in a while and totally forgot about this post. In case anybody reads this, I never did get around to writing any of the magazines or anything because the repair shop finally refunded $200 after I had a heart-to-heart talk with the owner.  The heater has worked fine since then. On a side note, that particular repair shop has gone out of business. Guess I wasn't the only one that told everyone around to stay away from them.

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