Maximize Vanlife comfort and convenience with a Campervan hot water heater
If you’ve ever been camping in a cold or even moderately cool region, you know how challenging it can be to not have hot water.
But to be able to turn a tap handle and have hot water on demand in your campervan for cleaning campsite cooking equipment, shaving… makes vanlife that much more easy, comfortable and fun.
In our research for this post we found a wide range of campervan hot water heaters.
So whatever type of Campervan you have, however simple or complex, there’s a campervan water heater for you.
Energy sources for Campervan hot water heaters
You can make campervan water heating as complex or simple as you have time, patience and resources for. But one thing is certain, it takes energy to heat water.
Fortunately there are plenty of options for heating water in your van, as you’ll see below.
Propane water heater
Propane (or “LP Gas” Europe) is probably the most popular energy source for heating water in campervans.
Propane water heating allows for total independence from the electrical grid.
Also, many vans already have propane tanks installed, campervan heaters, cook tops and other systems.
It’s nice to be able to simply tie a propane powered campervan water heater into an existing propane tank.
Propane hot water heaters for campervans are typically “on demand” and mounted outside the van for safety reasons.
Diesel campervan hot water heater
If your vans motor runs on diesel fuel, diesel fired water heating systems can be a very efficient and smooth running option.
A diesel campervan hot water heater will typically be combined with an air heating system such as the Eberspächer Espar Airtronic D2.
Cold water from the water supply tank passes through a heat exchanger that’s heated by the diesel heating system.
As seen in the video below, this is a very innovative, efficient and effective campervan water heater.
Though initial setup is complicated and the components can be expensive, the payoff is huge.
Electric campervan water heating
Since electricity is at such a premium in most campervan builds, propane tends to be the campervan water heater energy source by default, if not choice.
But electric water heating is an option in your campervan build if you’re determined, and a bit resourceful.
Setting the issue of the cost and possible complications of electrical sources aside for a moment… there are a number of options for electric campervan hot water heaters.
12 Volt Water Heater
Of course many campervan builders want to create a 12v water heater system.
This is a challenge because of the volume of power required to heat water.
So most campervan water heaters are powered by propane or 110/240 AC electric power.
One solution is to install a water tank with a 12 volt powered heating element and connect that element to a campervan power inverter. This will convert AC (110 or 240 volt) to DC (12 or 24 volt) for a 12v water heater system.
An advantage of this is that you’ll be able to use AC shore power when available, or switch to power your 12 volt water heater with a quiet portable generator that provides AC power.
12 volt campervan water heater system options
There are DC water heater elements available , but please be careful when choosing a 12 volt water heater element.
Turns out there’s some dishonest folks selling AC elements as DC. The video below explains the issue.
In my research for this post I found a great source for a 12 volt water heater heating element with adjustable temperature! (also explained in the video below).
To use this great little device you’ll need a tank style hot water heater with a standard element mount.
Using solar electric to power your 12 volt campervan water heater
Solar is the cheapest source of electricity and can be a simple way to heat water for your campervan.
If you travel in sunny climates, you might give serious thought to solar as a water heating solution for your van.
There are three primary approaches to heating campervan water with energy from the sun.
Solar panel water heating
These produce electricity that’s used to power heating elements in the water supply.
Unless you have very large panels and lots of sun, solar panels are best in combination with other sources of electricity for heating water.
For example you can either manually switch between batteries and solar panel or install a device that does the switching automatically as power levels and needs dictate.
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Solar heated water tubes
Mounted on the roof of the campervan and often made of (or painted with) black material, they absorb sunlight that heats the water stored within.
This can be a very DIY-friendly method for using solar to heat large volumes of water.
A popular approach is to mount long, large diameter (6 feet by 4 inches in diameter or more) PVC tubing on the roof of the van.
A filler tube is installed at the top and on the bottom is another tube to connect the supply line that runs into the van or to a hose with a sprayer head.
For basic pressure such as supply to a sink, the volume of water will suffice.
For shower pressure, your solar tubes can be pressurized.
You’ll need to plan very carefully for weight distribution and secure mounting of the tubes.
It’s important to know the load limits of your van and the weight of the water when full.
I found this DIY project on YouTube and I have to say it’s very good and definitely worth a watch.
Solar heated water bags
Several great solar bag products are available. They’re typically around 3 gallons and get folded up and stored away when not in use.
They’re often marketed as shower bags but can be used for any hot water needs.
Fill with water and hang off your vans rack or from a tree limb where it can absorb sunlight.
As long as the sun is out, you can have warm water in just a few minutes.
Using your campervan engine to heat water
A heat exchanger can be used to heat water from the engine of your van, and there are various systems and products available for this.
The end result is essentially free heat while driving since the engine is already producing heat.
If you’re not driving or running the van motor, water is not being heated.
Idling the motor just to heat water is not advised for safety reasons. Also, it’s inefficient and therefore expensive in fuel costs and engine wear.
These systems tend to be complex to set up and expensive.
The advantage is that when you arrive at your destination, you’ve got hot water ready for cooking, showering, whatever. And the energy necessary to heat that water was essentially free.
Water supply for your campervan hot water heater
There are two possible sources of water in a campervan: On board camper hot water tanks and “shore” supply aka hooking up to water supplies at campsites, truck stops or other sources.
Many campervan builds include both options. This allows for using a hook up to keep the on board tank full while at a campsite or RV park.
A tank can be as simple as a 5 gallon plastic water bottle with a simple spigot, or as deluxe as a large stainless steel tank (or two) mounted under the chassis with an electric pump and a large access cover for cleaning.
Of course you van needs to be level when parked so that your water system and drains work properly.
I want to reign the scope of this article in a bit so I’ll leave the issue of holding tanks alone for now. More on water tanks for campervans in a future article.
Campervan water pump, filters and expansion tanks
Mostly another topic for another article, it’s important to consider how the hot water will get from your tank to your sink or shower.
Different systems require different types of campervan water pump, while others have the pump built in.
Your on demand campervan water heater will include a pump.
If your system is built from components e.g.; supply tank with submersion heating element, filters, expansion tank… it will also include a water pump.
Simple 12 volt submersible pumps are available for your basic water tank. For a more robust pumping system, you’ll want an inline pump that delivers high pressure for showers.
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Inline water filter
It’s important to install a basic inline screen filter to protect any mechanical and electronic devices such as water heaters and pumps.
The filter will be installed on the water line between (ahead of) the water tank and the pump. This will keep sand or other small debris, that can get in your tank when filling, out of your expensive equipment.
Another important component is an expansion tank.
Also known as an accumulator, it keeps the pressure in your water line consistent so your pump doesn’t constantly cycle on and off due to changes in temperature, elevation or a small leak in the line or at the faucet.
Our Top Picks for Campervan Water Heaters
Thanks for reading
How are you heating water in your Campervan? Please comment below.
Got questions about Campervan hot water heaters? Ask them in the comments and we’ll do our best to answer.