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What type of heater should I install in my campervan?

Contents

Heating your campervan is an essential step in the van build process to make sure you have a comfortable, cosy base to return to after a long day of exploring, especially in colder climates. Choosing the right heater for your van build can be really difficult – there are so many options, all with their own pros and cons. This article will break down all the different types of heater for a campervan, letting you compare the options and find a solution that works for you. 

When it comes to heating your living space, there are four types of heater you can use in a campervan: diesel, gas, wood or electric. Diesel or gas heaters are the practical and popular option, but some people can’t help but fall for the romanticism of a dinky wee log-burner. We don’t think electric heaters are a great option for campervan heating, but we’ll still consider them and you can make your own mind up. 

If you’re going all out with your van build and want the luxury of warm water on tap, the second half of this article will show you all the ways you can install hot water in your campervan.

Do I need a heater in my campervan?

Hot water in a campervan is a really nice luxury, but heating your living space is more of a necessity, especially in the winter months. Good insulation can make a massive difference when it comes to retaining heat in your campervan, but even with insulation, if it’s 0oC outside, a van at 18oC will drop down to the outside temperature in under an hour!

effect of insulation and people in a campervan

If you want your van to stay at a comfortable temperature, you need to add some sort of heating to counteract this inevitable temperature drop. In fact, just adding two people into the van will extend that time to 13.5 hours!

Even if you only use your campervan in the summer months, a heater makes it really easy to dry off muddy kit or to warm up properly after a cold-water swim. 

The amount of energy a heater can transfer to the air (or water) is measured in kilowatts; this value will help us compare different heaters and choose the size that’s right for your van.

Diesel heaters for campervans

How does a campervan diesel heater work?

Diesel heaters burn diesel to heat the large surface area of a heat exchanger. A fan draws in air which is heated as it passes through this heat exchanger, then the hot air is blown into the living space of the van. The diesel can be drawn from the vehicle’s fuel tank or from a smaller, auxiliary fuel tank. For the combustion process, diesel heaters draw in fresh air and expel the combustion gases out through an exhaust.

Note: Water is a combustion product of fuels such as diesel, petrol and gas. Any heater which doesn’t expel the combustion gases outside of your campervan will add a lot of moisture to the atmosphere. This is the difference between dry heat and wet heat.

how does a campervan diesel heater work

Most campervan diesel heater manufacturers also provided a petrol version, which might suit you better if your van already runs on petrol. 

You’ll need to choose the right size diesel heater for your van based on its size and how you plan to use it. A 2kW diesel heater will easily heat up a small-medium sized van and will do the job for big vans in the low temperatures. If you have a full-height van which you plan to use in really cold conditions, a 4kW heater will suit you better. If you choose a higher power rating, you can distribute excess heat into different areas of your van using air ducting, such as an under-bed garage space which can get cold and damp. This will keep the mould at bay and you can use this space as a mini drying room.

You can adjust the output of a diesel heater really easily from the control panel. Most heaters have the option of a timer and some come with a thermostat, so they can be programmed to keep the van at a set temperature. This is a great feature for keeping warm overnight and you’ll feel very smug when you don’t have to get out of bed to a chilly van in the morning. 

If you’re planning to use your campervan at high altitudes, you’ll need to choose a model which can accommodate changes in altitude. Without altitude adjustment, diesel heaters will not last long when you drive any higher than 1500m. At higher altitudes, the pressure is lower, so the air is less dense (‘thinner’) and the fuel to air ratio in the combustion process is fuel rich. Unburnt fuel in the form of black soot will build up inside the heater and clog it up. Heaters with altitude adjustment will measure the altitude and automatically alter the fuel pump frequency.

A diesel heater isn’t a good choice if you’ll regularly spend your time exploring high altitude mountains

You can usually buy a heater which has built-in altitude adjustment, but you sometimes have to buy an optional high altitude kit which can add another £100-£300 onto the price. 

Power consumption

Although they need 12V power to run the fuel pump, the fan, and the control electronics, diesel heaters have a relatively low energy consumption. 2kW models use around 30W of electrical power and the larger 4/5kW models use 60W. However, they can draw high currents during ignition in order to heat the glow plug. Keep this in mind when you’re running the diesel heater’s power cable from the battery – if you have a long run of cable, the gauge must be large enough to accommodate the high current. Diesel heaters can draw 8-12A on start up.

Fuel consumption

Diesel air heaters have a fuel consumption of around 0.3 litres/hour for 2kW models, and 0.5 litres/hours for 4/5kW models.

Safety

Diesel heaters are safe to use inside a campervan because the exhaust is installed so that all exhaust gases are pumped outside of the van. Always install a fire alarm and carbon monoxide alarm in a campervan which has a fuel burning heat source. If you install the heater yourself, remember to get the system checked by a professional before use. 

Campervan diesel heater advantages

The big advantage of diesel heaters is that it’s much easier to find a filling station selling diesel in the U.K. than LPG. Every petrol station in the U.K. sells diesel, whereas only 10% sell LPG. 

Campervan diesel heater disadvantages

The main downside to diesel heaters for vans is the relatively high noise output – especially from the outside, diesel heaters can make your van sound a bit like a rocket ready for launch! Most campervan diesel heater users don’t mind the noise, but you may get complaints from the neighbours!

How much does a diesel heater for a van cost?

Eberspacher diesel heaters and Webasto heaters cost around £700-£1,400, depending on the power rating. Autoterm heaters are a good middle ground,at £450-500, but you can also pick up an Amazon-special for just £100. These prices usually include the whole installation kit, but you may end up spending more on ducting, T-pieces and high-altitude kits.

Eberspacher and Webasto are tried and tested brands with years of good feedback but their heaters are really pricey. Both heaters need an additional high-altitude kit if you want to operate above 1500m, which will cost an extra £200-£300. If you want the luxury of controlling these heaters remotely via a mobile app, you’ll need another add-on which costs around £300-£400.

A Russian company called Autoterm (previously known as Planar) is becoming increasingly popular for offering very similar heaters to that of Eberspacher and Webasto, but at much more reasonable prices. The base price is considerably cheaper but so are the add-ons: you can buy a GSM modem for remote control for an extra £120, and the high-altitude kit for an extra £130 which will let you operate up to 2500m.

Eberspacher Airtronic Webasto AirTop Planar Autoterm

2kW

£800
£700
£450

4kW

£1,400
£900
£500

If these prices still seem outside your budget, Chinese diesel heaters are a much cheaper option. The general opinion is that the manufacturers have directly copied the existing brands and reverse-engineered them, so they look almost identical to the branded heaters. There’s a lot of debate online about whether it’s worth paying so much more for a brand we trust, when the cheaper heaters seem to do almost exactly the same job. 

Should you buy a Chinese diesel heater?

In reality, it’s very difficult to attach any hard numbers to the quality difference between the budget and the premium diesel heaters. Lots of people seem to use their budget diesel heater for years without any problems. Unfortunately, there is also a very high proportion of buyers who experience faults with their budget heaters, and end up trying to replace parts and fix it themselves, with very little support in terms of customer service. 

Some people will make the argument that, even if you had to replace three or four cheap diesel heaters due to faults, you would still end up spending less, but the inconvenience of replacing a diesel heater seems like a massive hassle, and this is pretty wasteful in terms of materials and delivery. 

Chinese diesel heaters don’t have automatic altitude adjustment, but there is online advice on how to manually adjust the settings of your Chinese diesel heater to accommodate altitude changes. 

What we can say for certain is that, if there is a problem with your heater, the more expensive brands are likely to provide much better customer service since they have a reputation to protect, and they all come with a 2 or 3 year warranty, whereas you might be left in the lurch if you’ve sourced a cheap heater with no warranty.

Try and remember that a diesel heater is a box that is actively burning flammable liquid inside your van! If you want to be confident about you and your family’s safety, choose a product which comes with some accountability and an official warranty.

How to install a campervan diesel heater

Installing a diesel heater isn’t a simple job and many DIY van converters choose to outsource this task to professional installers, but this can cost anywhere from £200 to £1200, depending on the fitter. If you want to save some money, there’s loads of videos and resources online and the instructions that come with the kit are usually very detailed. Most diesel heater distributors sell the heaters with all the parts you’ll need for installation. You can choose to install these heaters internally or underneath the floor of the van.

1. Install a fuel pickup pipe into the top of the vehicle’s diesel tank
 a. Drop the diesel tank down to access the lid, use a spare pipe on the sender unit or drill into the top of the tank
OR
   b.Use a small, separate diesel container which you can install inside your van (pictured below).
2. Mount the fuel pump and run the fuel line from the tank to the heater – usually along the underside of the van
3. Fix the heater to floor of the van – this involves drilling holes in the floor of the van to run the fuel hose, air intake pipe and combustion exhaust pipe outside
4. Run power from the battery to the heater
5. Install control panel and run power and signal wiring from heater to control panel
6. Run air ducting from the heater to different areas of the van
7. Install a carbon monoxide alarm.

how to install a diesel heater for van standpipe external diesel tank

Installing a small, separate diesel tank means you don’t have to drill into your existing tank

Gas heaters for campervans

How does a campervan gas heater work?

Gas air heaters work just like diesel heaters expect they burn LPG to heat the heat exchanger. Cold air is drawn in, heated as it passes through the heat exchanger, then blown out in the campervan. A fresh air intake is needed for the combustion process and the exhaust gases are expelled outside the van. There’s not much difference between a diesel heater and an LPG heater, but the main deciding factor may be whether or not you already have an LPG gas tank in your campervan for your gas hob or oven.

man installing gas system in campervan for instant water heater lpg

Dale installing the manifold for Ringo’s gas system, which powers their Propex heater, cooker, and instant water heater

LPG (Liquid Petroleum Gas) is the general term for either propane, butane, or a mixture of both, and most LPG heaters will be able to operate on either type. To install LPG in your campervan, you can use a replaceable gas bottle such as Calor, Flogas, or Gaslow, which you’ll need to swap out for a fresh one when its runs out, or you can install a refillable gas bottle which can be refilled from the Autogas LPG pumps at fuel stations. 

replaceable lpg tank refillable underslug gas tank campervan

Refillable underslung gas tank (left) and a replaceable gas bottle (right)

Refillable gas bottles are slightly more expensive to buy (more like £150-200, as opposed to £60-80), but the cost of refilling is much cheaper. The price of LPG from the pump is currently £0.70 per litre, whereas a Calor gas bottle swap out will cost around £2 per litre of gas. 

Power consumption

A 2kW gas air heater will draw around 20-30W during continuous use. Gas heaters use a little less electricity power than diesel heaters since they don’t have to run a fuel pump. Diesel heaters also use more power to start up due to the glow plug, whereas gas heaters simply spark to ignite. 

Fuel consumption

A 2kW gas heater will use around 150 grams of gas per hour, which is 0.3 litres of liquid per hour. Diesel heaters use a similar amount of fuel per hour, but the current price of diesel is up to £1.90/litre (as of June 2022), and LPG from the pump is only £0.70/litre, so you will actually spend 2.5 times more to run a diesel heater right now. However, if you choose to use a replaceable gas bottle, you’ll pay more like £2/litre, which is similar to the price of diesel. 

Safety

Remember, even small gas leaks can lead to a dangerous build up of flammable fuel. Always follow installation instructions carefully and include a gas drop out vent in the gas compartment. Always install a fire alarm and carbon monoxide alarm in a campervan which has a fuel burning heat source and if you install the heater yourself, remember to get the system checked by a professional before use. 

Campervan gas heater advantages

The big advantage of installing a campervan gas heater is that the fuel is much cheaper, if you opt for a refillable tank.

If you are also using gas for cooking, then you will already need to install a gas tank. This means you can rely on the same tank to also supply your heater, which avoids tapping into your diesel tank or installing a secondary tank.

Campervan gas heater disadvantages

When it comes to buying a gas air heater, there is much less choice than with a diesel heater. There are only a few brands who make these heaters, such as Propex, Whale and Truma, and there aren’t any budget options

Although Autogas LPG is much cheaper than diesel, not every garage sells it and you usually have to do a bit of googling to find the closest garage with an LPG pump. 

It’s also worth mentioning that lots of people are concerned it’s hard to find LPG in Europe, but this is not the case. It’s actually much easier to find LPG in Europe than in the U.K.! All you need is a set of pump adapters which cost around £30 and you will be able to easily refill your LPG at any European petrol station.

Finally, LPG heaters are around twice as heavy as diesel heaters (e.g. 6kg for 2kW LPG heater as opposed to 3kg for a 2kW diesel heater) and some models are around twice as large too. 

How much does a campervan gas heater cost?

Most 2kW LPG heaters cost £500-800 and for larger models such as the 5kW/6kW, expect to pay around £1,000. 

The Propex HS2000 is the cheapest gas air heater, costing around £500 for the full installation kit. Charlie and Dale use this heater and have found it to be reliable and efficient. Fundamentally the Propex heater is a very simple device and doesn’t have any fancy features to go wrong!

The Whale 2kW space heater is a bit more pricey at £725, but gives you the option of using 230V power to heat the space when you’re parked up with access to electric hook-up.

The Truma VarioHeat Eco is another option for gas and electric air heating, with the 2.8kW model costing £790. The VarioHeat Comfort model is rated to 3.7kW and costs £1,045. On its max heating setting, it will draw 5.4A of 12V power which is quite a drain on your battery bank. These heaters can also accommodate an electric add-on which will add 1.8kW of heating power when you have access to 230V power, although this will cost another £500.

Truma VarioHeat Whale Expanse Propex HS2000

2-2.9kW

£790
£725
£500

3.7kW

£1,045

How to install a campervan gas heater

Installing an LPG heater is a very similar process to the diesel heater installation, except you’ll need to include a gas tank instead of using the vehicle’s diesel tank. You can choose to store the gas bottle inside the van or mount a gas tank underneath. An underslung gas tank saves space inside the van but is more expensive and trickier to install.

1. Fix the heater to the floor of the van – this involves cutting holes in the floor of the van to run the air intake pipe and combustion exhaust pipe.

2. Install the gas tank

   a. Internal gas bottle – a gas locker must be built to secure the gas bottle in place with a gas drop-out vent in the floor. If using a refillable bottle, a fill-point will need to be installed somewhere accessible.

   b. Underslung gas tank – you’ll need to find a good position under the van with room for the tank and a strong part of the chassis to bolt to.

3. Install pressure regulator and valve between gas tank and heater

4. Run power cable from the battery to the heater

5. Install a control panel somewhere accessible and run power and signal wiring from heater to control panel

6. Run air ducting from the heater to different areas of the van

7. Install a carbon monoxide alarm.

propex HS2000 space heater installation

Campervan wood burners

How does a campervan wood burner work?

Wood burning stoves have been around for a long time, so we all know the basics – they burn wood and radiate heat to the surrounding area. Air enters through a vent and the smoke and combustion gases are drawn up through the flue and exit through the roof of the van.

Izzy and Laurie’s (@camperdreamin) beautiful campervan wood burner

Having a mini log burner in your campervan is a great way to get that cosy, log cabin feel and the comforting crackle of burning wood is a lot more pleasant than the mechanical whirr of the diesel or gas heater. 

Log burners are really efficient and quick to heat up small spaces. Like any other heater, different log burners have an associated heat output in kilowatts, but this will vary quite a lot with the type of wood and the state of the fire. Most people find that, because they are so efficient, the smallest size wood burner will be enough for even large campervans.

Fuel consumption

A small campervan wood burner will use around 1-2 logs per hour, depending on how you choose to stoke it. You’ll save money if you source the wood yourself, but you’ll need to make sure it’s dry wood because wet wood can generate too much soot and tar which can block the flue and risks combustion gases building up inside the van.

Safety

A wood burning stove is safe to use in a campervan as long as it’s installed correctly. Don’t be tempted to position the stove too close to the wall or cabinets nearby – follow the advice given in the installation instructions to ensure safe distances between hot surfaces and combustibles. 

If the flue leaks or becomes blocked, harmful combustion gases can enter the living space of the van and significant soot build-up can even cause flue-fires. Your flue should be swept once a month and you must ensure that you fit a smoke alarm and a carbon monoxide alarm in close proximity to the log burner and have a fire extinguisher in an accessible place. We’d recommend finding a professional to check your installation before using it.

Campervan wood burner advantages

A wood burner in a campervan can create a cosy atmosphere that’s otherwise hard to replicate.

They also create a dry heat which is perfect for drying out wet clothes after a rainy walk.

Wood burners are our absolute favourite way to heat a campervan. They do an excellent job of heating a small space and put out a dry, consistent heat which is perfect for cold and wet weather. Plus they’re totally silent and create an unbeatable ambience which maintains a connection to the outdoors even when you’re shut away inside for the night. They are the heart of all our little rolling homes, and we wouldn’t be without them.

Campervan wood burner disadvantages

Even though log burners are a relatively cheap heating option and seem idyllic in many ways, there are some drawbacks which will put some people off. The biggest of these is the lack of control of heat output. You won’t have the luxury of setting your heater to maintain the temperature of the van overnight like you would with a diesel heater. And when you wake up to a chilly van, you’ll have to put a bit of effort in before getting any heat.

They use up a lot of precious living space inside your van – not only with the burner itself, but with the clear space needed around it and with the storage of wood. They’re also much heavier than other heating options, weighing between 12-18kg, whereas a diesel or gas heater weighs only 3-8kg. 

Finally, most insurers won’t cover you for any fire damage caused by the log burner and may not cover you at all if you have one installed. If you’re in the process of converting a van, we have some advice on self-build campervan insurance.

How to install a campervan wood burner

Log burning stoves get really hot (they normally burn at 650oC and can get up to 1,100oC!), so you’ll need to take quite a few steps to ensure a log burner is installed safely, although none of them are particularly technical. 

Most importantly, you’ll need to position the stove and the flue at a safe distance from any other materials. If these dimensions are included in the stove’s data sheet, follow those instructions. If not, there isn’t a regulatory standard for installing a log burner in a campervan, but there is one for a marine setting: BS 8511:2010 Code of practice for the installation of solid fuel heating and cooking appliances in a small craft. Here’s a summary of the information in that standard which should help you choose a safe layout when installing your stove. 

1. To ensure it stays put, you’ll need to bolt the log burner firmly to the floor or wall of the van.

2. The hearth needs to project in front and to each side of the stove, and be made from a sturdy, non-flammable material. The hearth should be fixed firmly in place.

3. A heat shield behind the burner will protect the wall of the van and help reflect radiant heat back into the van. This can be made of 25mm thick calcium silicate fireproof panel which can be tiled or clad in metal.

4. Use an insulated flue, but remember that the flue can still get very hot. Cut a hole in the roof of the van big enough so that there is a gap between the flue and the metal skin of the van – flue brackets can be used to secure the flu in place. Make sure that any cladding or insulation is at least 50mm away. 

5. Use a flashing collar and a bead of heat resistant silicone to make a watertight seal around the flue. Top the flue with an open-sided chimney cowl.

6. You’ll need to install an air vent as close to the stove as possible to ensure a good air draw through the flue, for safety and efficient burning.

how to install a campervan wood burner log burning stove in a camper van

Electric heating in campervans

If you’re used to using electric heaters at home, you might be tempted to rely on your electric heater when you’re out and about in your camper. This will only be feasible if you’re planning to always be based on a campsite, where you’ll have access to 240V electric hook-up. You will have to watch out for the current limit of the electric hook up point. Most campervan electric hook-ups are limited to either 10A or 16A, which is equivalent to 2.3kW or 3.7kW, if you plug in a high wattage electric heater, you might not be able to use any other 230V appliances at the same time, and you risk blowing the campsite post’s fuse.

If you want to use your campervan off-grid, your electrical energy is limited by the size of your leisure battery, and using electrical resistance to create heat always uses a lot of energy. If you wanted to achieve a comparable heating performance to that of a 2.1kW diesel heater, a radiant electric heater will run a 150Ah battery down to 50% in less than 1.5hrs, which isn’t sustainable if you want to last without hook-up for at least a couple of days. To accommodate this high power draw, you would also need a high-wattage inverter which can cost £700-£900.

We get lots of enquiries about electric blankets, which are slightly more feasible than an electric space heater because they heat a relatively small space where the heat is retained by your body and the bedding. For example, a 150W electric blanket would draw 12.5A of current from the 12V batteries, which equates to 12.5Ah for one hour of use. If you have a fairly large battery bank, 30 minutes of use every morning and night won’t completely drain your battery, but you would have to be frugal with other aspects of your electrical usage to make up for it.

If you’re converting an electric van, it might make sense to install an electric heater. As you can utilise the power from your traction battery to recharge, you won’t need as big a battery bank as if you were converting a combustion engine van.

Need help understanding campervan electrics? We’ve written lots of other articles to help you out and we’ll even help you design your electrical system for free! Check out our free electric system design service, Nomadic Energy.

Our free electrical system design service makes off-grid energy simple.

Campervan water heaters

A water heater in a campervan is definitely not a necessity; lots of full-time van dwellers make-do with just a kettle on a gas stove. However, if you have the budget for it, it’s not too difficult to install a hot water system in your campervan and it’ll add that little bit of luxury which will make your van feel more like home.

There are quite a few options when it comes to choosing a water heating system, all with their own pros and cons and varying prices, ranging from £100 to £1,500. We’ll cover the tried-and-tested methods, the new and improved, and the budget options with minimal installation.

Dual fuel water heaters

A popular option which has been used by caravans and campervans for a long time, the dual fuel heater can use a gas burner or an electric element to heat a tank of water. When you’re off-grid, the campervan’s LPG tank will fuel the heater, and when you’re plugged into 230V mains at a campsite, the gas and electric can be used in tandem for a faster heating time. These heaters are installed against the exterior wall of the campervan with an opening which expels combustion gases to the outside. 

propex malaga 5e dual fuel campervan water heater

Propex Malaga 5E – a reasonably priced gas and electric water heater, which as you can tell from the photo, is quite an old product!

Unlike your hot water system at home, you’ll have to preempt your hot water needs, since they take around 30 minutes to heat up, although that can be shortened to 15 minutes when used in gas and electric mode. They usually have a tank size of around 10 litres and they don’t use up much gas: 100g/hour on average.

Because they’ve been around for a while, there are quite a few options of dual fuel water heaters, such as the Truma Ultrastore Rapid and the Propex Malaga for £400-500. You can often choose a model which runs exclusively on LPG, or one which can use both LPG and electric. For £650-700, Whale produces an 8 litre dual fuel heater which can be mounted underneath the van, saving precious space and negating the need for an exhaust outlet on the side of the van.

Whale Expanse – suitable for mounting underneath the van

Although the tank sizes are small, as soon as hot water gets pulled out of the tank, the boiler draws more cold water in and continues to heat it, meaning you should be able to draw more than one tank of hot water. For example, from a 10 litre heater, you might get around 35 litres over 10 minutes before it begins to drop below 40oC and you’ll need to wait for it to heat up again.

Summary
  • Choice of using campsite power or LPG when off-grid
  • Heating times: gas only – 30 minutes | gas and electric – 15 minutes
  • Fuel usage: 100 g/h
  • Price: £400-700

Truma Combi 4e

A combination boiler such as the Truma Combi 4e will provide you with both hot water and hot air. If you don’t already have a hot air system in your van, it might be worth installing this device to save space, money and installation time

truma combi 4e campervan water and air heater van camper

The Truma Combi 4e is a air and water heater in one

The Truma Combi 4e (e stands for electric) can use 230V electric power or LPG as the fuel source, or a combination of both. There is also a diesel version if you would rather tap into the vehicle’s diesel tank, instead of using an LPG canister.

The Truma Combi 4e is the most common model used in campervans and is 4kW, but are three sizes to choose from (2kW, 4kW or 6kW). You can also choose to buy a model which operates on gas alone (the Truma Combi 4) if you think you’ll never use the electric option (i.e. if you’ll spend your time fully off-grid). In mixed mode, with gas and electricity being used to heat the water, the Truma Combi can heat a 10 litre tank in 23 minutes. With gas only, heating will take a bit longer: more like 30 minutes. To achieve this, it consumes 160g, 330g or 460g of LPG per hour (for the 2kW, 4kW or 6kW models respectively).

A handy feature is the automatic drain valve which kicks in at 3oC for frost protection – this avoids water freezing inside the pipes and causing damage. This would need to be done manually in other heaters.

This heater is really versatile but it’s pretty bulky (51cm x 45cm x 30cm), heavy (16kg) and expensive: £1,400. But that’s to be expected because it combines two types of heating.  Before you write it off, check the combined cost of your chosen air heater and a water heater and there won’t be much difference in price.

Summary
  • Provides hot air and water
  • Choice of using campsite power or LPG when off-grid
  • Heating time: gas only – 30 minutes | gas and electric – 23 minutes
  • Fuel usage: 260 g/h
  • Price: £1,200-1,500

Electric water heaters

If you plan on spending most of your time at campsites, an electric water heater might be a good option for you, but you won’t have the flexibility of using it when you’re not hooked up to mains power.

Creating heat from electrical resistance always uses a lot of energy, and when you want to use your campervan off-grid, that electrical energy is limited by the size of your battery bank. We wouldn’t recommend using an electric water heater when you’re off-grid – the high current draw and slow heating times would eat into your precious battery bank capacity. With a big battery bank, inverter, and good solar power, it is technically feasible, but other heating options will be more effective for off-grid use and cheaper overall.

truma boiler elektro 14l electric water heater for campervans

The Truma Boiler Elektro is a 14L electric water heater

Most electric water heaters for campervans consist of a tank with a heating element inside, rated to around 600-800W, depending on the model, and require 230V power. Keep in mind that campsite hook-up points will be limited to either 10A or 16A, which is equivalent to 2300W or 3700W, so make sure the device won’t draw any more than this or you’ll risk blowing a fuse at the campsite and having to reimburse the owner. 

Campervan electric heaters are quite slow to heat, although the heating time will depend on the tank size. A 10 litre tank will take around 40 minutes to heat up.

One advantage of electric heaters is the easy installation – you won’t have to install a gas system or tap into the vehicle’s diesel tank. They’re also the cheapest option, at around £100-400. There’s a fair bit of choice and variety in cost, for example, the Truma 14 litre (£420), the Propex 10 litre (£190), The Bobil Electric heater (£170) or there’s a few on Amazon at around £100.

Summary
  • Good for campsite-based vans with electric hook-up
  • Don’t need to install an LPG or diesel system
  • Not a good option for off-grid use
  • Heating times: ~40 minutes 
  • Price: £100-400

Calorifier

Using a calorifier tank in your campervan allows you to draw heat from the engine’s coolant system to heat a tank of water. As you drive, coolant fluid flows around the engine to stop it overheating and picks up excess heat as it does so. By tapping into the hot coolant tube in your van, you can run the coolant to a calorifier tank, which simply transfers the heat from the coolant, into the tank of hot water, before returning the coolant back to the van system. You can also opt to include a 230V heating element in your calorifer tank, so if you have access to mains power, you won’t have to worry about driving to create hot water. 

Surecal 22l calorifier tank for campervan hot water heating

The Surecal 22L calorifier tank

With a calorifier tank, you will have to drive for at least 20-30 minutes to get hot water and just running on idle won’t do the job. If you tend to park up off-grid for days at a time, then this system won’t work for you, but if you like to drive most days, this option will save you money on heating fuel.

One big benefit is that you’ll have access to hot water as soon as you park up, whereas other heaters will take a while to heat up and can’t be run while driving. A well-insulated tank will then stay hot for several hours, meaning you should have hot water for the afternoon and evening, although you won’t have any for a morning shower. 

Surecal are a popular choice for calorifier tanks, with choice of tank sizes from 10 litres to 40 litres, costing around £400-550 depending on size. 

To heat the coolant when you’re not driving, some people install a secondary diesel heater such as the Webasto Thermo or the Eberspacher Hydronic S3, which can be connected to the coolant system. These can also preheat the engine and heat the cab air blowers, but are complex to install and it’s normally recommended that they’re fitted by a professional.

Summary
  • Good for people who drive everyday
  • Can use coolant heat or 230V element
  • Heating time: 20-30 minutes of driving 
  • Price: £400-550

Tankless water heaters

Tankless (or instantaneous) water heaters draw from the fresh water tank and use a gas burner to instantly heat the water as it travels through the coils. This gives you the luxury of hot water on demand without having to wait for a tank to heat up. There are two types of tankless water heater: those which are designed for outdoor use only (sometimes called portable showers), and those which have been designed for indoor, permanent installation.

The iMass IWH water heater from Camec is a relatively new water heater which can be internally mounted. By cutting a large square hole in the exterior of the van, one face of this box-like heater is external, so it can draw fresh air and expel combustion gases. It’s more expensive than other tankless water heaters, at £700, but this seems like a really good option and is much safer than using one which isn’t designed for internal use. Because it’s fairly new, it’s hard to judge the long term reliability of this product but it’s likely to become a very popular option for people who want a safe, practical, instant water heater.

The iMass internal instant water heater (left) and the Camplux 5L outdoor instant water heater (right)

Instant water heaters appear to use a lot more fuel than heaters with a tank (700g/hour as opposed to 100g/hour) but you’ll only use it for a couple of minutes at a time, making them much more fuel-efficient when you only need a small amount of hot water. They also aren’t limited to the size of the small hot water tank, instead you could use your whole fresh water tank if you wanted to.

Other than the iMass IWH, most tankless gas heaters are designed to be used outdoors and are sometimes advertised as portable showers. The most common outdoor shower found in a campervan is the Camplux 5L. They don’t have an exhaust which can expel combustion gases outside and they use up oxygen from your living space. The most common way to mount a portable shower is next to your back door, so that when the outdoor shower is in use, you can simply move the shower from inside the van to a secondary mount on your back door.

Charlie and Dale use an outdoor tankless water heater which is installed inside the garage, but can only be used as an outdoor shower with the back doors wide-open. At £200 from Amazon, it comes with its own regulator, shower head and hose. It’s also battery powered, so once the gas is connected, it’s ready to use as an outdoor shower. They’ve found that this model doesn’t waste water with a cold start and is hot in around 5 seconds. Check out how Charlie and Dale made use of their tankless water heater to create an outdoor shower.

If you want zero installation hassle, Hottap has created an outdoor shower which packs away into a box, ready to be used wherever, whenever. The full kit comes with a mounting bracket, a shower head, and a storage box which doubles up as a sink, complete with faucet and drain. This means you could save space in your permanent build and choose to leave it at home if you’re short of space. Unfortunately, there will be a little bit of faff involved every time you want to set it up – you’ll need to connect the gas and plug the pump into a 12V cigarette lighter socket, and if you want the water up to 50oC, the flow rate will be only 2 litres/minute which is pretty measly.

hottap portable shower outdoor tankless water heater
Summary
  • Convenience of instant hot water
  • Fuel conservative
  • Easy installation
  • Heating time: instant
  • Price: £200-700
    • Camplux 5L for external use only – £200
    • iMass IWH can be used internally – £700

Bobil Air Xchange

The Bobil Air Xchange is a unique system which uses the output from an air heater to produce hot water. Water from a cold tank is cycled through the device and as the air passes over it, heat is transferred from the air to the water. Using an air diverter, you can manually choose whether to use the hot air to heat your van or heat the water, or do both simultaneously, although the heating power would then be shared. 

bobil air xchange campervan heater water heating for van

At £270, this system is reasonably priced and can heat the water pretty quickly: a 4kW diesel heater should be able to heat 12L of water from 15oC to 60oC in just 15 minutes. The Bobil kit comes with all the parts you need and if you already have an air heater installed, adding this device should be pretty straightforward. Because you can rely on the vehicle’s big diesel tank for the fuel source, you won’t need to worry about sourcing LPG or finding an electric hook-up.  

In combination with an air heater, this system would be a good alternative to the Truma Combi, especially if you want to keep the costs down by using a budget air heater. 

The Bobil Air Hybrid heater uses the Air Xchange device in combination with an electrically heated, insulated tank to allow the use of 230V power when you have access to electric hook-up. The electric and air heating can also be used in tandem which allows around 30 litres of hot water to be drawn from only a 10 litre tank.

bobil air hybrid heater for a camper van
Summary
  • Uses heat from hot air ducting
  • Useful if you already have a hot air heater
  • Don’t need electric power or LPG tank, can make use of vehicle’s large diesel tank
  • Optional electrical element for those spending time on campsites
  • Heating time: 15 minutes with a 4kW diesel heater
  • Price: £270-375

Solar showers

If you want to keep costs low, a solar shower will do the job without breaking the bank or a complex installation. 

Solar showers are surprisingly effective for how simple they are. Just leave the black shower bag in the sun for a couple hours and the water inside will heat up. Then either hang it up above head height and gravity will do the work for you, or purchase a ‘pressure’ model which uses a pump to create the water pressure. With an outdoor shower set-up like Charlie and Dale’s, you can create a private outdoor shower space. 

They’ll only set you back £10-50 and take up very little space in the van, but they’re only going to be useful in warm, sunny months and even with a hot sun, they take a couple of hours to reach a comfortable shower temperature. Two of the most common models for campervans are the Decathlon Quechua pressure camping 10L solar shower and the Sea to Summit 10L pocket shower.

Sea to Summit pocket shower (left) and Decathlon Quechua pressure solar shower (right)

If you want to go full DIY, you can even build a low-budget, fixed solar shower on the roof of your van with a black plastic pipe and some simple fittings. You can rely on the gravitational pressure, or you can add a bike tyre valve which will let you prime the container before you start!

Do I need a shower in my campervan?

If you’re planning your hot water system around creating a shower in your campervan, think carefully about the impact this has on your build. First, be aware of the amount of water you normally use to shower. When you’re off-grid, water is a precious resource and showers use a lot of it. For example, a 5 minute shower uses 20-50 litres of water, depending on the flow rate. So if your water heater only has a 10 litre tank, you’ll need to get used to a very quick shower technique! Secondly, creating a shower cubicle in your van will also use up a lot of living space. If you think you could get by with campsite shower facilities and lake swims, you’ll save yourself a lot of money, water, space and installation time.

Camper heater FAQs

What is the best water heater for a motorhome? 

The best water heater for your campervan or motorhome will depend on your budget and what fuel you would prefer to use. If you already have an LPG tank, an LPG water heater will work well. If you always park up with access to mains power, electric water heaters are easy to install. If you already have an air heater, the Bobil Air Xchange would provide efficient water heating. 

Can you use a tankless water heater in a campervan? 

Yes, the iMass IWH is designed to vent the combustion gases and draw fresh air in from outside, therefore is safe to be used in a campervan. However, any tankless water heaters which don’t expel combustion gases outside the van, such as the Camplux 5L, are not safe for use in small, unventilated spaces. 

Can an RV water heater run on the 12V battery? 

Yes, some campervan and RV water heaters have the option to run on 12V power, such as the Bobil Electric or the Elgena KB6. However, the large power draw would use an impractical amount of the battery’s capacity, even with a large lithium battery and solar panels

How can I heat my campervan without electricity? 

If you want to use your campervan off-grid, you can use a diesel heater for your van or a campervan gas heater to heat your living space. Alternatively, you could install a wood burner. 

What is a Mr Heater Buddy? 

Mr Heater Buddy is a portable propane heater which produces heat from burning small, camping style propane gas bottles. These are not safe to use in small, unventilated spaces such as campervans or tents. The combustion gases are toxic in high concentrations and the combustion process can use up all the available oxygen in the space. Some people choose to use these heaters in their campervan when good ventilation is possible, but do so at their own risk. 

Are diesel heaters safe to use in campervans?

Properly installed diesel heaters are safe to use inside a campervan. Any combustion gases are vented to outside of the vehicle. As a safety precaution, always install a carbon monoxide alarm in a campervan with a diesel heater.

How much diesel does a diesel heater use per hour? 

2kW diesel heaters use around 0.3 litres of diesel per hour. 4/5kW models use around 0.5 litres of diesel per hour.

How much fuel does an Eberspacher heater use? 

The 2kW Eberspacher Airtronic diesel heater uses 0.27 litres of diesel per hour and the 4kW model uses 0.49 litres/hour.

How can I heat my van at night?

A diesel heater or gas heater with a thermostat can be used to maintain a steady temperature in your campervan at night. They have relatively low electrical power consumption, so can be run throughout the night without draining your leisure battery. 

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6 Responses

  1. I’m right at the start of my van conversion process. Probably a Sprinter. I was thinking of using LPG for cooking, fridge, hot water and heating. But recently I have seen reports of LPG being discontinued at BP stations and other places. Is LPG still a good idea?

    1. Hi Robin, LPG is a little harder to find than diesel just because it’s not as common at fuel stations in the UK. However, you can use a website such as mylpg.eu to check which fuel stations do sell LPG. We typically haven’t had any issues refilling LPG, there’s always a fuel station within a few miles where it’s available. In Europe it’s much easier, almost all fuel stations sell LPG and you just need a set of LPG adapters for your refill point which cost around £30. Hope that helps!

  2. Hiya, I’m mid-way through my Ford Transit Custom conversion and have been using your book at each stage – super helpful!! I intend to install a propex heater and camplux or joolca shower off the back door, as well as a 2 burner hob – much like your middle complexity system. Chatting to some gas engineers about having my system ‘certified’ by someone on the gas safe register is proving interesting. They are reluctant to certify others work (particularly non-plumbers), but few have the ‘tickets’ to cover all the possible heaters out there in order to issue a Gas Safe Register standard certificate. It seems a really grey area on ‘competency’ to complete work independently?? I am not intending to hire it out commercially, but would like it to be confident any work I do has been deemed safe by a pro. Wondering how you managed to navigate this area or any advice? Cheers!

    1. Hi Peter, I think it will be tricky to receive a Gas Safe certificate unless someone else installs your system. However, it may be possible for a professional to check your system and confirm for you it’s safe without issuing this certificate. You could try speaking to a fitter of gas systems in campervans rather than a generic gas engineer, they may be more help than someone who doesn’t specialise in campervans. Hope you can find someone to help!

  3. Hi guys! We are just starting our Ford Transit MK8 L3H3 conversion so it is a similar size to your van. We are weighing up between the Truma Combi vs the Propex heater and Camplux Water Heater. We understand you have the Propex HS2000 – is this big enough to heat your van and do you have multiple outlets or just one?
    We are hoping to head to the alps for snowboarding when it is done so we want a toasty van! Would we be better with the HS2800? Thanks!

    1. Hi guys, hope the conversion is going well! The HS2000 is 100% big enough to heat our van, it would be fine if the van was twice the size! We only ever really run it for 10-15 mins and then the van holds the heat really well. We only have one outlet, but if we did it again we’d maybe put a second in the boot – useful if you have a drying area, especially for snowboards etc! Also good in a shower cubicle if you will have one to dry everything out. Thanks!

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