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If you are converting a van, having hot water is a true luxury that many overlook. The reason is obvious since a water heater either uses a lot of electricity or must be connected to propane. In either case, it often presents an installation problem and becomes something that is better just being without.
After all, there are other ways that you can have hot water in your van without having an actual water heater. Furthermore, a water heater may not even be necessary unless you have a shower installed. In this case, having hot water can make or break the experience. Taking a cold shower is not fun even during the dog days of summer.
When I finished building my van, I put off installing a water heater and just used my shower with cold water. However, this was no fun and especially during some of the best times of the year. During the spring and fall when the weather is perfect for traveling in an RV, the water can get quite cold when the temperatures are nice and comfortable at night.
As an avid hiker and biker, I would often be dirty and sweaty from a day out on the trail. It’s nice to rinse off in the shower after this type of activity. A cold shower though? Well, I’ve taken many of them but there is a point when enough is enough and the time had come to install a water heater in my van.
Installing an Electric Water Heater in a Van
If you plan on installing a water heater in your van, the best option is to get a qualified plumber to do the job. I opted to do it myself since I have done quite a bit of plumbing work and have all the tools I need. I plumbed my entire van system so installing an electric water heater was a walk in the park. If you are not comfortable with this type of installation, I would highly recommend getting a professional on the job.
With an electric water heater, one thing that you’ll want to make sure of is that you have an electrical outlet capable of providing the amperage required for it to operate safely. You’ll also want to make sure you have a powerful solar system or a way to connect to shore power.
I chose the Bosch 2.5 gallon water heater. It uses 1440 Watts at 120 Volts which amounts to 12 Amps. This model has become a popular model mainly because of its small size and low electricity needs.
A typical 15 Amp plug would be fine for this particular water heater. Mine will only be used when I am connected to shore power so I won’t have to drain my solar battery bank to heat water.
Once you have determined that you can meet the energy needs of the water heater, you’ll need to figure out where to install it. You probably already know where this will be and have a location for it. If you have a setup with a fixed bed in the back with a storage area underneath, this space will work perfectly. This is exactly where I installed mine.
Ideally, you’ll want to place it as close to your water source as possible.
Be sure and install this solidly so that it doesn’t move around while driving. The wall mount that came with the Bosch heater is only a bracket that the heater hangs on. It isn’t very secure for a moving vehicle so I added some hooks to the area where I mounted it in so that I could cinch it down tightly with ratcheting straps. It doesn’t look great but it keeps it tight and in place.
Next, you’ll want to determine exactly how you’ll plumb it into your system. This may take some planning but the best way that I have found to sort this out is to draw out a simple diagram. The following diagram is what I sketched when I was planning how to add this water heater to my system.
Using the diagram above, these are the steps I took to fully install my water heater.
You’ll need to split the cold water coming out of the water pump or accumulator. Once your piping has left this water source area, the cold will need to continue for the cold side of your faucets. The other side of the splitter will connect to the cold side of the water heater. I installed an on/off valve for this side so that I could bypass the water heater altogether when not in use or when driving.
Once the cold water line has been connected to the cold side of the water heater, the hot water pipe will exit from the hot water side. This is what you’ll run to the hot side of all your faucets.
Extend the pressure relief valve to an outdoor area or waterproof floor pan. This valve is located on all water heaters. It’s important for expelling built-up pressure and keeping you safe. It’s a good idea to extend this valve to the outside of the van so that any expansion pressure has a place to escape. If you leave your water heater on at all times when you are parked, you will want to connect this. It can be run through the floor of the van so that any expansion leakage will be dripped onto the ground.
I only use mine occasionally to take a shower so I chose not to connect this for now. My water heater is only turned on for the amount of time it takes to heat water and take a shower.
I did, however, place my water heater into a waterproof container so that any overflow or leaks would be contained rather than leak or spill out in my van.
Using PEX to complete the connections, as long as they are connected correctly, shouldn’t give you any problems. These connections are solid and I have never had any issues with leakage. Just be sure and purchase a proper crimp tool to complete the job.
Once installed, you can simply plug it into a shore power connection or solar connection if you have plenty of amps to push it. It takes about 15-18 minutes to fully heat the 2.5 gallons in the tank. Once heated, you can take a quick shower, wash dishes, or whatever you need to do. I have found it to be plenty of water to take a quick sailor’s shower with.
Taking a quick shower will ensure that you have enough hot water and won’t leave you finishing up with cold water. Once complete, you can simply unplug the water heater as it is no longer needed. This is what I do in order to save electricity.
One thing to note about this type of water heater is that you can heat the entire tank, unplug it and the water inside will still be hot even after a full day. This is especially true in the hot summer temperatures. You can potentially heat the water while you are parked at a campground and then take a warm shower the next day when you find yourself boondocking without electricity.
Other Ways to Heat Water in a Van?
If you haven’t yet decided to install a dedicated water heater in your van, there are plenty of other ways to get hot water. I used a few methods myself before I installed mine and still do on occasion when I am off the grid.
With a stove bath, you can heat a large pot of water on the stove, then combine it with cooler water to create a warm bucket of water. It helps to have a large container to use for this, preferably one that collapses in order to save space.
With this warm water, you can splash yourself off and clean the important areas when in a pinch. It can be done outdoors and it also works great if you have a shower in your van or an area where you can splash water around.
If you are looking for a little hot water to wash dishes, you can also use this same technique. Just heat the water on your stove, then pour it into a sink so that you will have warm water to wash dishes or clean your face, etc.
Outdoor Sun Showers / Heaters
These types of showers provide a simple way to enjoy a warm shower, even when off the grid. In order for them to be most effective, you’ll need some warm sun to heat the water throughout the day. If there is no sun and it’s mostly cloudy, you may be out of luck with warmth but you’ll certainly have water.
There are different types but usually are available in hanging bags or tubes that ride on top of your van. The water contained inside gets heated by the sun and when you are ready to use the water for a shower, gravity does the work of providing the water flow.
Propane Water Heater
If you prefer an outdoor shower that can tap into propane, a propane camping water heater is the way to go. These are designed to be used outdoors only in a camping environment and are not intended to be used in closed quarters. The CampLux Water Heater is a great option.
However, if you are parked in the boonies and have your privacy, these types of water heaters can provide a great way to have a nice, warm outdoor shower.
After all is said and done, I prefer an electric water heater for those times when I just want to take a quick shower. It’s an easy installation and it’s a quick and easy way to get hot water when you need it. While you will have to be plugged up to shore power, most likely, I find that I am often in an area where I use shore power anyway. Having this electric water heater has been a game-changer for my shower.
Before having this water heater, I took cold showers when needed. Finding myself sweaty and stinky after a long hike, taking a cold shower isn’t so bad. However, even in hot summer temperatures, the water can sometimes be so cold it takes your breath away. The water heater is just another way to bring the comforts of home to a van that can make your life convenient while out on the road.