One of the most common questions people ask when they start a self-build campervan project is: “How do I warm up my campervan in the winter?” Depending on where you are in the world, and of course, where you intend on exploring, keeping warm in a campervan is vital. It can make living in a van an absolute pleasure, or it can quickly make you run to the nearest building for some much-needed warmth! Thankfully, heating a campervan is not to difficult if you know how!
What should you consider before installing heating in your campervan?
Before you decide on what heating system is best for your campervan, it is first recommended to carry out some research.
To help you out, listed below are what we believe are 5 essential factors you should consider before purchasing your campervan heating system.
1. The Size of Your Campervan
When it comes to choosing the ideal heating system for your campervan, you should calculate the total area of the space you intend on heating. Once you have the total volume figured out, you should now find a heating source that can efficiently heat the space. Trying to heat a large area with an underpowered heater is not going to get the temperature to a sufficient level. Likewise, heating a small area with a powerful heater is going to be a waste of resources.
2. Finding Replacement Fuel Sources
As campervans are mobile, finding replacement fuel sources while on the move will undoubtedly play a role when it comes to deciding on the best heating system to install in your campervan. Thankfully, most countries have the infrastructure to supply gas, diesel and dry wood while travelling on the road. Having said that – It may be a good idea to search the internet to find out how easy it is to source replacement fuels in the countries you expect to visit.
3. Fuel costs
All heating systems will require some type of fuel. That may be dry wood for a wood-burning stove, diesel fuel for a diesel heater, or replacement gas for an L.P.G. heater. Moreover, some fuels are going to cost more than others. It’s also worth noting that if you are going to be living in your campervan on a more permanent basis, you will obviously require more fuel. Make sure to factor in these costs when deciding on what heating system to install.
4. Cost of Installation
Installation costs are also going to play a significant role when it comes to choosing the right type of campervan heating for your self-build project. From a basic wood-burning stove, with minimal installation costs, all the way up to a full gas multi-cylinder refill system with an L.P.G. heater. Make sure you carry out adequate research on installation costs.
5. Maintenance Costs
A well-maintained heater will keep you and the occupants safe. It will also keep the heater running at its most optimum condition. Certain heaters may require more regular maintenance. Likewise, some heaters will have greater costs when it comes to essential maintenance. Make sure you carry out adequate research on maintenance costs.
What are the main methods of heating a campervan?
Listed below are the 3 most popular campervan heating systems that can efficiently heat up your campervan. The list order is based on the popularity of each heating system according to Google search trends and Facebook polls.
Method 1: Diesel Night Heater
The most common heating system for campervans, motorhomes, or any commercial vehicle for that matter is a diesel night heater. These heaters are a super reliable way of providing an adequate amount of heat to an enclosed space. They use a minimal amount of fuel and produce near-instant heat.
Most models come with a digital screen that can be fitted in a convenient location. This allows you to set the temperature of the unit to regulate the internal climate. Another useful feature of a diesel heater is that some models give you the option to program the heater to come on at a specific time – no more frosty mornings!
Advantages of a diesel heater for heating a campervan
- They are incredibly reliable.
- Operate well in low temperatures (quite a significant benefit!).
- You are unlikely to run out of fuel as it’s easy to find diesel fuel abroad.
- Minimal running costs for both the electric and fuel requirements.
- Can be mounted outside of the vehicle that will free up internal space.
- Provide heat to the van quite quickly (provided you install a model with the right heat output [KW] to the size of the campervan).
- Regulate the temperature with a thermostat.
- Certain models feature an intelligent 7-day timer + remote start.
- Chinese models are becoming a lot more popular at a drastically reduced price.
Disadvantages of a diesel heater for heating a campervan
- A diesel night heater can be noisy from the outside.
- Older models or one that is poorly maintained may emit dangerous fumes.
- Most models use a little more electric than an L.P.G./natural gas heater. It might be a good idea to install solar panels to keep your electricity levels topped up.
- Pricey; Eberspacher heaters can cost from £600 – £2000.
- They need to be serviced and maintained regularly adding to costs.
How does a diesel heater work?
A diesel night heater is a very straightforward machine. Below is a super simplified process on how a diesel night heater operates.
- The air required for combustion is drawn into the diesel heater via an inlet pipe. This pipe is fitted through the floor to the exterior of the vehicle.
- The air now travels into the combustion chamber and is mixed under pressure with diesel fuel.
- The air-diesel mixture ignites, creating combustion.
- The heat from combustion increases the temperature of the outer combustion chamber. This then heats up the attached heat exchanger.
- After combustion, all exhaust gasses are safely expelled through an exhaust system to the outside of the vehicle.
- An internal 12V fan draws in air from the front duct.
- The air circulates around the heat exchanger, increasing the temperature of the air.
- The now warm air leaves the diesel night heater via the rear duct.
Are diesel heaters safe in a campervan?
Diesel night heaters are very safe to use in a campervan. Firstly, the waste gasses used for the combustion process are safely piped to the outside of the vehicle. All the gasses are safely expelled away from human occupants of the vehicle, this makes diesel night heaters safe to operate. The air that is to be warmed is drawn in from the interior. This means the air that is coming out of the machine that you will be breathing is entirely separate to harmful gasses.
Also, many models have additional safety features built directly into the machines. If a problem is detected, the heater will automatically shut down.
Important: Even though diesel night heaters do have an excellent safety record, accidents can and do happen. It is paramount you regularly maintain your diesel night heater. This work should be carried out by a trained technician. Failure to do so could result in a faulty unit that could become dangerous.
How much fuel does a diesel night heater use in one hour?
A typical diesel night heater will use between 24 to 28 millilitres of diesel fuel per hour, per 2kW of heat generated. According to the technical documents of the two most popular diesel heater brands;
- The Webasto AirTop 2000 uses about 24ml of diesel fuel per hour per 2kW of heat.
- The Eberspacher D2 uses about 28ml of diesel fuel per hour per 2.2kW of heat.
But it is worth mentioning that fuel consumption will change depending on many factors. These can be things like the model, ambient temperature, and even the altitude can all affect the total fuel consumption per hour.
How much electricity does a diesel night heater use in one hour?
Trying to figure out how much electricity you will use when running your night heater can depend on so many variables.
- If you’re operating your heater at its lowest heat output, expect to use around 8 – 16 watts of electricity per hour.
- If you’re operating the heater on its maximum heat output, expect to use around 28 – 34 watts of electricity per hour.
Once temperatures are at a comfortable level inside your campervan, energy required to maintain the heat will be reduced.
Disclaimer: It is worth mentioning that these figures here should be taken with a pinch of salt as each model will slightly differ to the next.
Does a diesel night heater smell?
A diesel night heater may emit a smell but this depends on where you are located to the heater. From inside the vehicle, as the air that is warmed up comes from the interior (recirculated), there shouldn’t be a noticeable smell.
From the outside of the vehicle, especially near the exhaust of the unit – you may smell diesel fumes when the heater first ignites. But once fully operational, exhaust gasses and any smell should be minimal.
Are diesel heaters loud?
A diesel night heater does produce noise when operating, however, the actual volume level is minimal. The sound is best described as a fridge when the fans kick in – yet a slight bit louder. Owners report they quickly get used to the sound and can comfortably sleep through the night while the unit is running.
Also, the actual operating volume of a diesel night heater will depend on the location of the unit. If the diesel night heater is located close to where you spend most of your time inside the vehicle, you will undoubtedly notice it more.
If you feel the noise may be an issue, you can take proactive steps to reduce the volume when it comes to installation. Some users choose to install their unit as far away from the primary occupancy as they can. And others choose to fit the unit in a purpose-built box with added sound deadening. Once running, noise levels are extremely minimal and we feel most people should be able to comfortably live with it.
How do I get the most out of my diesel heater?
With anything that requires fuel and air supply, you should always take precautions!
- Make sure both the inlet and exhaust pipe are always free from intrusion or any kind of blockage.
- Diesel night heaters should be serviced and maintained regularly.
- It is always recommended to choose a professional technician to install a diesel night heater.
- If you hear unusual noises coming from your diesel night heater, shut it off, and book it into a technician.
What We Think
We believe a diesel night heater is the best heating system you can choose for your campervan. Right now, they’re the ‘go-to’ campervan heater of choice – especially with the influx of extremely low-priced models coming out of China.
Diesel heaters will give you instant dry heat, they’re super safe, not too noisy from the inside of the van, and finally, they are incredibly reliable. Another good reason why we like them is if your van runs on diesel (and pretty much every van does), you can simply run a fuel line directly from the diesel night heater to your onboard fuel tank. This saves having to install a separate tank for the diesel night heater.
Diesel heater models we recommend
Below, we have listed what we believe are currently the best diesel heaters on the market.
Method 2: Wood Burning Stove
Installing a wood-burning stove inside your campervan is an excellent way of generating heat to keep you and the occupants nice and ‘toasty’. There is something quite romantic about having a real, roaring fire located inside your campervan, keeping all the occupants warm. Maybe it’s from our early ancestral days when we would all gather around an open fire and do whatever we did back then!
More and more wood-burning stove manufacturers (and hobbyists) are now producing stoves designed for small and tight spaces.
Advantages of a wood-burning stove for heating a campervan
- Exceptionally cosy.
- Burning wood sounds fantastic!
- Cheap to buy – Expect to pay between £100 – £300 for a 2kw unit.
- Fuel is cheap. Wood can be scavenged (as long as it’s dry), or you can buy ready-to-burn firewood.
- Quiet to run (a crackling fire sounds incredible!).
- Easy to maintain – nothing electrical to go wrong!
- Dry heat output – excellent for drying out wet clothes and footwear.
Disadvantages of a wood-burning stove for heating a campervan
- Can be a bit smelly for novice fire-makers!
- You will need to find storage space for kindling/wood.
- Some insurers don’t cover for fire if caused by a solid fuel heater so check with them beforehand.
- Some campsites won’t allow you to light up a wood-burning stove on site.
- A smaller unit will require refuelling more frequently so may burn out in the night.
- A larger stove might produce far too much heat for the size of the van.
- You have to dispose of the burnt fuel (ash/embers).
- There are a few safety regulations to comply with.
Why should you install a wood-burning stove in your campervan?
One of the main benefits of a wood-burning stove is their sheer simplicity; find dry wood, ignite, enjoy the heat.
They are also low cost to run, while sourcing replacement fuel while travelling should be a simple process.
What type of fuel do I use in my wood-burning stove?
It is generally advised to use seasoned/dry wood or smokeless fuels.
Ideally, you would want to keep away from bituminous coal as it can create dangerous fumes, especially in such a confined space such as a campervan.
What type of wood should I use?
You should always use seasoned/dry wood as fuel for you campervan stove. Using damp wood can generate high amounts of soot as well as acidic tar. The tar can cling to the stove chimney and if left untreated, may eventually cause a blockage. This could also increase the risk of combustion gases leaking back into the interior space. This can be especially dangerous as those gases are likely to contain carbon monoxide.
Another problem with burning unseasoned wood is eventually, a flue lined with tar could suddenly lead to a chimney fire. Fires on campervans can develop quickly, leaving occupants seconds to escape. This usually results in a total loss of the vehicle and belongings.
Carbon monoxide and wood-burning stoves
When active, a wood-burning stove produces a high amount of carbon monoxide. The carbon monoxide levels can be 100 times higher than those of a typical gas hob. Thankfully, most of the time, when the stove is lit, the gasses created through combustion will exit the burner through the chimney. However, it is worth noting that in rare circumstances, this equipment may fail which could lead to the gasses escaping into the main living area of your van.
Why is carbon monoxide dangerous?
Carbon monoxide is known as the silent killer, and rightly so. It can’t be seen or smelt, so you need to be aware of the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Taken from the NHS:
‘After carbon monoxide is breathed in, it enters your bloodstream and mixes with haemoglobin (the part of red blood cells that carry oxygen around your body) to form carboxyhaemoglobin. When this happens, the blood is no longer able to carry oxygen, and this lack of oxygen causes the body’s cells and tissue to fail and die.’
What are the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning?
According to the British National Health Service, symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can be:
- A tension-type headache.
- Feeling and being sick.
- Tiredness and confusion.
- Stomach pain.
- Shortness of breath and difficulty breathing.
Carbon monoxide is extremely toxic and in high concentrations, can kill quickly.
What We Think
There’s something really nostalgic about having a real, roaring fire inside the back of a campervan.
Yes, a wood-burning stove may be a little hard to operate efficiently when you first start out. And yes, you do have to allocate some additional space in your campervan to store the fuel. (Remember, keep the wood dry).
That being said, we absolutely love the simplicity of a wood-burning stove and think they make an excellent addition to any campervan build project.
And if you’re after that ‘log cabin on wheels’ atmosphere, then this is definitely the way to go.
Wood burning stoves we recommend
Method 3: LPG/Natural Gas Heater
Similar to the diesel heater is an L.P.G./natural gas heater. The one key difference is how the air is heated. This is done via natural gas. All exhaust and intake pipes work the same as a diesel night heater.
An LPG heater might not be as glamorous as a wood-burning stove, but its efficiency and ease of use make it a popular system for heating a campervan.
How does an LPG heater work?
Similar to a diesel night heater, an L.P.G. heater produces heat via combustion and an internal heat exchanger. Below is a super simplified process on how a diesel night heater operates.
- The air required for combustion is drawn into the L.P.G. heater via a pipe. This pipe is fitted through the floor to the exterior of the vehicle.
- The air now travels into the combustion chamber and is mixed with natural gas fuel.
- The mixture ignites, creating combustion.
- The heat from combustion increases the temperature of the outer combustion chamber. This heats up the attached heat exchanger.
- After combustion, all exhaust gas is safely expelled through an exhaust system to the outside of the vehicle.
- An internal 12V fan draws in air from the top duct.
- The air circulates around the heat exchanger, increasing the temperature of the air.
- The now warm air leaves the L.P.G. heater via the lower duct.
How do I store gas in my campervan?
There are three methods you can choose when storing gas in your campervan.
Method 1: A replaceable gas cylinder bottle
The first option is a replaceable gas cylinder bottle. It is usually installed towards the rear of the vehicle and generally stored in a separate gas isolation locker.
A typical 13kg gas cylinder costs £80.00 to £100.00 (U.K. price for a new tank as of May 2020).
Replaceable Gas Bottle System Setup:
- Compressed gas cylinder bottle located inside the vehicle.
- Gas regulator.
Method 2: A refillable gas cylinder bottle
The second option is a refillable gas cylinder bottle. It is usually installed towards the rear of the vehicle and generally stored in a separate gas isolation locker. Very similar to the replaceable gas cylinder, the refillable version allows you to directly refill the gas yourself. One of the main benefits of this is reduced fuel costs.
Another advantage is you won’t have to change the cylinder bottle when you run out of fuel. A refillable gas system costs between £100 to £400. This depends on the total gas storage capacity you choose (or your vehicle will allow).
Refillable Gas Cylinder System Setup:
- Refillable compressed gas cylinder tank located inside the vehicle.
- External filling point (optional as the tank can be filled up directly at the bottle).
- Gas regulator.
Method 3: An underslung refillable gas tank
The third option on our list an underslung gas system. This is the most costly of the three gas storage systems but offers the best fuel storage solution.
A typical underslung gas system costs around £1000. This depends on the total gas storage capacity you choose (or your vehicle will allow).
Underslung Gas Cylinder System Setup:
- Compressed gas cylinder tank located on the underside of the vehicle.
- External filling point.
- Gas regulator.
LPG heater & gas safety tips
L.P.G./Natural Gas Heater
- Make sure that both the inlet and exhaust pipe are free from intrusion or any kind of blockage.
- An L.P.G. heater should be serviced and maintained regularly.
- It is always recommended to choose a professional technician to install an L.P.G. heater.
- If you hear any kind of unusual noises coming from your L.P.G. heater, shut it off, and book it into a technician.
- It is always recommended to choose a professional technician to install an L.P.G. system.
- Shut all gas off before travel.
- Although not always required (check local gas laws), when carrying gas, we advise displaying an L.P.G. warning sticker on the vehicle exterior.
- All flammable gasses must be transported upright at all times.
- Make sure that you know how to safely remove and fit the gas regulator.
- Keep well away from naked flames when changing the gas bottle.
- L.P.G. is around 1.5 to 2.0 times heavier than air. This means if you get a leak, the gas will form a ‘puddle’ on the ground first. To combat this, install gas drop vents in the floor.
- If you do suspect a gas leak, don’t use a naked flame to help look (people have done this before). A handy trick is to apply some water and washing-up-liquid solution to the suspected area and look for bubbles.
- Make sure you’ve got a fire blanket and/or fire extinguisher.
- Install an adequate fire alarm and carbon monoxide alarm.
Advantages of an LPG natural gas heater
- Efficient to run.
- Inexpensive fuel source.
- Safe overnight operation.
- Can be externally mounted – saving valuable internal space.
- Ability to heat the van in a short time (provided you fitted the right K.W. output to the size of the campervan).
- Regulate heat output via the thermostat control panel.
- Some models feature a 7-day timer + remote start.
Disadvantages of an LPG natural gas heater
- Expensive installation.
- May need more than one L.P.G. fill adapter if travelling to multiple countries with a refillable gas system.
- Can be hard to find replacement fuel when travelling.
- Some may feel uncomfortable living with pressurised gas onboard their campervan.
- The heater fan can be noisy inside the van. This can be improved with sound muffle ducting.
What we think
Installing a gas heating system in a campervan is a good option for heating your campervan, especially if you intend on installing additional items that run on gas.
Although the high initial investment of a suitable gas storage system may put some potential buyers, an L.P.G. gas heating system is an excellent investment in the long run.
Items we recommend
Gas Tank Suppliers: