Living in the van over summer is an absolute dream. Heating is not something you worry about, actually trying to cool down can be the issue! So now that winter has arrived we are in desperate need of warmth. We chose the new up-and-coming Chinese Diesel Heater; here’s how and why…
Sorry about the pictures! Some are a bit blurry. We installed the heater on a freezing day and the phone was almost out of power. I was shivering and a bit rushed!
We originally didn’t install a heater in our van. We were tight for time and other more import things needed focusing on. It was the start of summer after all and so we felt we wouldn’t have much use of it . Plus, there was plenty of time until winter when we actually needed it. We had bought a heater at the start, but left it stored at my parent’s house in North Yorkshire. Janey and I just made a mental note that we would have to return at some stage and fit it. But every time we returned we always seemed to focus on some other pressing issue or van life disaster; from sealing leaks, creating more storage or improving our electrical system.
The end of October came and we found our small family growing – we now had Kali the puppy! Although the cold hadn’t really effected Janey or I yet (we just put and extra layer on), it was effecting Kali. Obviously we didn’t want her to get cold. Janey and I started giving her a hot water bottle to cuddle. Fortunately, we also the option to hook up the van to electrical mains. And so the last few months we have been hooking up and using the cosy fan heater we got from Asda (Walmart) and a small electric oil heater from Argos. But this meant that we are so reliant on the hook up. It stopped us from adventuring properly with our van. Not to mention the space two heaters took up!
Finally I arranged a date with my dad, who has some experience installing heaters, for us to visit home and install our heater. And so in mid January we found ourselves heading back across the country to put yet more holes in the van, but end up with a heater.
Types of Heaters
There are effectively 3 types of heaters you can install in a van – wood, gas, or diesel.
Wood burners are simple and effective and cheap. They can be found online for only a couple hundred pounds or less. And they are definitely cheap to run as you only have to go outside and find some sticks. Although they may take some time to warm up they will easily stay hot and keeping the van toasty for hours, even after the fire has gone out.
The main downside is that they take up a lot of space and they add a lot of weight to the van. You need to install a chimney. The heater is often made of cast iron. Plus, you need to fireproof that the space surrounding the burner and chimney. The other thing is that they can end up smoking out the van. When using you have to be careful of excess carbon dioxide and monoxide in the van. There is also a bigger fire risk. For this reason insurance companies put, often a large, extra premium on insurance policies.
Gas heaters are quite popular as they tend to be quieter that diesel heaters. Propane burns cleaner than wood or diesel meaning that less carbon monoxide and dioxide is produced. They also save on space and a lot of weight compared with a wood burner. This type of heater is also fairly easily install.
The biggest downside is the propane fuel they use. These burners use a lot of fuel. You’ll need a large tank if you are going to be spending a good amount of time in your van and this will take up extra space. Propane is also more expensive than diesel and is not as readily available either. You may have to drive a good few miles before you found someone who sells it. These heaters are normally in the £500s and so are fairly expensive.
These heaters are some of the most common you’ll find in a variety of industries. Their main benefits for van life are that they don’t use much fuel. Diesel is also much cheaper and more readily available than propane and far easier to store than wood or propane too. This makes them ideal if you are planning to spend along time in the van or live in it like Janey and I do. In the UK you are allowed to use ‘red diesel’ in heaters. Red Diesel is un-taxed.
The downside is that these heaters are noisy. Ours fortunately came with a muffler that helps a lot. It also burns a lot dirtier than propane meaning that it adds to our carbon footprint more. Original diesel heaters can be very expensive too. Eberspacher are the main maker and cost about £1000. This is far too expensive for us. Fortunately, China have been selling some cheap replicas (known as Chinese Diesel Heater) recently which can sell between £100 and £250. This is what we went for.
Chinese Diesel Heaters
The Chinese Diesel heaters are effectively cheap knock-offs of the Eberspacher. Somehow someone in China managed to get their hands on the blue prints for the Eberspacher. They are making copies of them and selling them at a 10th of the price. These heaters are using exactly the same fittings and look pretty similar to. The biggest downside to these models is that they often only come with instructions in Chinese or they are all jumbled up form bad formatting. Fortunately there is a great group on Facebook with loads of people who have been using these heaters for years and is full of knowledge. If you have any queries or issues then just ask away and you’ll find an answer.
There are also several locations selling the Chinese Diesel heater and they come in different sizes. You can get anything from a 1000w to a 10000w heater. We purchased our Chinese Diesel Heater off Ebay and went with a 5000w heater. This works will in our Transit Jumbo (XLWB + High Top).
Installing the Heater in the Van
Installing a heater in the van is no easy feat. Especially now the van is pretty much built! It took us a lot of planning. Originally we were going to put it under the front passenger seat. This is a common place for the heater to be stored as it is empty space that is often unused. However out heater ended up being too large for that space. We considered using our already built cupboards or benches but it would mean that we would then have to find space for the stuff already in those spaces. Eventually we decided to install the heater in the garage under the bed. This plan meant that we had to move one of the leisure batteries and re-mount it. But apart from that there wasn’t too much disruption to our current layout.
The first job was to move the battery out of the way to make space for the heater. We have 2 leisure batteries that are fitted side by side on a raised platform in separate battery boxes. Our electrics are hooked up to one of the batteries with the second joined to the first to double it’s size. Fortunately, I only had to move the second battery. Not too much electrical work, I just had to source some longer cable to join the batteries back together. The platform we had to saw apart and build a new one. The platform is really simple. Just a couple bits of 2×4 screwed to the floor and some 12mm ply on top of that. I then just screw the battery box down to the platform and job done!
Mounting the Heater in the Van
The first thing is to drill 3 holes for the heater one each for: the exhaust, the air intake, and the fuel line. To start with we drilled a pilot hole. The point of this is to know where you are drilling in your van. Take a measurement on top and below to see if there is anything in the way. Then drill the pilot hole to double check that you are in the correct area and to make sure that you are exactly where you want to be. We made 2 pilot holes as we ended up changing our plan slightly and moving the placement of the heater. We were very fortunate with our second pilot hole as it came out right next to a support beam on the underside of the van!
Once we were happy with the placement, we then dug out the floor and insulation with a circular saw drill bit until we had only bare metal. To mount the Chinese Diesel Heater we bought a special deep mount. This is the normal flat plat that the heater comes with but with an extra metal cylinder attached so that it can go through the flooring and insulation that we have to cut through. It acts as a heat shield to protect our build and we highly recommend other to use them too.
To seal the mount in place we used exhaust putty. This was set in place with some flexible, thin aluminium sheet. The purpose of the putty to so close of any small gaps so that any exhaust fumes that may escape the exhaust pipe don’t then leak into the van. With the putty in place, these exhaust fumes should leak outside through the holes we have created for the exhaust pipe etc.
The heater mounts directly to the deep mount with a 4 bolts. Then the cold air intake and exhaust pipes gets attached. These are fed through their holes and the mount is fixed in place with some screws through the floor.
The electrics are pretty simple stuff to add to our own system. Our Chinese Diesel Heater comes with a long positive and negative cable. The negative simply got hooked up straight to the negative on the battery. The positive we fixed to our blade fuse box. We always knew we would add more stuff to the Van as we went. So when we built the Van we added a fuse box that had more spaces than what we would needed. Our forethought means that it makes jobs like this really easy.
Chinese Diesel heaters also come with an electric fuel pump and a LCD controller. These are really simple plug and play devices. The heater has two cables with special fittings. One specifically for the pump and one for the LCD controller
We mounted the fuel pump on the 2×4 support beam for the bed. This gives it a really strong fixing. It also keeps it out of the way. Janey and I have a lot of things in boot/garage and so the fuel line and pump needs to be kept out of the way. By fixing it up high, the fuel pump is out of the way of anything that might slide around as we drive.
The LCD controller has a mount which just screws into the wall. The cable attached to the LCD controller has a large fitting on it. This requires a large(ish) hole to be cut to be able to feed the cable through. Our solution to fix this eye sore is to simple fix the LCD screen mounting over the hole.
Fitting the Pipes
As I said before there are 3 main pipes: air intake, exhaust and fuel. All three of these are mounted on the underside of the vehicle and most Chinese Diesel Heater sets will come with the fittings to mount them. The air intake has an air filter attachment for the end of the pipe. This is a simple attachment and effectively just screws on. The pipe can then be fitted with some bolt clips or just cable ties. Just make sure that it is higher and in a different direction to your exhaust!
The exhaust comes with a muffler. This is really useful as the this is definitely the noisiest part of the heater. When we are inside the van we don’t normally hear the heater running. But its pretty obvious outside. And that’s with the muffler! The muffler just slots onto the end of the exhaust and then the pipe can be bolted to the underside. As I said before, make sure that the exhaust is lower than your air intake to prevent fumes being sucked back up. Point it backwards too, its where the van’s exhaust goes so it makes sense to do the same with the heaters!
The fuel line is just mounted with some zip ties. Really simple to do but make sure that its out of the way of anything that might move or get hot. You don’t want to break the pipe!
There are basically 2 options that you can use for fuel:
- Use provided 10L fuel tank.
- Drill into the van’s fuel tank and take fuel directly from there.
Janey and I went for using the 10L fuel tank provided with the Chinese Diesel Heater set. This was for a number of reasons. Firstly, we didn’t want to accidentally use all the fuel in the Van’s tank in the heater and run out of driving fuel. This would be a stupid thing to do but something that, we figured, would definitely happen to us! Using a separate fuel tank stops this from happening. Secondly, diesel heaters are allowed to use ‘Red Diesel’. This is diesel that doesn’t have tax on it. Meaning that we can save about 20p on the litre making it pretty cheap! Finally we didn’t want to go putting any holes in our main fuel tank.
So, as you will have read, the fuel line is under the van at the moment. You need to figure out where you want to store your fuel tank. We opted to put it on the right hand wall next to the rear doors. we made a little stand for it out of 2 bits of 2×4 to go front and back and a bit of ply across it’s side to hold it next to the wall. This is handy as it can be easily pulled out and filled outside to prevent spills inside the van.
To bring the fuel line back up to the inside of the van we drilled a small hole through the floor behind the fuel tank. The line feeds up through here and to the pump under the bed. The fuel line then coils up a bit (enough length to bring the tank out of the van) and then into the tank.
The Chinese Diesel Heater kit comes with a fitting for the tank. It is a simple fitting with a couple washers that tighten to stop the fuel leaking out. However, it is designed to be positioned on the bottom of the tank. This seemed a bad design to us. Instead we bought a stand pipe off Ebay. It was only about £5. Basically this is a solid metal pipe that enters from the top of the tank and can reach the bottom of the tank. This means that it can get to all the fuel, but the hole in the tank is in the top of the tank, not the bottom. to prevent leaks.
All that was left to do was to add the hot air output and build a box to protect the heater in the boot. The hot air outtake was a simple task. The heater is placed behind out bulk head in the van. All we had to do was take a circular saw and make a hole large enough the for swivel fitting for the outputand screw the fitting into place.
We also decided to build a protective box around out heater. As I’ve stated before, we have a lot of stuff in out garage. We don’t want anything to slide round when we drive and break or damage our Chinese Diesel Heater. Janey built the box. She had to make sure that there were gaps in it so that the heater’s fan could still suck air in. This is an important part that people could forget. IF there isn’t enough airflow then the heater can overheat and stop working.
Our thoughts on the Chinese Diesel Heater in our Van
We can’t recommend the Chinese Diesel heater enough. We LOVE it! As I said before we have a 5000w version. we probably could have got away with a 2500w but we are more than happy with the 5000w. On average the heater uses about 1 pint of diesel per hour of operation. But we only need to turn the heater on for 10 to 15 minutes every couple hours in the van when we need to keep warm. Having a well insulated van makes this possible. This means that even though we live full time in the van we have only used 10L of Diesel in a month. That’s about £12 a month that we have to spend on heating. Pretty cheap!
If you live full time in your van, then you need a non-electric heater. It has allowed us to live Van Life as we dreamt it. Not being tied down to any one location. And its given us freedom to go where ever we want. There are obviously many different types of heaters. But if you are on a budget, the Chinese Diesel Heater is the way to go!