1. Propane Installation and Use
If you want to have heat or hot water in your van, propane is a great way to go. With careful installation and use, indoor propane use is as safe as using a gas grill at a summer barbecue. There are 5 main principles to follow when using propane appliances in a small space:
- Have the propane tank in a vented enclosure (hole in the bottom of the enclosure, propane is denser than air).
- Regularly check all plumbing connections with soapy water. Never check for leaks with a lighter. It would be ideal to have a professional do all the plumbing installation or check the connections after installation.
- Keep the living space vented when propane appliances are in use, unless the appliance has a designated exhaust that goes out the vehicle.
- Have a CO detector (link) and fire extinguisher (link) or fire suppressant (link) in the van.
- Cut off propane to the appliances when they are not in use. Having a car accident that damages a propane line while it’s active can have catastrophic consequences.
There are several types of fittings used for propane. The type 1, or ACME, fitting is the most common, which is the main connection on a 20 or 10lb propane tank; how you might connect a grill hose to the tank. Then there are standard threaded ‘NPT’ fittings, which require yellow PTFE tape (link). There are flared and quick disconnect fittings that do not require PTFE tape. And then there are compression fittings (also don’t need PTFE tape); these connect to copper tubing (link).
Propane can be channeled through copper tubing, black hoses (like a gas grill hose), black ductile iron, and CSST corrugated stainless steel tubing. Copper tubing (link) is best suited for a van, as it’s easy to cut and more malleable for easy routing.
As mentioned above, there are other options for heat. It’s possible to install a woodburning stove (link) in a van or bus, as long as it’s a certain distance from any walls or furniture, and there’s an exhaust through the vehicle roof.
Some heaters (ie. Espar air heater) can be connected directly to the vehicle fuel source. This can make life easier, since you wouldn’t have to deal with a 2nd fuel source.
It’s possible to heat food with electricity, but you’d need a ridiculous amount of solar panel wattage and battery storage for a space heater or hot water heater.
Installation of a heater can be avoided if you have a good sleeping bag and find it easier to travel with a warmer climate.
A low investment heater installation would be using a Mr Buddy Heater (link). They run on 1 lb propane tanks and are safe to use indoors. The only downside is that it creates condensation, so a window should be cracked open to avoid a damp van, although that drastically reduces the heating efficiency.
A Propex HS2000 forced air heater (link) runs on propane. They’re expensive (~$700), but have a separate intake and exhaust to the outside of the van so condensation isn’t produced. It runs on a thermostat so you can leave it on all night, and it will regulate the temperature by turning on when it gets too cold. Installation for my Propex heater required a dual stage regulator, several fittings, a propane hose, and copper tubing; this is covered in my ebook.
A complex propane system isn’t needed for cooking. You can use a backpacking stove (link), a camping stove that uses 1lb propane tanks (link), or skip the stove altogether. There’s even a stove/oven combo (link). Electricity isn’t as efficient as propane or gas for heating and cooking, but it can be used if you can afford an extensive solar panel and battery setup. There are RV microwaves (link) and RV induction cooktops (link) that require lower wattage than standard microwaves and induction stoves.
4. Hot Water Heater
To avoid having a separate water tank for hot water, an instantaneous hot water heater is ideal for vehicle dwelling. They typically run on propane and require a pump for sufficient water flow. Propane tankless water heaters aren’t meant for indoor use, so it’s important to install a vent directly over it if it’s to be used inside. I got an Eccotemp L5 hot water heater (link) that came with a full kit for a simple installation, which is covered in my ebook.