Van Diesel Heaters: Best Options for Vanlife

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In the past, the idea of selling your home and living in a van would’ve been waved off as insane. Nowadays, more and more people are recognizing the unique advantages of van life. In 2019, over 140,000 people lived in recreational vehicles — and that number is only increasing. Whether you’re embracing van life to escape stress or you’re using it as a way to travel, it’s important to be prepared for all situations, including unpleasant weather conditions.

If you’re wondering how to heat a van in the winter, you’re not alone. Unlike traditional homes, most vans don’t come equipped with internal HVAC systems — you’ll have to purchase a separate heating system. While there are different options for heating a van, we recommend a diesel heater. Here’s everything you need to know about choosing, installing and using a diesel heater for van life.

What Are My Camper Van Heating Options?

Wood Cabinet with Heater in Van
@rusty.4×4 on IG | Photo

The first step to keeping warm during winter is selecting a van life heater. From propane and electric heaters to gasoline and diesel, there’s no shortage of options to choose from. To help you understand the different heaters, we’ve assembled a brief guide that gives their respective pros and cons.

Electric Heater for Van Life

Two Electric Heaters
@temperaturelimithvac on IG | Photo

Many people keep electric heaters in their homes to supplement their HVAC systems during winter. This concept can also be applied to van life. Electric van heaters share many of the advantages of standard electric heaters: they’re inexpensive, easy to set up and heat rooms quickly. However, there are some disadvantages to these tools. Generally, electric van heaters:

  • Require high levels of power
  • Rely on a power supply
  • Have limited heating abilities

Not only do electric heaters require a large amount of power to work, but they also need to stay connected to a power supply. While they can work well if you park your van at a campground overnight, they’re not the most sustainable option if you hope to stay on the road.

It’s also worth noting that electric van heaters are usually not as powerful as propane or diesel heaters. Thus, they’re best for people who travel in their vans every now and then as a recreational activity.

Propane Heater for Van Life

Double Tank Propane Heater
@pepesthriftshop90033 on IG | Photo

As the name suggests, a propane van heater uses propane — a type of gas stored as a liquid — to supply heat. The main advantage of propane heaters is their energy-efficient properties. Propane van heaters emit lower levels of CO2 than diesel and gasoline heaters, which is better for the environment. However, there are a few downsides to propane heaters, such as:

  • Difficult installation: Before using a propane heater, you need to install a tank. Due to the weight of these tanks, the installation process may require significant planning.
  • Inconvenience: While a gasoline heater for van life simply taps into the vehicle’s fuel tank, a propane heater above 20 pounds in weight needs to be refueled at propane refilling stations.
  • Higher costs: Not only is propane more expensive than traditional gasoline or diesel, but it also requires more fuel to heat your van. This translates to increased costs.

While propane tanks may be more beneficial to the environment, the inconvenience of visiting propane refilling stations and the high costs associated with the fuel can make it burdensome to use.

Radiant Heat

Radiant Heater Installation for Van
@avcrig on IG | Photo

Radiant heat is a rising technology that involves supplying heat directly through the floor, wall and ceiling panels. While this heating system is usually found in homes, there are companies that have brought the technology into the van world (such as Van Life Tech Radiant Heat).

Radiant heat is one of the most convenient heating options out there. In addition to requiring little to no maintenance, it’s energy-efficient and provides uniform heat. However, this option is rather expensive — it can cost anywhere from $6 to $20 per square foot. It also elevates the floor, which takes away some of the space in your van.

Diesel Fuel Heater for Van Life

Fuel Diesel Heater and Components for Van
@lucymybaymydiamond on IG | Photo

A diesel heater operates with the help of diesel, a fuel that’s usually used to support large vehicles like vans and trucks. One of the best parts about owning a diesel heater for van life is that it can connect to the fuel tank that’s already attached to your vehicle.

While you can use gasoline to heat your van, there are several advantages to using diesel instead. These include:

  • Stronger heating abilities
  • Enhanced temperature control
  • Fewer CO2 emissions
  • High accessibility
  • No license required for installation

According to the Universal Technical Institute, diesel fuel is about 20% more thermally efficient than gasoline. Its powerful heating components, simple installation requirements, relatively low costs and accessibility make diesel fuel one of the most popular options for van owners.

How Does A Diesel Heater Work In A Campervan?

Diesel Heater for Van Before Installment
@unlockingspain on IG | Photo

The task of heating a van in winter is made much easier with the help of a diesel heater. Most people use a diesel night heater for vans, which creates hot air without requiring you to turn on your vehicle or use excessive amounts of fuel. Here’s how they work:

  • Air is drawn into the heater through a pipe, which connects to the exterior of the van.
  • The air enters a combustion chamber, where it mixes with diesel fuel.
  • The air and diesel ignite and enter a heat exchanger, which causes air to heat through circulation.
  • Warm air is released into the van through a duct .
  • Excess gases are removed through an exhaust system.

A diesel heater can use anywhere between 0.1 and 0.5 liters of fuel per hour, making it an economical solution for powering your van’s heat.

What Size Diesel Heater Do I Need For My Van?

Small Auxiliary Diesel Heater for Vans
@simon_a_bloke_in_the_woods on IG | Photo

There’s no “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to diesel heaters. Some people might use a small van heater that provides 2kW (kilowatts) of power, while others may rely on an 8kW device. To decide what size heater you need, consider the following:

  • Your budget
  • The size of your van
  • The area you’re in

Of course, the first thing you need to consider is your budget — stronger heaters tend to cost more, so keep that in mind as you review your options. However, the most important factor is the size of your van. If you have a small sprinter van or a compact cargo van, then your heating needs will be minimal. Conversely, if you own a large home on wheels, then you’ll need a higher amount of heat to thoroughly warm the area.

Unsure what constitutes a small, medium or large-sized van? As a general rule of thumb, small vans are between 7 and 9 feet in length, while medium-sized vans can be anywhere from 9 to 12 feet. Anything bigger is classified as a large camper van. 2kW heaters are usually sufficient for small and medium-sized vans, while a 5kW or 8kW heater might be better suited for larger vans.

Finally, take into account the area you are living in or the areas where you plan to travel. If you’re visiting locations with extremely low temperatures, your heating needs will be higher than someone staying in an area with moderate temperatures.

How Do I Install A Diesel Heater In A Van?

Man Installing Diesel Heater for Van
@vanvistas on IG | Photo

Once you’ve chosen your desired diesel heater, the next step is to install it. The precise location you place your heater plays a role in how the heat is distributed through the van. Installation options for a diesel van heater include:

  • Under the passenger seat
  • The center
  • Near the back

If you’re wondering what your Transit or Sprinter van heater options are, try looking under the passenger seat — most vans have excess room here. Not only does putting your heater here minimize the space it consumes, but it’s also ideal if most of your amenities are located near the front of the van.

While most people store their diesel van heaters near the front, some van layouts are not designed for this setup. If the interior of your van is long (length-wise), or if there is a large amount of space between the front and back, then you might want to install your diesel heater near the center. Similarly, if most of your materials are near the back of the van, that might be a better installation spot.

How Much Does It Cost to Install A Van Diesel Heater?

When installing a diesel heater, it’s important to follow instructions to a tee. In the best-case scenario, an improperly installed diesel heater for van life will offer insufficient heating. In the worst-case scenario, it can be a fire hazard.

Various Tools for Diesel Heater Van Installation
@vincents_go_van on IG | Photo

Due to the potential dangers of a wrongful installation, you may want to leave the process in the hands of professionals. On average, the cost of a professional van diesel heater installation can range anywhere between $700 and $1,500. The exact cost usually depends on a few different factors, such as:

  • The type of heater
  • The type of van
  • The location you want it installed in

Some heaters and vans are more difficult to work with than others, which can increase installation costs. For example, take cargo vans — when determining how to heat a cargo van, the installation team will need to take into account your storage items, which can consume extra time.

Some van owners might wonder whether they can install their heaters underneath the van itself to conserve space. While most people opt to place their heaters in the interior of the van to optimize the heat distribution, you can choose to mount your heater underneath your van if you’d like.

Are Diesel Van Heater Fumes Dangerous?

Inferior Van Heater Pipelines
@vantastictwo on IG | Photo

One of the biggest concerns when installing a diesel van heater is fumes. Inhaling any type of fumes within an enclosed space can be dangerous to your health and increase the likelihood of a fire. Fortunately, most diesel heaters for vans come with safety features to protect your well-being. These include:

  • Automatic shutdown feature: If the temperature gets higher than a certain level, the heater will automatically shut down to prevent overheating or fires.
  • Electrical charge: During the combustion process, diesel heaters rely on a device known as an electrical charge glow pin. This is safer than an exposed flame, which would increase the risk of fire.
  • Exhaust vent: Diesel heaters get rid of unpleasant gases using an exhaust vent, which transports the gases to the van’s exterior. Moreover, due to the high quality of diesel fuel, the exhaust gases are largely odorless.

Thanks to the mechanisms inherent in diesel van heaters, you can rest assured that you’re not breathing in any dangerous gases.

How Do I Heat Water In A Camper Van?

Van Kitchen with Pots and Cutted Vegetables
@barb_liebt_das_leben on IG | Photo

If you plan on living extensively in your van, then you’re going to need to take a shower at some point. While some people might be able to manage with cold water, most of us prefer hot water for our showers, which begs the question: how do I heat water in my van?

To get warm water, most people use a 12-volt water heater for vans. If you have a diesel heater, it can also be used to power your camper van water heater — this is achieved by adding adaptors to the heat exchangers, which lets the diesel heater release hot air and increase the water temperature.

What Is The Best Diesel Heater For A Camper or Sprinter Van?

Hydronic Heater with Set Up Components for Van
@celeste_the_van on IG | Photo

There’s no shortage of options when it comes to choosing a diesel van heater. To make an official decision, you should consider the following:

  • Reviews
  • Budgetary requirements
  • Location

If your priority is quality, then you might place a higher emphasis on van diesel heaters that have good reviews. On the flip side, if you’re trying to find a budget-friendly heater, then you might focus on ones that are available for sale. Finally, consider the location in which the heater was built — for instance, while a Chinese diesel heater is generally less expensive, it can also be of lower quality. Let’s take a closer look at each of these options.

What Diesel Van Heater Gets The Best Reviews?

If you’re looking at diesel heaters for van life that have good reviews, you’ve probably stumbled upon the following names:

Both devices use the traditional mechanisms found in a diesel heater, including a pipe for extracting air, a combustion inlet and an exhaust outlet. Here’s a closer look at Espar/Esberspacher vs. Webasto van heaters.

Espar/Esberspacher Diesel Van Heaters

Espar Heater Inside its Box
@zekesautowerks on IG | Photo

Espar (also known as Esberspacher) offers a wide range of diesel heaters. One of its most popular models is the Aitronic D2 Air Heater, which is specially designed for campervans. It comes with the following amenities:

  • 24 hours of run-time with one gallon of fuel
  • Automatic temperature control
  • Digital display
  • Altitude upgrade options
  • Night-time noise control (sold separately)
  • Strong support team

With a 24-hour run-time, automatic temperature control features and high-quality visuals, Espar heaters are both easy-to-use and customizable for your needs. Its newer models offer altitude upgrade options, which let you adjust the heater if you’re traveling at high altitudes. You can also purchase a noise control system to muffle sounds when you’re sleeping. Finally, Espar has a US-based support team, which makes it easier to get assistance if needed.

Webasto Diesel Van Heaters

Webasto Heater and Set Up Components for Van
@zblab on IG | Photo

Webasto provides both diesel and gasoline van heaters. In the United States, it offers the 2000ST model, which comes with the following:

  • 22 hours of run-time with one gallon of fuel
  • Fresh air mode
  • Noise silencer (sold separately)

With 22 hours of run-time, Webasto offers plenty of power for your fuel. It comes with a fresh air mode that promotes air circulation and purity. You can also purchase a noise silencer add-on, which can easily be attached to the device to reduce sounds. It’s worth noting that Webasto has fewer service centers in the US, which can make it more difficult to get ahold of customer support.

Which Heater Should I Pick?

Man Pointing Out Internal Components of Van Heater
@wanderfulrevolution on IG | Photo

Both Webasto and Espar offer high-quality diesel heaters that can efficiently spread hot air throughout your van. While you can’t go wrong with either choice, Espar provides more amenities and a stronger support team.

Are Chinese Diesel Heaters Worth It?

Unboxing Chinese Diesel Heater for Van
@dogandcamp on IG | Photo

The average Chinese diesel heater costs around $125 to $300, which is substantially cheaper than a heater made in the US. While this can be a huge relief on your wallet, Chinese diesel heaters often get a bad reputation in the following categories:

  • Durability
  • Safety
  • Accessibility

The main issue with Chinese diesel heaters is that they can be difficult to fix if something goes wrong. Because the heaters are made in China, it can take time to get in contact with the support team or retrieve a replacement part. This is especially problematic because Chinese diesel heaters are more likely to break down than ones made in the US.

What Is The Best Chinese Van Diesel Heater?

Chinese Van Diesel Heater Before Complete Installment
@basmaakt on IG | Photo

Despite the problems associated with Chinese diesel heaters, some people swear by them. This is largely because the construction of these heaters continues to improve every year. While they’re still advisable for people who plan to live in their vans for an extended period of time, Chinese heaters are suitable for minimal heating needs. Some of the most popular Chinese diesel heaters used in vanlife include:

  • Happybuy Diesel Heater: With a price of $150 and a watt level of 5,000, this diesel heater offers a large amount of power for an affordable rate. In addition to a simple setup, it has good reviews.
  • Superfastracing Diesel Heater: This 2kW heater is designed for van owners who want to reduce their power and fuel consumption. It’s available for one-day delivery, which makes it perfect for those looking for a quick heating solution.
  • 5kW 12v Diesel Heater: As the name says, this diesel heater is available at 5,000 watts and 12 volts. What makes it stand out is the attached silencer, which reduces the noise of the machine.

If you’re looking for a short-term, budget-friendly heater, you can’t go wrong with any of these options.

Choosing The Right Diesel Heater For Your Van

Bearded Man Taking a Selfie while Holding Heater for Van
@anywhereadventures on IG | Photo

There’s no doubt that purchasing a diesel heater is a great way to keep your van warm and viable all year round. However, if you’re still confused over how to choose a diesel heater, we don’t blame you — all of this information can be overwhelming. That’s why we’ve gone ahead and created a handy tool to help you choose. Just follow the steps below!

  • Step 1: Consider the size
    • If you have a small or medium-sized van (7-12 feet), then a 2kW heater should fit your needs.
    • If you have an above-average sized camper van (over 12 feet), then you might be better off with a more powerful heater (5kW or greater).
  • Step 2: Determine your budget
    • If you have a budget of $1,000+, you can choose between most diesel van heaters.
    • If you have a budget of less than $250, you can choose between Chinese diesel fuel heaters.
    • If your budget is above $250 but less than $700, you can eliminate most heaters that are not on sale.
  • Step 3: Consider what special features you want
    • Do you want a heater that promotes excess safety?
    • Do you need a heater that can support altitude adjustments?
    • Would you prefer a heater that muffles noise?

By answering each question, you can narrow down the available diesel heater options until you find one that meets your unique needs. If you’re still unsure about your van choices, don’t worry — our team is here to help. We’d love to learn more about what you’re looking for out of van life and help you make the right decision. Contact us today to get started on your journey!

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