Heating Your Van: Diesel, Propane, or Electric
Diesel heaters are more popular than propane and electric heaters for good reason: they provide more heat with less safety & power concerns.
But what if you don’t have $1,300 to spend on a van heater? Can you get away with a cheap propane or electric heater?
Turns out, yes.
Electric Van Heaters
Electric heaters are not very common for vanlife, but they can work.
The main concern with electric heat, is that it requires huge power reserves to work off-grid.
To match the same output produced by one gallon of fuel with electricity, requires thousands of amp-hours of stored power 1.
If you have access to shore power, storage becomes unnecessary, and so the only real factor to consider is the cost of the electricity and the heater, both of which are inexpensive.
Additionally, if you can reduce the area you are trying to heat with electricity, you can get by with stored power.
Propane Van Heaters
Although propane is very popular, it does pose challenges:
The first, is that burning propane releases water vapor and carbon monoxide.
Water vapor can lead to mold if not properly dealt with, and carbon monoxide is dangerous.
Diesel and gasoline heaters circumvent combustion related issues by exhausting fumes.
Propex propane heaters work just the same as diesel heaters, also exhausting fumes, but cost nearly the same while suffering from one major additional downside.
Propane is inconvenient to fill up
It may seem like a minor inconvenience to fill-up a propane tank, especially considering propane is cheaper than both gasoline and diesel, but most people underestimate just how annoying it is to keep track of.
You may go weeks or even months between fill-ups, and there’s never a good time to run out.
Additionally, many countries outside of the US do not provide propane at gas stations.
Rather, propane is sold at propane stations, and these often require different tank attachments than we’re accustomed to in the US, Canada, & EU 2
How Uncommon is Propane Usage?
The chart below illustrates just how uncommon propane usage can be (especially considering population).
|Rank||Country||Propane Consumption (1k Barrels per Day)|
|13||United Arab Emirates||11|
Diesel & Gasoline Van Heaters
Thanks to two main features, diesel heaters are the most ‘at-home-like’ van heater.
The first feature, is a thermostat that auto-regulates temperature.
The second feature, is a large fuel supply, provided by your vehicles primary fuel tank.
Together, these two conveniences provide weeks long ‘at-home-like’ heating with little input required.
|Heating Level||Fuel Consumption per 24 hours||BTU Output per hour||Run Time on 25 gallons of fuel|
|Low||0.4 gallons||7,000 BTU/hr||62.5 days|
|Medium||0.6 gallons||10,000 BTU/hr||41.7 days|
|High||0.8 gallons||13,000 BTU/hr||31.3 days|
So… What’s the Best Heater for Vanlife?
Taking everything we’ve covered into consideration, its clear diesel and gasoline heaters are the best option for van life. They allow you to heat your van without much electricity, and avoid dealing with propane.
Still, if you can’t stomach spending $1,300, here are some recommendations based on budget & circumstance:
Best Van Heater
2nd Best Van Heater
If $1,300 is too expensive, and you want a great long term heater, consider a Chinese diesel heater. Chinese diesel heaters function exactly the same as Webasto and Espar heaters, but cost far less 4. The downside is that they’re less reliable and near impossible to service.
3rd Best Van Heater
If cost is priority 1, 2, & 3, consider a Mr Buddy portable propane heater (or comparable option). Portable propane heaters are cheap, convenient, and produce tons of heat, just make sure to crack a window and use a carbon monoxide detector.
Best Van Heater for Short Trips
If you normally stay in warm climates but plan to travel somewhere cold, consider an electric blanket or cheap portable heater.
Best Van Heater for Propane Lovers
If you cook with propane (and just don’t care what anyone says because its awesome), Propex heaters work great.
One gallon of gasoline contains approximately 125,000 BTUs (British Thermal Units) of energy. To convert BTUs to watts, we can use the following conversion factor:
1 BTU = 0.29307107 watts
Therefore, the wattage equivalent of 1 gallon of gasoline would be:
125,000 BTUs/gallon x 0.29307107 watts/BTU ≈ 36,634 watts
So, you would need approximately 30.5 12v batteries to equal the BTU output of 1 gallon of gasoline.
- This article discusses international propane use and this site provides an adapter kit for world wide fill-ups.
- This estimate does not factor in elevation, ambient air temps, diesel quality, or the varying consumption of different Webasto heater models.
- We are not sure of a reputable brand but HappyBuy seems to be the most popular.