Chinese Van Diesel Heater Before Complete Installment

Heating Your Van: Diesel, Propane, or Electric

Key takeaways

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.

12, 100 amp-hour batteries pointing toward heat with a single gallon of gasoline off to the side also pointing toward heat
At roughly $500 per 100 ah battery, a battery bank capable of matching 1 gallon of fuel would cost you well over $10,000.

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.

Energy Source Cost BTU’s Units
Electricity $0.0002 3,412 1000 Watts
Diesel $0.0790 3,412 0.024 Gallons
Gasoline $0.0820 3,412 0.027 Gallons
Propane $0.0930 3,412 0.037 Gallons

Additionally, if you can reduce the area you are trying to heat with electricity, you can get by with stored power.

A large bank of 100 amp-hour batteries pointing toward a fully heated van next to a single 100 amp-hour battery pointing toward a person under a heated blanket
The average electric blanket uses just 100 watts per hour of electricity, equaling roughly 100 ah of power per night.

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.

A diesel air heater with cold air entering, warm air exiting, and "bad stuff" going out of the exhaust hose.. a stick figure representing a portable heater looks on angrily

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.

A stick figure looks at a full tank of gas and says, "we've got gas", while an empty propane tank sits in the distance

You may go weeks or even months between fill-ups, and there’s never a good time to run out.

Two stick figure stare at an empty propane tank and one says, "I thought you said we had gas".. a full gas tank sits in the distance

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)
1 United States 274
2 China 105
3 Japan 42
4 South Korea 34
5 Mexico 33
6 Canada 24
7 Russia 23
8 Saudi Arabia 18
9 Brazil 17
10 Germany 16
11 India 14
12 Netherlands 13
13 United Arab Emirates 11
14 Belgium 11
15 Italy 10

 

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.

A full gas tank points toward a diesel heater which points toward a content stick figure next to a full calendar and 70 degree heat

Depending on what size diesel heater you get, and how good your vans insulation is, you can expect it run for over a month on about 25 gallons of fuel. 3.

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

 

Diesel heaters do have downsides however… they require maintenance, can be expensive to install, and can be very annoying.

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:

A male and female stick figure stare at a diesel heater with a price tag that signs "$$$" hanging off while the female remarks, "I could start an only fans"... The male looks horrified

Best Van Heater

Webasto or Espar diesel heaters

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.

Footnotes

  1. 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.

  2. This article discusses international propane use and this site provides an adapter kit for world wide fill-ups.
  3. This estimate does not factor in elevation, ambient air temps, diesel quality, or the varying consumption of different Webasto heater models.
  4. We are not sure of a reputable brand but HappyBuy seems to be the most popular.
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