Vanlife Plumbing Systems: How to Plumb Sinks, Showers, & Tanks
Contrary to popular belief, living in a van doesn’t mean having to sacrifice your favorite amenities. Sure, you might need to give up a few things to conserve space, but you can still enjoy the essentials, including running water.
From drinking and showering to cooking and cleaning, there are plenty of things to do with running water in your vehicle. However, before you can enjoy these benefits, you must set up van plumbing.
In this article, we’ll go over everything you need to know about assembling and installing a functional camper van water system.
Do I Need Van Plumbing?
Plumbing is one of the more expensive parts of a van conversion because it involves a lot of parts. The prospect of setting up a comprehensive plumbing system within a moving vehicle might seem daunting. If you’re worried about the complexity of van plumbing, you might be wondering: is it worth the effort?
The answer is, if you plan to spend extensive periods of time in your van, having a plumbing system is highly beneficial. Without running water, you won’t be able to perform simple tasks like washing your hands (which can quickly become unhygienic). The good news is, your plumbing system doesn’t have to be too complicated — you can choose between different set-ups. Here are some popular ones:
- Sink with cold water
- Sink with cold and hot water
- Sink and shower combo
- Sink and shower combo with hot water
While a sink is a must-have, hot water and showers are not. Ultimately, van plumbing is customizable to your needs — it’s up to you to decide whether the comfort and convenience of having a complex system (such as one with a shower or hot water) is worth the additional work.
Components of a Van’s Plumbing System
Before we go over how to set up a van life plumbing, it’s important to know the main components. A typical van water system is comprised of the following elements.
Having a sink in the kitchenette of your campervan and/or bathroom is extremely useful for cooking, cleaning, brushing your teeth and whatever else you may need running water for. The sink is connected to either a manual or electric van water pump, which in turn is connected to a water tank. There’s also a draining system for getting rid of old water. You can read more about van sinks here.
No sink is complete without a faucet. The water pump extends from the tank to the faucet, resulting in a steady, easily accessible stream of water. Typically, a faucet and sink are purchased together. Depending on your preferences, you can choose between a cold water faucet or a faucet that has separate handles for hot and cold water.
Many companies offer sinks and faucets designed specifically for vans. While you don’t have to choose one of these, they’re usually the best option (as other sink types may be too large). It’s also advisable to get a faucet with a van life water filter attached (which helps get rid of contaminants).
A shower isn’t a vital element of a van conversion water system, but it’s definitely useful. If you have your own shower, you don’t have to worry about finding public restrooms every time you want to wash up. There are three main types of showers:
- Outdoor shower
- Portable shower
- Indoor shower
Outdoor and portable showers are the simplest options – they can be set up outside your van, consequently conserving space. Indoor showers are a bit more complicated, but offer heightened privacy. You can read more about van showers here.
You can’t get water flowing through your sink and shower without a water tank for van conversion. There are three main types of tanks:
- Fresh water tank: This tank supplies clean water for drinking, showering and cleaning. This is the tank you regularly refill to supply your whole water system.
- Gray water tank: This tank is for the wastewater that gets drained from your campervan water system.
- Black water tank: This tank collects toilet waste. You don’t need one unless you have a flushable camper van toilet.
Most vans have a fresh and gray water tank attached to their van’s plumbing (both of which need to be filled and emptied outside the vehicle). You can read more about water tanks for vans here.
Your camper van water tank is a limited resource. As you consume water and diminish the supply, the flow of water coming out of your faucet and shower will weaken. A van life water pump helps keep the water pressure strong, ensuring you enjoy high-quality water flow whenever you need it.
Some van owners may opt for a gravity powered system instead (which relies on gravity and a network of pipes to transport water). However, most people agree that water pumps are superior as they’re easier to manage. There are two types of water pumps to choose from: manual and electric.
Manual Water Pump
A manual water pump for vans needs to be physically pressed whenever you want to use water. You may choose either a hand pump (which is located near the faucet) or a foot pump (which is situated conveniently beneath the sink).
Pros of manual pumps:
- Easy to install
- No electricity required
Cons of manual pumps:
- Pumping can be inconvenient
If you don’t mind physically pressing a pump whenever you want to use water, a manual pump is a great way to go. Not only is the set-up fairly simple, but it also supports the environment. Since it is a bit of an inconvenience, this option is generally selected by people who don’t use too much water.
Electric Water Pump
An electric vanlife water pump works just like a typical faucet at home – in other words, there’s no pumping necessary. Once it’s connected to your vans electrical system and plumbing, it automatically takes care of the water pressure for you.
Pros of electric pumps:
- Don’t require physical pumping
- Similar to an at-home faucet
Cons of electric pumps:
- Use electricity
- Complex installation
If you’re looking for convenience, an electric water pump is the way to go – it essentially does all the work for you. The only downside is that the installation can be a bit complicated. Not to mention, it may contribute to your electricity bill. However, most van lifers consider this a small price to pay for the ease of use.
A water heater provides heat to your sprinter van water system, resulting in warm water. While this appliance is far from necessary, it’s definitely a nice amenity to have (especially if you travel in cold conditions and appreciate hot showers).
Pipes & Connectors
As you familiarize yourself with all the elements in a vanlife plumbing system, you might be wondering: how do they all tie together? That’s where pipes and connectors come in. Using pipes, you can connect your gray van conversion water tank to the drain tap and your fresh water tank to the pump and faucet. While you may be tempted to use PVC pipe (which is found in traditional homes), this material is quite inflexible for vans. Instead, you should use PEX pipes.
Not only are PEX pipes flexible, but they’re also durable and easy to connect. Moreover, you should have no problem cutting them (provided you use a special PEX cutting tool). To connect these pipes to one another, follow these steps:
- Insert brass crimp fittings: Insert a brass crimp fitting into every pipe. This tool will connect one pipe to the next.
- Insert crimp rings: Next, put a crimp ring around each pipe. This will help secure the pipes together.
- Crimp the pipes: Finally, crimp the pipes (or forcefully connect them together). You can perform this with a crimping tool.
Once you’re done, double-check the pipes are securely attached — the last thing you want is for water to leak.
Van Plumbing Installation
It’s one thing to know the various components in a van plumbing system – it’s another thing to install them. While the installation can get complicated, you don’t need to be a plumbing expert to get the job done. Below is a brief guide on how to install a comprehensive water system. Keep in mind this is a general outline – every system will vary slightly depending on the van.
Plumbing Your Van Sink
Plumbing your van sink and shower are two different jobs. Let’s start by reviewing the steps for setting up your sink.
1) Mount the water tanks
The first step is selecting your fresh and gray water tanks. Sizes vary depending on your personal needs and available space. For example, if you have a roomy campervan and frequently need water for cooking & preparing camp friendly meals, you should go with larger sized tanks. Conversely, if you have a smaller conversion and rarely need water, a small tank should do the trick.
Once you’ve chosen your water tanks, the next step is mounting them. The most popular place to mount the tanks is beneath the sink – while this may take up some space, it’s the easiest way to connect your water supply to your faucet. If you don’t have the space, you can mount them outside the van. It’s important to note that if you go with an outdoor set-up, you may need to take extra steps to winter proof your tanks or they could freeze in the winter.
2) Connect the fresh water tank to the water pump
Once your tanks are mounted, proceed to connect the fresh water tank to either your electric or manual pump. As mentioned earlier, PEX piping is the best option as it’s flexible and easy to install. It also isn’t affected by acidic water (meaning it won’t corrode over time).
3) Split the fresh water line from the tank to hot and cold
For those who have a hot and cold water faucet, you’ll have to connect different pipes to each one. This involves splitting the fresh water line in two using small PEX pipes. Although both pipes come from the same tank, you can distinguish them based on the colors – the pipes for hot water are typically red, while the pipes for cold water are blue.
4) Run the blue PEX pipe to the cold water side of the faucet
Once you’ve split the pipes, run the blue one to the pump. Then, connect it from the pump to the cold water side of the faucet.
5) Run the red PEX piping through the hot water tank and to the faucet
Connecting your red PEX pipe is slightly more challenging than connecting the blue one, as you have to make a pit stop at your water heater. Here, the cold water from the fresh water tank gets warmed up by an immersion heater. Then, this warm water is carried through the pipe to the faucet.
6) Connect the sink water drain to the gray water tank
The wastewater from cleaning and cooking must be channeled to the gray water tank for storage. Just like how you connected the fresh water tank to the pump and faucet, you must connect the gray water tank to your sink water drain.
7) Add a pipe from the gray water tank to the outside for easier draining
If your van’s gray water tank is located inside the van, you should add a pipe leading to the outside of the van. This way, you won’t have to physically remove the tank and take it outdoors for emptying. The pipe should have a stop cock or a stopper at the end. Then, whenever you need to drain it, just undo the stopper.
8) Wire the hot water tank and pump to the power source
Any electrical appliances (such as a hot water tank or an electric pump) need to be wired to your van’s power source before you can enjoy them. This involves wiring the appliances to your van’s battery (which should be connected to solar power, shore power or an alternator).
9) Test out your sink plumbing by turning it all on!
The final step is testing out your van plumbing by turning on the sink. If cold and hot water flow normally, give yourself a pat on the back for a job well done.
Plumbing Your Van Shower
Considering how limited space can be in a van, many travelers may choose to forgo a van shower in favor of public restrooms or a portable solution. However, if you’ve decided you want a fully functional shower, here’s how to set up the plumbing.
1) Install the shower and provide piping for hot water only
Before plumbing your shower, it has to be installed in the van (you can read more about van shower installation here). Unlike with sinks, you don’t have to worry about separately piping cold and hot water faucets – rather, you can provide piping for hot water only.
2) Run the hot water pipe from the fresh water tank to the pump and water heater
The fresh water tank that supplies water to your sink can also be used for your shower. Start by connecting your PEX pipe from the tank to the water pump, then run it from the pump to the water heater. You may have to cut the PEX pipe if it’s too long.
3) Run the hot water pipe from the heater to the shower
After you’ve connected the hot water pipe to the heater, run it to your shower head. Whenever you need to shower, you’ll have to turn on the pump and the heater and let them run concurrently. The pump will draw water from the fresh water tank and pump it to the heater, which in turn will send hot water to your shower.
4) For indoor showers, attach a drain leading to the gray water tank
If you’ve opted for an indoor shower, you’ll need to drain the shower water to prevent the van interior from getting damp. This involves installing a drain in your shower floor, then connecting it to the gray water tank via a short pipe.
5) Give your van shower a test run
Just like with your sink, you should test your van shower to make sure everything’s working. If warm water flows out of the shower head, congratulations — you got the job done!
Enjoy Your Van Plumbing!
Setting up van plumbing is no easy feat. Projects range in difficulty depending on how many elements you want in your van — for example, installing a single sink with cold water is much easier than installing a sink and indoor shower with hot water. However, the end product is definitely worth the effort. Ultimately, plumbing is one of the greatest comforts you can have in a van.
If you have any questions about picking components or installing your plumbing, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Our team is always here to help!