Throughout our build, we put an emphasis on ensuring that heat would never be an issue for us during the winter. Our goal was always to chase the biggest snowstorms in North America with our skoolie, “Charlotte“. While snowboarding and snow are a passion of ours, so is our desire to stay warm which is why we incorporated 3 heat sources into our school bus conversion.
Having 3 sources of heat on our build allows us to have “backup options”. There have been several times where we’ve had issues with a system and it malfunctions/die. That’s why we found it so important to have separate sources. Ultimately, it has been an ultimate gamechanger for us during the winter.
We’ll share with you the 3 sources of heat that we have in our school bus conversion, how we incorporated them into our build, and what we may love / not love about them.
Chinese Diesel Heater: The #1 Lifechanger in the Cold
David installed the heater box underneath our skoolie and ran an external exhaust fan. Then, we plumbed the heat intake and exhaust. This allows for consistent heat flow without it pulling from the outside air. Our diesel heater is located toward the front of our skoolie, right underneath the couch.
We then ran a fuel line from our bus’s fuel tank to the heater. This eliminated the need for us to fill up our heater’s tank.
Most of the Chinese diesel heaters on Amazon, particularly the Superfastracing 8kw 12V Diesel Air Heater, usually come with an external diesel tank, as well. If you don’t want to risk tapping into your diesel line, you can secure the provided diesel tank somewhere most convenient for you.
Our heater is currently sitting underneath the bus in a self-made box. The box for our heater contains 4 metal corner braces and plywood sides that are treated with Eco Advance 1gal Exterior Wood Siloxane Water Repellent to prevent water damage to the wood. Everything is held together with Teks self-tapping screws (highly, highly recommend…for every component of your build). We also coated the area with Henry Roof Cement to further reduce damage or road debris from entering the heating system. The white latch was also found on Amazon by searching “Deck Hatch”.
Pros: Diesel heaters are more energy-dense than propane which means less energy is required to heat your vehicle. They also produce dry heat, are cheaper per BTU, and super easy to refill. We don’t have to refill our heater because it’s hooked up to our skoolie’s diesel tank.
Cons: Some diesel heaters can produce dangerous fumes that can be hazardous to health during long-term exposure. You should ensure adequate ventilation and take all safety precautions advised in the manual. Furthermore, diesel heaters can be very temperamental at higher altitudes, are a lot more difficult to install, and it’s tough to find solid customer support for the product.
Overall Thoughts: We’ve had 2 diesel heaters in a year. Before the 8kw that we currently own, our previous diesel heater was a 5kw. We had the 5kw heater for nearly 2 winter seasons before it broke. The system as a whole got incredibly faulty toward the end.
Nonetheless, if you’re on a budget but still want a DC-efficient heat source, we’d HIGHLY recommend purchasing a Chinese diesel heater. They’re affordable and have tons of online resources that’ll help with any strange errors. you come across (Chinese Diesel vehicle air heaters – Troubleshooting & Parts sales Facebook group).
We run our heater all the time in the winter and have had no problems with the cold or our pipes freezing. The thing does have its errors, but we (and many other van, skoolie, and RV-lifers) have had tons of success with the Chinese diesel heater.
Check out the following YouTube where David installs a Chinese Diesel heater for Lucky Bus (aka @regretlyss and @minigoesbig) and pretty much explains the entire process.
Propane Heater: A Solid Backup Option
Installation Process: We bought our suburban RV propane furnace from Craigslist for $30. Our propane heater is installed toward the back of our skoolie right under the bed. David built it into a box and then vented the heater into our garage/closet space in the back.
A similar propane heater called the Suburban (2438ABK Nt-16Seq Furnace with Black Grill can be found on Amazon for $448. But feel free to check your local classifieds or a junkyard as these units can be found quite often.
Pros: Propane heaters offer a variety of perks including cleaner fuel, quieter to run, more efficient at higher altitudes, easier to install, and comes with better US support since a lot of them can be found in most RVs and campers.
Cons: Propane heaters are inefficient on battery, cost, and fuel. Propane heaters are also generally more expensive than the Chinese diesel heaters.
Overall Thoughts: While our propane heater isn’t very efficient and quickly uses both our battery and propane, it’s a great 2nd option! We’ll throw the propane heater on in the back if it gets too cold in the evenings. If you can find a used one for cheap and want a secondary source of heat on your skoolie, we’d recommend just going for it.
Radiant Heat Floor System: Passive Heat Source with Little Energy Draw in a Skoolie
Installation Process: The entire build and installation process for our radiant heat system cost us about $1500.
There is an RV hot water heater that warms up a glycol solution. A DC-powered motor pumps that solution through 4 different zones in our floor. We also used a manifold (located behind & beneath our fridge) to combine water for a perfect floor temperature. Two of the zones are hot and the other 2 zones are mixed temperatures.
Building our radiant heat system started with routing channels into our XPS subfloor installation. Next, we placed radiant heat spreader plates 6 inches to 1 foot apart from each other. We then laid pipe (aluminum pex-al-pex) into the routed channels and placed our 5/8″ plywood over the top of that.
-Specialized compression fittings for pex
Pros: Our radiant floor passively heats the bus and only requires a pump. Aside from just being efficient on battery and providing uniform heating, radiant systems require little maintenance, has little noise, and is non-allergenic.
Cons: You need to plan your radiant system into your build, otherwise you’ll be forced to tear up your entire floor. Furthermore, radiant heat systems will slightly elevate floor height and are expensive to build.
Overall Thoughts: Our radiant system has proved to be a great source for heating the bus. However, running the propane water heater 24/7 quickly drains the propane tanks during winter months. The most optimal combination would be heating the glycol solution with a diesel heater (instead of propane). This would allow us to recapture heat from diesel heater exhaust.