Heating a van or skoolie appropriately during the winter will help make or break your travel experience during colder months. Throughout our build and those that we do for others, we put an emphasis on ensuring that heat would never be an issue during the winter.
Our personal 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.
While we’ll also be going further into depth about our systems, we’ll also cover other options that you can install for heating a van or skoolie conversion, including:
1. Diesel Heater
Diesel Heaters are our go-to recommendation when someone asks us about heating a van. Chinese diesel heaters are affordable and have worked fantastic for our needs during the winter months.
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.
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.
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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 (@regretlyss and @minigoesbig) and pretty much explains the entire process.
2. Radiant System: Passive Heat Source with Little Energy Draw for Heating a Van
Radiant heat systems are a great option for providing consistent and efficient warmth throughout a skoolie or van.
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.
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.
-Specialized compression fittings for pex
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.3. Propane Heater: A Solid Backup Option
While possibly not as efficient as other systems, propane heaters are easy to find and generally offer great customer support throughout installation difficulties.
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 Chinese diesel heaters.
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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. We’d also recommend checking local classifieds or a junkyard as these units can be found quite often.
Overall Thoughts: While our propane heater isn’t very efficient and quickly uses both our battery and propane, it’s a decent backup option for heating a van! However, I think we’d definitely prefer to replace it with another diesel heater in the future.
4. Wood Stove
While a lot more work, wood stoves are great for adding a bit more of a comfy ambiance and warmth into your space. Without maintenance, wood stoves will only burn between 4-6 hours.
Since that’s not necessarily enough to get through a cold night’s sleep, we usually recommend that our clients look into a 2nd heating source, as well.
Pros: Wood stoves provide a dry heat that prevents condensation and provides a “comfier” feel. In addition, fuel is usually free with no toxic gases.
Cons: Wood stoves present a few fire risks and definitely take away the “stealth” from your rig. They’re also usually more expensive than propane heaters and more difficult to install.
Wood stoves are also A LOT more work than some of the other heating options for a van or skoolie. In order to maintain a warm temperature, you’ll need to tend the fire regularly and empty the ashes.
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5. Electric Heater
Electric heat could be a fantastic option for you if you plan on having constant access to RV hookups. However, these may not be the most energy-efficient for off-grid setups.
Pros: Electric heaters usually have little to no noise and can offer unlimited heat when plugged into a hookup.
Cons: Unless you have a large solar system installed, using an electric heater during the winter will be almost impossible. Electric heaters also offer less heat than propane and gas heaters.
6. Gasoline-Powered Heater
Gas heaters are very similar in pros and cons to diesel.
Pros: Gas heaters are less expensive to run long-term. If you have a gas tank on your rig, you’ll also be able to tap your tanks.
Cons: There’s more of an upfront cost and there is more maintenance involved.
Why Have More Than 1 Source for Heating a Van?
Having more than one source of heat on your 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.