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The Van Conversion Series: Plumbing

Wednesday 11th December 2019
By Ely Power
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By Ely Power

Installing A Water System In Your Campervan

Forget brushing your teeth in the bush, cleaning cutlery in rivers and buying loads of litres every time you hit the road. Whether it’s a simple setup to quench your thirst or a fancy 12V hot water system, having a dependable water supply in your camper is fundamental to van life. 

You’ll be using this water several times a day so it’s important to choose a system that suits your needs (and sticks to your budget!). Want to do the washing up inside your van? Have your heart set on the luxury of a steamy shower? Plan to go on extended off-grid camping adventures? 

Really, you can make your water system as simple or sophisticated as you like. Just bare in mind that more elaborate setups can get quite complex and expensive to install, so basic is often better when it comes to your van’s plumbing. Either way, you’ll find the same key components in pretty much every built-in water system:
  • Sink and tap
  • Water pump
  • Fresh water tank
  • Grey water tank
  • Tubes/hoses/piping

Before you dive in the deep end of DIY plumbing, make sure to understand each of these features. From foot pumps to water heaters, we introduce the bits and pieces you can use to install an awesome water system in your van conversion. 

As a van owner, you can earn over $10,000 each year by hiring it out on Camplify. As a holidaymaker, Camplify helps you to find the perfect rental so that you can experience the joys of van life without having to own one yourself. 

Interested? Learn more about Camplify here.

Sinks And Taps

Let’s start with style. 

Nothing completes your van’s kitchen like a built-in sink and faucet. Installing a campervan sink unit will make your space feel like a proper home, allowing you to refill your glass, wash the dishes and freshen up without stepping a foot outside!

And when it comes to campervan sink ideas, the beauty is that you can choose almost any design, from modern stainless steel to classic acrylic. Same goes for taps.

That said, we recommend opting for a sink bowl with a square or rectangular shape, as fitting a rounded fixture flush in your counter will prove much more difficult. Go for angles that are easy to cut around and you can install your sink with just a little foresight, measuring and jigsaw work.

Before we move on to the nitty gritty, remember to buy a sink strainer that will keep solid leftovers out of your drain!

Fresh Water Tanks

As the name suggests, your fresh water tank holds all of the clean water to be used for drinking and washing up. That’s why it must be made out of food-safe material that won’t leach harmful chemicals into your water.

It should also be large enough to store all of your water needs for at least a couple of days. Humans need a minimum of two litres of water per day to survive - and it’s even more if you’re camping in the heat. And that’s just staying hydrated! Once you factor in the teeth brushing, those ‘vital’ coffees and washing up after each meal, you’ll easily go through about 10 litres of water per day. 

Our advice is to buy as big a tank as you can fit (comfortably) under your sink. When it comes to the material, we recommend the below options for a manual pump system:

Refillable Plastic Water Containers

This is hands down the most affordable and simple way to store fresh water for your sink. A true DIY camper water tank, you can choose from heaps of different styles ranging from jerry cans to cooler jugs. The right one for your van build depends on your cabinet dimensions, as well as personal preference over which shape you like to use.

Refillable plastic water containers are incredibly easy to install – just lead the outlet hose from your water pump directly down into the container until it reaches the bottom. And refilling your water is just as simple! When your tank is running too low for comfort, simply take it out, fill it up and place it back inside - you don’t have to worry about installing a water filler. 

And if you’re heading out into the wilderness and don’t know where the next water refill station will be, you can just bring several full tanks with you. When one runs out, swap it for the next!

Poly Water Tanks

Polyethylene water tanks are pretty standard for caravans and motorhomes. Available in a variety of styles, shapes and sizes, you can also get one custom-made for your van’s unique dimensions and connector locations.

That said, installing a poly tank is more complex than that of a portable water container, as you’ll have to plan out how you’re going to refill it. The poly water tank is fixed inside your van, which means you’ll likely have to install a remote water inlet and filler hose - more about these later.

Grey Water Tanks

While large caravan grey water tanks have heaps of holding capacity, your campervan doesn’t need an elaborate setup for sullage. Any kind of plastic water container will get the job done but we suggest using a transparent tank that will let you see exactly when it needs to be emptied - this clear 20L water cube is an awesome option! 

Installing a grey water tank in your van is as quick as connecting it’s opening directly to the drainage hose. Just make sure to find a container that’s compact enough to fit beneath your sink, yet big enough to avoid daily visits to the dumping station. 

And while we’re on it, emptying your portable grey water tank is too easy – simply take it out from under your sink and pour out its contents at a recognised dump point.

Manual Water Pumps Vs. Electric Water Pumps

Most van lifers favour the good old manual pump. Run without any electricity, these pumps are super simple to use and conserve as much water as possible. You can also choose from a hand or foot pump water system.

We recommend going for a foot pump, as it gives you slightly more control over water flow while keeping both hands free! And when it’s time for installation, all you have to do is mount the pump and pedal to your floor and then clamp on some food-grade tubing - the first tube connects to the faucet, whereas the second tube leads directly into your fresh water tank. Easy.

Alternatively, you can install an electric water pump. This pump starts automatically when the pressure inside your system drops, supplying on-demand water flow without any manual action. However, a constant stream of running water wastes more water, in turn calling for larger fresh water and grey water tanks. A 12V water pump can also be fairly loud when running, so you won’t want it switched on 24/7 (not to mention the power usage). 

Luckily, an accumulator serves as a pressure chamber, holding a bit of water each time your water pump operates. This storage means that you can use your sink even if the motor is turned off - a big bonus for late night refreshments! Accumulators also steady the water stream, as your electric pump will sometimes produce an oscillating water flow (due to its reliance on pressure levels). 

It’s always a smart move to include a strainer at the inlet port of your electric pump, as this will prevent any debris getting in. You will also need to attach a filter either in front of or on to your pump to keep the water supply clean. Lastly, you should install a power switch for your electric pump so that you can turn off its motor when you want to save energy. 

As you can already tell, electric pumps are more complex and expensive to install, with wiring and electrical components. To learn more, check out this water pump installation guide.

Connecting Your Water System

Photo by Alessandro Sacchi on Unsplash

Tube Types

Now you’ve got to grips with the main components of your van conversion’s plumbing system. But what type of tubing should you use to link your water tanks, pump and sink?

You might’ve heard of DIYers using PEX piping for their van’s water system. PEX is often preferred for a few reasons:
  • It’s colour-coded for water temperature: blue is cold and red is hot 
  • It’s freeze-resistant and can withstand strong heat, so it’s suited to camping trips in extreme weather
  • It’s simple to cut and connect
  • It doesn’t corrode over time

Although PEX is a popular choice for household plumbing, it’s not the best option for your van build. Here’s why:
  • Its install requires distinct tools and fittings, which will significantly increase your costs
  • It won’t fit well because its sizes are slightly off from the recommended dimensions for van pumps and faucets
  • It can’t be installed anywhere it might face sun exposure, as it isn’t UV resistant

We recommend using vinyl tubing that meets AS 2070:1999 standards for food contact use. A cheap, durable and stress-free option, it’s easy to source, quick to install and won’t let you down. It’s also available in a bunch of sizing options!

The tubing connections throughout your water system will differ according to the materials you buy. If you purchase van-specific components with standard sizing, you shouldn’t need to do much extra work. However, if you’re tailoring your tubing with custom connections, remember these pro tips:
  • Use plastic (rather than metal) fittings so that the threads don’t damage your tubing
  • Use plastic thread sealant (NOT lubricant) to seal any threads
  • Place hose clamps on top of the tubes to hold everything firmly together

So how does all this tubing come together?

The Water Inlet And Filler Hose

If you’ve chosen a stationary rather than portable water tank, you’ll have to set up your tubing in a way that allows you to refill it. That means installing a remote water tank filler. This water inlet should be mounted to a convenient surface with easy access. 

Essentially, you can mount it in the exterior wall of your van or right inside its entrance on the side of your counter fixture. Many go for the latter, mainly because it means you can avoid cutting a hole in the side of your van’s metal body! Whichever you choose, it must be placed above the top of your freshwater tank. 

Filler hoses join the water inlet to your freshwater tank, connected by hose clamps on either end. This tubing should be laid to slope towards the tank so that no air locks form when filling.

The Outlet Hose 

The outlet hose links your fresh water tank to the water pump. Connect it to a manual pump with a hose clamp at both ends. If using an electric pump, make sure to place a flexible hose before and after it to minimise vibrations being passed on to other surfaces. This will make it quieter. 

Depending on your particular pump, you may need to install a non-return valve to prevent water from flowing back into the outlet hose. And no matter the pump type, be careful not to install your outlet hose with kinks that could block water flow.

The Drainage Hose

You guessed it: the drainage hose leads from your sink bowl to your grey water tank. You can use any kind of tubing for your grey water, but we suggest choosing a corrugated sullage hose that prevents kinking. 

Last but not least, make sure that this hose is self-draining. If any undrained water gets trapped inside, it will start to smell. And trust us, you do not want any unpleasant odours floating around a compact campervan!

Going The Extra Mile With A Hot Water System

At this stage, your van’s cold water supply is good to go! But for those who can’t resist having a gloriously scorching shower and hot water on demand, well, it’s about to get slightly more complicated. First things first, you need to decide why you need a hot water supply:
  • Do you want hot showers on your winter camping trips?
  • Do you want hot water on tap like your sink at home?

If you’re only interested in a hot shower, then your best bet is to buy a fully portable water heater. Equipped with its own built-in water pump, faucet and shower head, this is basically a shower in a box! Safe and simple to store and setup, this is a great choice for van lifers who don’t want to get out of their depth designing a complex water system.

However, a serious drawback to a portable water heater is that you can’t incorporate it in to your 12v sink system very easily, if at all. If that’s what you want to do, then it’s time to consider a tankless propane water heater! 

If you want to include this type of heater within your existing 12V sink setup, then hot water system installation is not a straightforward feat… For a detailed breakdown of what to do, check out this guide on installing a gas hot water system. 

Now that you’ve covered the basics, you’re all set to get things flowing! 

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