Sprinter Van Bathroom: Pros and Cons & Would I do it again?
I’ve been getting a ton of questions about my Sprinter Van bathroom, and a lot of people have said they want to copy the exact layout of my converted Sprinter Van. Before you go doing that, I wanted to write a blog post about the pros and cons of a Sprinter Van bathroom. Yes, it’s nice to have access to a shower, but it comes at a cost, in terms of space, price, and maintenance.
In this post, I share my thoughts on my Sprinter Van bathroom and answer the question, if I could start all over, would I still build a shower in my van and would I do it the same way?
••• Why I decided to put a bathroom in my Sprinter Van? •••
Last year I was traveling in a small van in New Zealand for three months. I obviously didn’t have a shower in my van there, and as a result I found myself searching for a shower every 3 or 4 days. I’d either pay for a campground that had showers or I’d find a gym I could shower at. All in all, it wasn’t that big of deal…but I preferred camping at more off-the-grid spots.
What was annoying, however, was getting up in the middle of the night to go pee. Now for you guys out there, it’s not such a big deal. All you have to do is slide the door open with your eyes half-shut, wave it in the wind, and then fall back in bed. Easy peezy. On the other hand, for us ladies, peeing in the middle of the night when you sleep in a van means getting dressed, putting on shoes, and popping a squat, or walking to the nearest bathroom if you’re in an established campground. It’s pretty disrupting to your sleep schedule.
At the same time I was in New Zealand, I was in the middle of designing my Sprinter Van with my builder back home, and it got me thinking…maybe I should put a bathroom in my Sprinter Van. It sure would be nice to not have to go outside in the middle of the night to pee, especially when I was traveling alone and didn’t want everyone to know it, or to search for a shower every few days like I was in New Zealand. Staying at KOA campgrounds was not how I envisioned traveling in the states, and besides the bathroom, I was self-contained and self-powered and would have no need for KOA-type services.
Ok, so a shower started to seem like a good idea. What about an outdoor shower? An outdoor shower would have been a great option, but I wanted to be in my van year-round, and an outdoor shower would only work in the summer.
On a phone call with my builder, he said could build me a full bathroom with shower for an added cost. “No big deal,” he said. Even though he had never built a shower in a Sprinter Van before, I trusted him, and we incorporated a bathroom into my Sprinter Van design.
••• My Sprinter Van Bathroom set-up •••
— Bathroom Basics —
My Sprinter Van bathroom is built in the back corner along the passenger side, and it’s completely enclosed with permanent walls and a plexiglass door. The dimensions of my bathroom are shown in the image below.
I’m not exactly sure what the walls are made of, but the rest of the walls in my van are made of powder-coated aluminum. The walls in the bathroom have a slightly different texture, but that may be due to a water-proofing membrane that was used to coat the walls.
The floor is made of teak and is removable, and underneath the teak is a drain that goes into my gray water tank.
— My Sprinter Van Toilet —
My toilet is a Thedford portable-potti. That means there is no plumbing associated with it, and the entire toilet is self-contained. You fill up the toilet’s clean water tank which you use for flushing, and then the toilet has its own built-in black water holding tank. You put a little deodorizer in the holding tank which keeps the smells under control.
There’s an indicator that tells you when it’s time to dump it. If I’m by myself and using it exclusively at night and occasionally during the day, it can hold a weeks worth of pee, no problem. When its time to dump it, you take out the entire toilet, separate the bowl from the holding tank, and pour the contents down the drain at an RV dump. I’ve only used it for #1, but the whole process is not as bad as I expected it to be.
The porta-potti is also only $120 on Amazon and leaving space for a porta-potti was one of the smartest decisions I made in my Sprinter Van build. I’m so happy I don’t have to go outside in the middle of the night or to try to pee in a bottle with one of those She-Wees when I’m trying to be stealth. As a female, the toilet is one of the things that makes the van most livable for the long-term.
My only complaint is that my long legs, combined with the small dimensions of my Sprinter Van bathroom, it’s pretty hard to shut the bathroom doors when I’m sitting on the toilet. So I usually go with the bathroom doors open. This isn’t a big deal, but you gotta be pretty comfortable with anyone who you might be traveling with.
— My Sprinter Van Shower: Pros and Cons —
What I didn’t think about is how much more complicated a shower makes your plumbing system. All of a sudden you need hot water and a lot more of it. With only a sink, you can get away with 10-12 gallons and be off the grid for 4-5 days, maybe even more if you conserve. Introduce a shower, and you need more like 25 gallons, especially if there’s two of you.
And then, you have to think, where are you going to store all of that water? If you live in a warm climate and don’t plan on using the van too much in freezing temps, then you can store water outside the van. But what if you live in a cold place such as Salt Lake City, like me? In harsh winter climates, any water tanks and lines you have outside the van with water in them will be frozen solid if the temps drop below freezing, including your gray water tank. Even pipes inside the van can freeze if it gets cold enough, and if the pipes burst inside your van, you are looking at some complicated repairs.
Before moving forward with my Sprinter Van bathroom, these considerations weren’t something that my builder discussed with me, and I made the mistake of not educating myself on all this stuff. He ended up putting a 10 gallon water tank inside the van and a 15 gallon tank underneath the van. Seemed fine to me…thoughts about the pipes freezing didn’t even cross my mind.
So where does that leave me? In winter climates, the 15 gallon tank is pretty much unusable, and I have to leave it empty so it doesn’t freeze. That leaves me with 10 gallons. If I’m traveling with another person, and we only have 10 gallons, a shower is VERY low on the priority list if we want to conserve water and be off the grid for more than 2 days at a time.
There are probably ways to insulate that exterior tank and lines. Most of what I read suggests 12v heating pads, but those consume a lot of precious battery power…so if any experienced van people have tips for me, I’m all ears.
In the summer, I can carry a total 25 gallons with my inside AND outside tank in use, and that is enough for drinking and cooking for 5 or so days, with a couple of showers thrown in, if you turn the water off while you are soaping up.
Remember I said the whole reason I wanted a shower was because I was planning on living in the van year round? Well now with the way my water tanks and plumbing are set up, the shower is only practical in summer. Knowing that, I could have built some sort of outdoor solar shower setup off the rear doors instead. That would have been ALOT cheaper and maybe a better use of the limited space inside my van.
Now, if I had the longer Sprinter – the 170” wheel base – perhaps I would have had room inside the van to store all of my water. In that case, I’m still not sure it’s worth the hassle for the points I’ll discuss in the next section.
The other thing I’ll mention about my shower is that the water was leaking through the floor the day I left my original builder’s shop. They didn’t use a shower pan and failed to seal the floor properly underneath the teak. I fixed this myself by putting a thick layer of rubber flex-seal which filled in all of the holes. If I could go back, I think having an aluminum shower pan would have been a better bet.
— Sprinter Van Water Heater —
The other thing to consider for a Sprinter Van bathroom is if you want hot water and how you are going to heat the water. Hot water requires additional plumbing lines plus the water heater itself. My builder installed hot water lines, but didn’t install the actual heater because he didn’t know how. I had to go somewhere else for that after my build was already completed.
That is definitely not the way to do it. If you are going to build a shower in your Sprinter Van, you should figure out what type of hot water heater you want and where you are going to put it before you build out the rest of the van.
With my build already completed and plumbing lines in, I had very limited space left in my van for a water heater. Even the tankless water heaters were too big. So I opted for the Webasto Dual Top EVO 6, which runs off diesel (plus a little battery power) and heats both the water and the air in the van. It’s not too compact, but it fits nicely in the spare tire area underneath the van.
The downside of the Webasto Dual Top EVO 6? The price. After my installation, I found the part online for $2100, which is cheaper than I paid for the part. Most of the quotes I got were in the (gasp, I’m embarrassed to say) $7,000-10,000 range for the part and full installation. Without the shower, I could have installed a normal air heater for a 1/10th of the price (or less). I also could have saved a lot of money on the shower if the water heater had been incorporated into the floor plan from the get-go, since that would have opened up a lot of other options, like a tankless heater.
Also with the Webasto, any time the temps drop into the 30s and you have water in the lines and the boiler, you must have the unit on. So in cold climates, you might be running the unit 24 hours a day just to prevent water from freezing in the unit.
Installation was complicated because some of my water lines had to be rerouted and ended up costing me ALOT of money. If I had known just how much it was going to cost to have hot water in the van, I probably would have thought twice about the shower. It was a shitload of money, but since the shower was already built, I felt I didn’t really have a choice but to install hot water. Otherwise, it was a complete waste of space. Also winter was approaching fast and I was desperate for a heating solution.
I will note if you are handy, Steve from FreeTired has a post on his blog about self-installing the Webasto Dual Top EVO 6 on his van. The only downside of buying the part from and installing it yourself is that I’m pretty sure (but not certain) that it voids the warranty.
••• Sprinter Van Bathroom Components •••
If you are set on building a shower in your Sprinter Van, here’s a list of all of the components used in my bathroom and where you can find them. I’m happy with all of these components. The shower head has an on/off switch which is very useful for turning off when you are soaping up, and the shower hose is 8 feet long so I can use it outside to hose off my feet or gear.
••• Would I build a Sprinter Van bathroom again? •••
Do I like my shower? Yes. Would I do it again? Probably not. I once went 22 days without showering on the John Muir Trail, and I don’t mind being dirty.
The complications that the shower has presented in cold climates have caused me a lot of headaches, which I’m slowly figuring out how to manage. Maybe once it’s summer and I’ve been in the van for an extended period of time, I’ll feel differently…but I wanted to address all of your shower questions as soon as possible before you embark on your builds. This winter, the shower has mostly served as a very expensive storage area.
If I could start over, I think I’d do things a little more simple. I think I’d have a couple of 5 gallon jugs under the sink with a water pump and a gray water jug that I could easily unhook and take out of the van. That way they’d be easy to fill up and dump if the weather dropped below freezing. I can only fill my tanks up with a hose, and sometimes it’s hard to find places to do that. If I really wanted a shower, I’d consider adding something like the Eccotemp L5 Portable Tankless Water Heater and Outdoor Shower to the backside of my kitchen galley, which I recently saw installed in @americabaldbeautiful’s Sprinter Van.
I also wonder if I had asked the right questions of my builder before hiring him, I would have ended up with a different builder or a different design. I also don’t want to blame my builder entirely, but I probably wouldn’t hire someone to build me a bathroom again who has zero bathroom experience.
With all this said, I’m sure there are some people who would love having a bathroom. I think it makes a lot more sense in the 170” wheelbase or for people who are only going to use their van in warmer climates. If a shower is fitting for your lifestyle, then I’d highly suggest doing more upfront research than I did, so you can weigh all of your heating and plumbing options before your van build begins. That way you can figure out how to do it cost effectively.
I’ll make sure to come back and update this once I’ve had a chance to use the van in the summer for more extended periods of time. In the meantime, I hope this helps those Sprinter folks out there who are considering a shower whether or not it is a good use of van space and a good fit for your lifestyle.
Oh, and for those of you who want to know who built my van….it was a small company in Santa Barbara, and unfortunately I cannot provide a recommendation for them.
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All photos copyrighted by Kristen Bor / Bearfoot Theory