Proper temperature control in your van can make or break a comfortable night of sleep. It also allows you to camp during times of year (like winter) that you wouldn’t be able to otherwise. While your van probably has heat and AC that come out of the dash, how how do you make the temperature comfortable when the van isn’t running?
We’re going to answer all those questions here as we talk about different heating options, fans, and the important role van windows play on comfort and interior temperature.
Importance of Van Temperature Control
Even with proper insulation, controlling the interior temperature of the van is key to maintaining a comfortable living space. It’s one thing to spend a single cold night out under the stars, but it’s another thing to be cold every single night in your van. The same thing goes for extreme heat – no one wants to be super sweaty climbing into their bed at night, and on a hot, sunny day, you want to be able to take refuge in your van. Therefore, having heating and cooling systems in your van may be essential depending on where you plan on traveling.
Best Ways to Heat your Van
If you’ll be traveling to places that get pretty cold, you’ll want to consider installing a heater in your van. A heater is also important for ensuring your water pipes don’t freeze when temperatures drop below 32 degrees.
If you’re looking to install a heater, there are a few main types to consider: propane, electric, and diesel.
Portable propane heaters, like the Mr. Buddy, are popular with DIYers because they are inexpensive and you can connect them to the same propane tank you use to cook with or use refillable propane canisters. They heat a small space quickly and can be easily stored when you don’t need them, but there are a few downsides.
Propane heaters tend to result in condensation, so you’ll want good airflow. Additionally, many people are uncomfortable having open propane inside their vehicle, particularly while they sleep. A faulty, leaking propane tank releases carbon monoxide into the air, which can be deadly if you don’t catch it right away, yet another reason you’ll want good airflow.
Another option is to install a fixed propane heater; these produce less condensation and work well in cold temperatures. A fixed propane heater requires a bit more installation work, and typically the propane tank is vented to the outside, reducing the safety concerns.
Electric heaters are only suitable if you’re running on a generator or plugged into shore power. Electric heaters – and this includes electrical blankets – are taxing on a solar-powered system, but otherwise, they’re lightweight, quiet, and will heat a small space well. My sense is that you’re likely here because you want to get off the grid, and in that case, electric heaters will not be a good option for you.
Diesel heaters work by siphoning a small amount of fuel from your vehicle’s diesel tank. They are a heftier investment upfront but are very efficient over time. In fact, some brands are reported to burn only a gallon of fuel for every 20-50 hours of use.
Espar and Webasto make the most popular diesel heater models, and they are both quite small and compact. A popular place to install this type of heater is under the passenger seat.
Diesel heaters can get noisy, which is something to be aware of if stealthiness is your top priority. In this case, you should consider installing a muffler to reduce noise.
Some models of diesel heaters will also heat water. I have the Webasto Dual Top Evo 6 in my second van which does this. I’ll go into more detail when we cover water heaters later in this module. No matter what heater you choose, I also suggest getting a carbon monoxide detector with an alarm, so you will be alerted of any leaks while you sleep.
Pros and Cons of Van Windows
Alright, now let’s move onto windows. We’ve all been wooed by the pretty photos of vans with a ton of windows. Who wouldn’t want that 360 view from inside their van? With that said, windows come with a downside that is important to be aware of when deciding exactly how many windows you want.
With windows, you lose insulation. In my current van, this is the reason I opted against windows on the rear door. With rear windows, depending on the layout of your bed, heat escapes right where your head is, which is kind of a double whammy. Plus with a raised platform bed, part of the window may dip below the bed frame, rendering the bottom part of the window useless.
Another thing is the more windows you have, the more curtains you’ll need, which is something people often overlook. Depending on your window trim, you can use magnets, velcro, or snaps to secure curtains to the wall. If a view is more important, we get it – but keep these other details in mind.
Unless you DIY, curtains – especially those that insulate – can be very expensive – running upwards of $1500 or more for a full set of insulating, blackout curtains that help control temperature and offer maximum privacy. The curtains in my second van were made by Outside Van. They are made of ripstop nylon with a layer of closed-cell foam on the interior which gives them insulating properties. I’ve noticed that they’re very effective at controlling hot and cold air transfer through the windows.
In hindsight, in my next van, I will likely reduce the total number of windows even further. In this van, in order to control temperature and keep our privacy, we rarely put all of the curtains up. We also lose storage space along the walls because of all of the windows. Next time, I’ll probably keep the windows I have upfront near the slider door, but I’d get rid of the middle row.
Another thing to note is the difference between factory windows and aftermarket windows. Factory windows, at least on Sprinters, do not open or vent. That’s why you see many people either adding or replacing factory windows with aftermarket ones. CL Laurence and AMA are two popular companies that make vented, after-market windows for campervans.
Best Fans for your Van Conversion
In order to keep your van cool in the summer as well as to prevent condensation in your van in the winter, I highly recommend installing 1 or 2 ceiling fans, depending on the length of your vehicle.
In the 170” Sprinter Van, 2 fans work great. We have one over our galley and another over the bed. If we have one pulling air in and the other blowing air out, we can get really decent airflow in here, especially if we have a window or two open. By planning our route to avoid super hot climates – like the Southern Utah desert in the summer – we’ve never felt the need to have an additional rooftop air conditioning unit in the van.
The two most popular brands for fans are Maxx Air and Fantastic Fan. When searching for the right fan, some of the features you’ll need to think about are whether you want a rain cover or remote control, the number of speeds, and price.
I have one fan towards the front of my van and one in the rear over the bed
Van Air Conditioning Considerations
I’m going to wrap up this lesson by quickly talking about air conditioning.
As I mentioned previously, if you install a couple of fans and windows, use quality insulation, and have insulating window curtains, you will go a long way in making the temperature inside your van comfortable. So you can also plan your travels around the weather. By avoiding the hottest places in the hottest months of the year, you can eliminate the need for an additional air conditioning unit in your van.
If you do want to install an additional AC unit, know that you will either need a generator, an extremely robust power system, or frequent access to shore power. Even then, they consume a ton of juice and you won’t be able to run it 24/7. With a big battery bank, you might be able to run the AC for a few hours at a time, but then you’ll need to find a way to charge up.
For this reason, I’m not going to go into more detail about AC units, but for those of you who really do want one, I’ll include some helpful links in the resources section.
That wraps up this lesson on temperature control. Now you should have a good understanding of the different and most cost-effective ways you can heat and cool your van.
- DIY Window Installation by Far Out Ride
- DIY Espar Diesel Heater Install Video by Ray Outfitted
- Best Ways to Stay Cool in your Van
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Explore other van life lessons in Module 2
- Lesson 1: Determining Your Layout Priorities
- Lesson 2: Van Payload & Weight Considerations
- Lesson 3: Van Walls, Insulation, Sound Dampening & Infrastructure
- Lesson 4: Van Flooring
- Lesson 5: Van Solar & Electrical Systems
- Lesson 6 (current lesson): Van Heating, Cooling, & Temperature Control
- Lesson 7: Van Bed Styles
- Lesson 8: Van Bathroom, Water Storage, & Plumbing
- Lesson 9: Van Kitchen/Galley
- Lesson 10: Tables, Cabinetry, & Storage Ideas
- Lesson 11: Van Upholstery
- Lesson 12: Racks & Accessories
How do you deal with temperature control in your van? Share your questions, tips, and experiences in the comments below and make sure to sign up for course updates!