Adding plumbing to a van is almost as much hassle as running electrical wiring. There are no easy places to run pipes through the walls and you have to stop everything from freezing or leaking.
We decided to plumb the van with hot and cold water. We get dirty on bike rides and solar showers don’t warm up that much during Pacific NorthWest winters. We have no plans to put a full-on bathroom inside the van though – that’s a complete waste of valuable bike storage space!
Instead, we chose to run a shower hose to the back door. We can clean off there, or inside the van at the sink.
We settled on a 16 gallon water tank, with a 4 gallon hot water heater from Indel. We wanted larger tanks but just couldn’t make them fit in our design. There’s a lot to be said for building your own bench seat rather than using the stock one – all that potential storage space under the seat would have been great for our tanks! Instead, we’re running them against the passenger side wall in the rear of the van.
The area above the wheel well is now a storage bin. In front of it is the hot water tank, covered in bamboo to match the units in the front of the van. The top of the hot water tank cover is level with the arm of the three person bench seat, which slots in right next to it.
The cold water tank sits behind the rear wheel. It’s held in place with super-long hose clamps! The tank comes with some 3/8″ NPT threaded holes on each end. We added a tank fill with a threaded cap. They also make one with a straight 1-1/4″ barbed fitting. It’s pretty easy to cut through the ABS tank wall and then the fitting just glues in place. Turning it 1/4 turn as you set it in place seems to help spread the adhesive around and seal any potential leaks. Because there’s a 5″ gap between the top of the tank and the top of the box that encloses it, we added a short length of 1-1/2″ ID PVC hose to this threaded tank fill and put a deck fill plate on the other end of the hose.
Also in this picture, you can see the one-way polypropylene check valve we installed as a breather for the tank. It connects to the top of the tank end wall and lets air in to the tank as the water inside is used up. It works really well to equalize the pressure in the tank without letting water slosh out. In the picture it has a breather vent cap on it (the chrome/brass piece) but we’ve taken that off subsequently because the valve is installed in a relatively clean area and the breather was restricting flow.
The coin-covered plywood will eventually have aluminum angle on the corners. We like to make everything in the van serve double duty, so the bolts that hold the access panel on are also l-track tie-down clips.
The water heater uses 120v power. It will run from the battery with no issues. It uses about 10% of the battery’s charge (75 Ah) to heat up from ambient. In the future if we want to we can also plumb it to use engine coolant, so we heat the water free of charge just by driving along. The water heater comes with a tempering valve to maintain a constant hot water temperature at the faucet, regardless of how hot it is in the tank.
The water pressure is provided by a 12v pump. Most RV pumps need a separate pressure tank (called an accumulator tank) so they don’t run all the time a faucet is open. The one we chose (Shurflo Revolution) has a built-in bypass system that means it doesn’t need that extra tank. The pump sits above the cold water tank. We also had space above the tank to add a stainless steel cubby to hold the shower hose and head. It’s actually a 1/3 size chafing dish from a professional steam pan like you see in restaurants. It fits really nicely in the available space, and looks great from the outside.
We chose to use flexible 1/2″ ID PVC braided tubing (similar stuff available from Amazon cheaper but seldom in stock in 1/2″ ID) to move the water around the van. We were going to use PEX tubing, but our design means we have several locations where it would be hard to fit the more rigid PEX pipes. That means using barbed fittings and hose clamps at each joint. We’d rather have used some ear clamps, but they are much harder to reposition, and we knew we’d be messing around with the fit of the components a couple of times.
We used plastic hose fittings. Most of the components need 1/2″ NPT ends. We found most of the female style plastic fittings were not strong enough to form a good seal on male NPT metal fittings. Some, like this really beefy T, were fine. Most, like these 90 degree ends, were not. They expand too much over the metal, and even if they initially form a good seal, when the connection gets hot the threads leak.
The plastic female fittings did work find on plastic male NPT threads though (like the pump connectors). The plastic male fittings also worked fine in either plastic or metal female ends. Most of the available brass connectors are not rated for potable water (they contain too much lead), so we had to use flexible braided hose in a couple of locations. This then gave us a female hose end to use with a male plastic barbed fitting, which worked fine. If you work with these plastic fittings, follow the instructions: only tighten them by hand, and don’t use PTFE thread tape or other lubricating thread sealants. If you do, you’ll only tighten the connector too far, which will make it more likely to crack or leak.
Because we want to be able to remove the sink unit, we used quick disconnects on the hot and cold connectors. We also used one on the shower hose at the back of the van. The quick disconnects made for garden hoses aren’t safe for potable water (too much lead), so we ended up using industrial plastic ones made by CPC. They seal closed on both sides when you disconnect them, so there are no leaks. We used panel mounts with 1/2″ barbs, and couplings with 1/2″ NPT threads.
The metal panels that the quick connects are mounted in are the same as the outlet plates we wrote about earlier.
All of the plumbing is inside the van. That helps to make sure it doesn’t freeze during the winter. We also added a 12v heating pad under the cold water tank, with a cheap digital thermostat set to come on if the tank approaches freezing point.
We added a sink inside the van too. After looking at the incredibly cheap and good value for money Ikea Fyndig sink (under $30) we bought an Ambassador Marine sink – mainly because it was just a little smaller in every dimension, but also because it has a smaller size drain outlet that will fit the super-compact Ambassador Marine sink drain and strainer basket. This drain does not include a trap, so any fumes from the waste water tank could come straight back up. However, because it uses a 1″ hose for its drain, you only have to put a loop in the hose to act just like a regular sink trap. Alternatively, you run the waste hose to the bottom of the waste water container. Then, it seals just as soon as the water covers the base of the hose.
The sink unit
is currently made of shipping crate plywood is made of 80/20 aluminum extrusion with bamboo panels. We wanted to make sure it was the right size and worked for us in the van before we committed to building the final version, so we lived with the prototype shown in this picture for a while before we built the final version.
We chose to use a faucet with an extending head, so it can double as a shower inside the van if necessary, and also to make it easier to fill water bottles and camelpacks for biking.
Although there’s a yellow bucket in the pictures here, we’re actually using a Reliance Rhino Pack 5 gallon jerry can to hold the grey water from the sink. We bought a 1″ barbed fitting to replace the jerry can spout. After we’d cut it down to size on a lathe, it fitted just fine in the spot where the spout normally sits. The 1″ hose from the sink drain attaches to the barb. When we need to empty the can, we just unscrew the lid. Even though the vent in the can is closed, we don’t have any problems with the sink draining.
The plumbing system is actually pretty simple. What made our lives difficult was the confined spaces we chose to put everything in. We had to buy a couple of 90 degree fittings just to make the hoses reach.
In the future, we might add a transparent pipe on the side of the cold tank to make it easier to see how much water we have left. For now though, everything works, nothing leaks (fingers crossed), and we have hot and cold water on the go.