Who doesn’t want to take a hot shower after a long day on the trail or playing in the ocean?
Hot water that used the same fuel as our van, diesel in this case, is why we chose to go with the Espar Hydronic D5E heater. We also loved that we could heat the interior of the van and the engine block at high altitudes and in cold climates all without starting the van.
Out of all the Espar heaters, we chose the Espar Hydronic Heater D5E after speaking with the tech department in depth about our trip, van and needs. This heater has a high altitude kit that is needed in order to run the Espar at high altitudes. The newest Espar is not compatible (at least not at this time) with high altitude operation.
We ordered our heater from the UK because the heater, the high altitude kit and the installation kit was about $600 less than companies in the US. It arrived in 2 days and then the fun really began. We also ordered the 6 way temperature valve from a company out of Indiana to hook up the heater system to our coolant system and hot water system. We ordered the Elgena hot water tank from a company in Germany and that took a few weeks to arrive. We looked at so many options in the states, but none of them were are small and compact as the Elgena.
The system itself is not complex as you can see from the basic model below. The preparation and installation, on the other hand, proved to be quite challenging.
In order to install this project we needed to have a few things in place and complete:
- Auxiliary Fuel System
- Interior Wall Panels
- Interior Auxiliary Heater Core
- Auxiliary Fuse Panel
- Auxiliary Battery
- Water Filtration System
- Hot Water Tank
- Shower/Faucet System
This project took a long time to finish because of all the steps required to install it. The housing needed to be built, but couldn’t be built until all the components were in hand for measurements. It also had to fit in the space where the old heater core used to be. We had to use coolant hoses that would work in the tight spaces. Lucia found pre-molded Dayco hoses that worked well for the tight space.
Colin did an incredible job fabricating the aluminum housing and getting it mounted securely under the van. His measurements were perfect and allowed us to put the heater, the hot water tank, the water pump and the 6 way valve in place. We used the leftover aluminum from the auxiliary fuel tank build to make the housing. Colin drilled and tapped the lid through the housing so we can attach it and remove it as needed for inspections during the trip. The lid is lined with weather stripping to keep water out if we ever submerge that deep into water.
After the housing was built, we had to cut holes for all the coolant hoses, water lines, fuel lines, exhaust, intake and electrical. For the aluminum plates that were mounted onto the frame body it took a couple tries to get the holes to line up with the housing when it was mounted. Colin is much better at this than Lucia and she admits that precision is not her forte so after messing it up, Colin took over that job. Finding rubber grommets that would fit in the holes and over all the hoses was surprisingly hard. We searched all the hardware stores in Santa Rosa and tried McMaster, but to no avail we could not find the damn grommets. We ended up ordering them from an online company called Rubber Feet Warehouse after days of phone calls and research. They have a wide selection of larger harder to find grommet sizes.
Once the housing was complete, we were able to start on installing the heater, water pump, 6 way valve and hot water tank. It was a puzzle for sure since we had to build it “upside down” in the housing before actually installing it. The Espar, 6 way valve and the water tank were able to be installed before mounting the housing. Feeding the hoses through the holes in the side panel of the van and into the Espar housing was difficult, but we managed to get them all through with grommets in tack.
Once everything was installed it was time to test the system with coolant. We filled her up with new coolant and fired her up. The coolant began to warm and circulate through the system. We did notice that some areas were not getting warm, so we retraced all the hoses and realized that inlet and outlet lines to the vans coolant system were backwards on the 6 way valve so we had to drain the coolant from the system and swap the hoses. After a messy and long afternoon, we filled up the coolant again and tested the system. All hoses are warm and bubbles have been purged.
The hard part was getting the coolant to flow through the auxiliary heater core. There was an air bubble that would not push through so Colin bled the coolant lines very, very carefully at the auxiliary heater core and managed to get the coolant flowing through.
After we installed the auxiliary fuel system, we were able to test the Espar itself. We had a bung welded onto the tank and placed the fuel pick-up line there and routed the fuel hose along the frame of the van. It fired up on the first try and worked like a charm! The coolant started to get warm within a few minutes and the Espar isn’t too noisy. The only thing that we don’t like is that the exhaust is not long enough for our liking and if the windows are open we could slightly smell a little bit of the exhaust. It’s not in any way an endangerment to our health, but a slightly longer exhaust (6”) would be nice.
Thoughts post installation:
Wow. What the f*ck were we thinking when we decided to add this modification to the van?
No seriously, this project was a beast. If we had more space to work and install the components it would have been much easier. So far the system works. It is nice to arrive at camp after driving and have hot water available for 10-15 hours after parking just from driving. However, we could have installed just the hot water tank integrated with the cooling system and had the same results as we have now. Before I jump the gun though, we’ll give the system a fair chance to prove itself in cold climates (which won’t really be until South America).
In hindsight, we would have chosen an external propane system for heating water for a couple reasons: (1) Less chance of problems with the vans cooling system and (2) Less time on installation. However, it’s only been a few weeks on the road so we may have another opinion later down the road. We haven’t yet had to turn on the Espar for heating or hot water because driving the van heats the water. We’ll post an update when we get into climates that we need to use it.