Van life: Winter

I like winter. Winter is challenging.

Travelling on a van is all fun and all until it gets cold. If you plan to only use your van during summer, there’s not much you need to know about.

When winter comes, different needs arise.

Note: I will talk about cold up to -30C/-22F, which I experienced both in Sweden and in the Italian alps, near where I live (yes sometimes and in some places it gets that cold in Italy too). I have no experience going lower.

The first thing to note is that you need a heating system. I have 2 in my van. Originally it came with a Truma Combi 4 LPG heating stove. This 4kW heating stove is great, except it works with LPG.

LPG is a bit of a pain. If used for heating, you can consume a 10L LPG tank every 4-5 days or less depending on the cold.

It’s relatively hard to find, especially when you are abroad. Tanks abroad might have different plugs, too, in the EU. And even if you have a place to get new tanks, it’s a pain because you’re no longer free. And you need to keep 2 tanks on board all the time to avoid having one finish during the night (it happened once).

So I installed a diesel heater, an Eberspächer Airtronic D2, a 2kW diesel heater. It’s quite small but works great until you get under -20C, at that point the 4kW LPG heater works better.

This diesel heater is very convenient. I don’t have to think about it. I can turn it on while driving around (I have some fear about LPG open while driving, although there are tools that let you do that, like Truma SecuMotion).

Most importantly, having 2 systems is very safe. One can fail, but I still have the other. When going into cold temperatures, this redundancy is important. One time one person in the same place I was had his Truma Diesel fail due to diesel not 100% prepared for cold (depending on where you fill your tank it’s different). It got down to -28C, so you can imagine it’s not fun.

In winter, insulation is very important. It’s also important during summer, but in winter it’s even more. Insulation depends a lot on vendors. In most vans, insulation is non-existent. I recommend you take your time to insulate the panels as much as you can, at least where you can get access to. It’s the details that matter.

Also, you can get one external cover for the windshield to put outside.

You also don’t need to worry too much about it if it’s -10C. If you’re crazy enough to like camping at -20C, the problems start to rise.

Problems that van vendors will not tell you about, of course. The worst one is water. Water is great but it has this tendency of turning into ice at 0C.

Ice has the tendency to expand. Water in pipes that turns into ice will damage the pipes and all the connectors.

Seems like I had problems with water during winter. I did.

It seems like van (but also motorhome) producers know nothing about winter. They assume we all just use our vehicles when it’s sunny and hot outside.

The first problem you will see is that the gray waters might not discharge, if the tank is outside of the vehicle. The valve that is supposed to turn does not turn because it’s freezed. This happens very frequently. Never force that, just wait until it gets hotter. If hotter climate is not in the horizon, you have 2 options.

One is to use a heating gun, carefully. This works when you have 230V electricity at hand.

Another level of problem is when the water inside the water tank freezes. You need to have the gray water tank insulated. Of course you had to think this before buying the van. Or proceed with insulating it yourself. But insulating is useless unless inside the tank there’s an heating source.

I did the easiest think and installed an electrical resistance, which is what most constructors do when the sell you the “winter pack”. It’s mostly useless as it’s 12V, so you can run it when you’re not connected to 230, so it has very little power. The ideal thing is be to have a heater pipe pass through the tank. This would really help, and it’s something I planned for the future.

Water might not just freeze inside the tank. It might also freeze in the pipes that lead to the tank.

This happens with 90° turns. A little bit of water can stagnate into those, and it turns into ice. Over time, all turns into ice and the pipes get filled with water to the point you can’t discharge your water sink. It happened to me. The only solution here is wait and hope there’s no damage to the pipes.

I suffered enough those problems that now when it gets really cold I have an alternative system. I have 2 smaller portable water tanks that I can empty when I need. I just connect the pipes under the water sink exhaust hole, and when the tank is full I empty it in the camping bathroom (it’s not good to empty your soap in nature, right).

99% of people will never have this problem. I just mention it if you like skiing or just hanging out in -30C weather. I own 2 huskies and they love cold weather, so do I.

Now let’s talk a little about water pipes inside the van. Some constructors put them in the craziest places. I changed the position of the pipes in my van because they just froze. I could have 20C inside the van, but with -15C outside I could not get water in the bathroom sink because the pipes were put too close to the outside metal of the van. I tried insulating, first, but nothing changed. Cold water inside a pipe is just going to freeze.

Usually this is what happens: constructors put water pipes alongside the heating system. Not all of them, but most do.

My van from the factory had an LPG heater, the Truma Combi 4 mentioned before. Some pipes followed the Truma heating system, some did not. The van was just not built for winter.

So when I installed the supplementary Eberspacher diesel heater, I made sure the water pipes followed its heated pipes. Problem solved.

Almost.

Because most vans have what’s called “frost valve” that offloads the water to the outside when it starts to get too cold inside.

I discovered this on the first trip I took. It was winter. I filled the van with clear water at home. When I arrived at destination, 6 hours after, I had zero water. It got self-dischardged, very slowly, on the road (clean water!) because the frost valve thought “brr it’s getting cold!” where “getting cold” means 5C.

A clear design failure from the system. The valve was supposed to protect the boiler, which is a 2500€+ component and it’s right. But due to some idraulic principle I don’t know how to name, it was also emptying the water tank.

Over time I fixed the system by adding a manual valve to exclude the boiler from the water circuit if I don’t want to use it, and I removed this automatic valve. No more leaking!

Another thing you quickly discover is that heat goes up. Your head is hot and your feet is cold.

All pipes are usually put in hidden places that get cold if not directly heated. What I did to fix it was to put all pipes as high as possible (not close to the bottom) and I also made it more open-space as possible by removing panels that prevented the heat from spreading. It might not be great to look at, but it works.

One thing that is also challenging in winter is drying shoes. You can get your shoes wet with snow or water and you can put the shoes where there’s the heated air gates, or you can get an electrical device that’s made for just this particular reason. I have a 350W one with 4 pipes, so you can dry 2 pairs of shoes.

That’s basically it for cold.

If you plan to spend a lot of time in cold climate you can invest in an engine heater, too. Like a Webasto Thermotop. This will make sure the engine will start with no problems, and will keep the right water temperature. This is next in my to-do list, but it’s been for years now, not sure if I’ll ever do it.

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