Our step-by-step guide from start to end of how we installed the plumbing in our van, including all of the trials and errors in between. We’ve included the cost of all materials used to give an idea of what to expect when considering converting your own van.
Making a plan:
We wanted to be able to live self-sufficiently, without relying on campsites and being able to go off into the wilderness for days on end if we wish. And the one essential thing we would need was water. It was ambitious, but we wanted to have hot and cold running water, a shower, sink and enough water capacity to be able to use these things and last for a few days. We were going to need to create something totally unique.
Our plumbing system would be fed from two stainless steel water tanks, created from catering chafing dishes. These would each be able to contain approximately 40L of water. The hot water tank would be fed by by the cold water tank via a non-return valve which itself would be fed from a 25L plastic jerry can known as the reserve tank. This would be stored in the service area as well but held in place by a ratchet strap to allow us to remove it and fill it. The hot water tank would be heated by a coil, which would circulate water from the tank through the Eberspacher heater and back into the tank again using a 12V pump; it would be insulated to keep it separate from the cold tank.
Two separate pumps (one for hot, one for cold) would feed the kitchen sink and the shower with hot and cold water and via a thermostatic mixer. We got the 12V pumps for cheap on eBay at just £10.99 each, and later bought a third one to circulate the coolant through the heater coil. Despite the price they were decent pumps, capable of pumping out 4 litres of water a minute with 100 psi of pressure.
Originally we were really torn between wanting a shower room and not wanting to lose masses of space in the van. A lot of other vans we’d seen usually had a bathroom occupying one half of the rear of the van, but this wouldn’t work for us as we wanted our bed and service area at the back of the van. So initially we came up with the idea of a foldable shower. Between the bed and the sliding door on the left side of the van we had around 1m of space, so we wanted to build a hinged shower tray into the cladding (measuring around 80cm square). The drain in the shower tray would correspond to a drain hole in the floor, which would either flow straight out or into a waste water tank. We would stop water splashing into the van with a shower curtain attached to the roof of the van which would velcro onto the inside of the shower tray, allowing water to run straight down and into the tray. Then, once dry, the curtain could be folded up and the tray can be folded away upright against the wall, ideal for saving space. While we still think this was a good idea, the appeal of showering outdoors in the wilderness was too great and we never ended up using it. Still, maybe our idea could be of use to someone else out there.
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Designing our water tanks:
As we were making our tanks out of chafing dishes, our first step was to mark out and drill a few dozen holes around the lips to pop rivet them together. We used a hole saw to create holes for the plumbing connectors such as the non-return valve, the inlets and the outlets. These were then sealed in place with generous amounts of Sika-flex, which we also used to create a seal around the edge of the tank when we pop-riveted the two halves together.
The hot water tank was a little different; we had to drill two smaller holes in one end of the tank to accommodate the heating coil, which we then tig-welded in place before sealing the tank. Once the tank seals were fully dry, we filled them up to test their watertightness. We found a few drips and marked them with permanent marker, resealed them with Sika-flex, then began installing them in the van once they were 100% watertight. We used wooden blocks screwed into the floor to stop them moving around in transit.
During our first trip the hot tank had unfortunately burst its seal, causing a massive leak and leaving us without hot water for the remaining portion of our trip. We remedied this when we were back in England by fitting an expansion valve which would allow steam to escape and prevent the tank from blowing up again. We resealed it all with Sika-flex.
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Installing the plumbing:
Once the tanks were installed everything could be plumbed from them around the van. Using Speedfit connectors we created an inlet and an outlet into the cold tank from the reserve tank, and out to the hot tank via a non-return valve so that hot water could not flow backward into the cold tank, pulled by the cold pump. The hot tank was plumbed similarly with its own separate pump but with the addition of the pipe clipped onto the ends of the heater coil and the additional pump that would pump coolant around it. Then the hot and cold pumps were each connected to a T-piece, then two Speedfit pipes would flow to the kitchen tap and two Speedfit pipes would flow to the shower, one hot and one cold. The reserve tank had a hole drilled into the cap for the outlet pipe, made of clear garden hose, which would run purely on suction caused by the pump pulling water from the cold tank. The pumps work on a system of pressure: you open the tap, the water pressure drops, the pump works to repressurise the system and stops running once it has done this.
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Installing the shower & tap:
To install the thermostatic shower mixer we first needed to build a support for it to hold it up; we bought the mixer secondhand using Gumtree for £12.50. We drilled holes for the plumbing in a large piece of 2x4 wood and attached this to the cladding frame of the van. We used Speedfit to attach to the back of the mixer and held it in place with a good dollop of Sika-flex. We were then able to clad over this area (with mild difficulty) to hide the pipes, connect the shower hose and head and test our new working shower; the shower head and hose came from the carboot at just £3.
Before installing the kitchen frame we fed the rigid Speedfit pipes along the wall where the kitchen would go, holding them in place with P clips. We cut a hole in the back of the unit to feed the pipes through once the sink from our donor caravan was fitted. We plumbed in the mixer tap the same way you would plumb one into a house (with the added restriction of space), which we also bought over Gumtree for £5.
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Waste water & leaks:
Our plan for the waste water was simple - fix all the holes in the van and then make more. We used a hole saw and a jigsaw to cut two holes in the floor- one underneath the sink inside the cupboard and one where the shower tray would fit by the door. We connected a flexi-hose to the sink and fed it inside a length of 40mm plastic waste pipe which went through the hole in the floor and connected to a right angle bend below. This would then direct the water through another pipe along the width of the van to the larger shower drain, connecting to it via a T piece. We used an ordinary 40mm stainless steel kitchen waste to sit in the floor for when the shower is not in use. To use it, we would remove the drain cover and insert a length of 30mm pipe into the larger 40mm drain through the floor- the 30mm pipe had a slit in one side of it which would line up with the T piece below allowing the waste water from the sink and the shower to meet and flow freely out of the van (we have a waste water container which fits below in case we are parked on concrete and not grass). However we never ended up needing the shower waste as we were showering outdoors, but the kitchen one flows well.
With our waste water system in place we were able to fully test the plumbing system- and we found two leaks. One was behind the shower mixer, which we had to remove the cladding to find and turned out just to be a loose Speedfit connection. The other was due to the cold water pump and the hose we’d used to connect to it, which wasn’t very good quality and couldn’t handle the water pressure. We bought some thick-walled heater hose and used jubilee clips to secure it on, and we haven’t had any leaks since.
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Total cost and materials used:
5 pack of 15mm Speedfit tees from B&Q - £8.50*
4 x 15mm Speedfit tank connectors from B&Q - £2.60 each*
4 x 15-10mm straights from B&Q - £3 each*
2 packs of 10 15mm tube supports from B&Q - £2.70 each*
15mm double check valve from B&Q - £11.07*
25m of 15mm PEX pipe from B&Q - £24*
4 x 20L chafing dishes from eBay - £40
Thermostatic shower mixer, secondhand - £12.50
Kitchen mixer tap, secondhand - £5
Shower head & hose, secondhand - £3
3 x 100psi 12V water pumps from eBay - £10.99 each
25L jerry can from a local hardware shop - £12
Expansion valve - £5.50
Car heater hose - £6
Total cost: £198.34
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