Heating a sprinter van in sub freezing temperatures is difficult, even if it’s insulated. Ideally you want something that is simple, cost-effective, and safe. I did a bit of research and talked to some van folks who suggested using Electric Blankets, Propane Space Heaters, and Diesel Heaters. I ended up trying all three of these options before ditching the rest for the diesel heater (it was by far the best solution).
In the beginning…
The general consensus in the van world is that diesel heaters are the best. There’s even a preferred van installation position and van shops are very familiar with the install job. I was a bit intimidated by the complexity of the install myself, I was still getting to know my van and nervous about drilling holes in the floor, so I figured I’d try some lower cost lower committement heating options before putting down serious time and money into the diesel heating system.
The first weekend I tried the Mr Buddy Heater, a classic portable space heater found at most big hardware stores. They burn small propane canisters which are also easy to find (also the ones you can use to hook up to camp stoves). A big issue with propane heaters is their exhaust must be vented. The propane reaction takes oxygen out of the air and replaces it with carbon monoxide (yikes). To be fair, the heater has a bunch of safety settings like an oxygen sensor and a tip-over auto shutoff, still I didn’t want to take any chances so I opened my roof fan and also had a carbon monoxide sensor with me.
The results were ok. It was warmer than nights I had spent with no heating at all but certainly not the comfortable feeling I expected. The heat seemed to rise right up from the heater and out the vent. It’s possible I could have moved the heater further from the vent to spread the heat more evenly but I was worried about the flame and the fumes. On the low setting the heater lasted about 5 hours, forcing me to do a reluctant tank switch at 3am. It’s possible to hook these heaters to larger propane tanks but the idea of more gas inside or close to my living area didn’t appeal to me.
I had a buddy who swore by electric blankets and I happened to spot a whole shelf of them when walking through (where else but) Walmart. My friend had a well insulated camper and he’d use a wool blanket along with the electric blanket to stay warm. The next adventure weekend I gave it a try and was pleasently surprised. While taking a bit of time to learn the controls I found the blanket had the capacity to be too hot for me at higher settings, progress!
I was sleeping on the electric blanket with a sleeping bag which trapped the heat well. The air however was still quite cold and the parts of the van away from the blanket were still very cold. This resulted in a very strong “I dont’ want to get out of bed” feeling. I figured these options wouldn’t cut it and it was time to take a crack at the diesel heater.
About diesel heaters
There were a lot of resources about diesel heaters online when I started looking. People use them for all sorts of applications: Garage heating, RV heating, Boat heating. They work by burning diesel fuel in a chamber that the heater blows air over. The exhuast is routed outside the space and you’re left with a hot dry stream of air. The benefits are pretty strong: Not having to deal with exhaust, the fuel consumption is very low, (in the case of diesel vehicles, the heater can source fuel directly from the main tank).
The diesel heater market is a bit strange. There are high end european heating units made by trusted companies like Espar and Eberspacher (1.5k - 2k), there are strangely branded options on amazong going for as low as $160, and there is nothing in between. As I am writing this I believe people are taking advantage of this gap and producing options a bit more appealing to the average american in the $500 range. Another peculiar bit about these two types of heater kits is that they look nearly identical, there’s hardly any difference in unit design.
After waffling back and forth reading sequential reviews of: “This is great!”, “this is terrible”, I found an honest review with some wisdom, “Look it’s $160, if it breaks get another one”. This review spoke to me and I took a leap into the cheapo heater world.
Is your van compatible?
The heater I purchased was this from a company called FIBERFLY (one of the more normal sounding of the bunch).
This kit came with a fuel tank so worst case if I wasn’t able to tap into the main fuel tank I could mount this smaller fuel tank somewhere accessible. I needed to find out whether or not I could do the main fuel tank tap.
Looking around online it’s understandable that everyone’s van is different, some models have extra fuel lines just for installing these heaters. I phoned a van shop and they told me to bring mine in so they could take a look at it. Within a few minutes of a guy looking underneath the van he had bad news. “Sorry man, there’s no auxiliary fuel tap, we’d have to lower the gas tank and empty it out to put one in”. The estimate for this work was incredible, around 4k. I was pretty dissapointed and started to think of where I was going to put this spare fuel tank.
I was also a bit embarassed I knew so little about my own van but in my defense it was winter here in Colorado and crawling under a van on the side of the street did not sound fun. Even so it wore on me and I set out to learn more about my vehicle. I learned I have what’s know as a T1N Sprinter (2002-2006 production run). These models have similar build styles and accept similar parts. I also noticed there were a few tutorials for specific T1N van projects.
What really got me going was the realization that my van already had a small diesel heater, meant to warm the engine block up in cold weather. I found this out by searching my VIN number on lastvin.com. This showed part codes for HZ9 HEATER BOOSTER, DIESEL which meant my van had this mini heater installed and more importantly, a fuel line to supply that heater. I had seen other van owners make a T in these auxiliary fuel lines to let both their indoor heater and heater booster access the main tank. I was thrilled to forget about the spare. After inspecting the bottom of the van just in front of the fuel tank I could see the fuel line and the fuel pump that fed the heater.
But where to put you?
Now came the decision of where to locate the heater in the van. By far the most common installation you’ll find is installing the heater facing the rear, beneath the passenger seat. This is a nice spot because your heater air will go directly into the living space behind the passenger seat and you don’t need to cut through much metal to get through the floor of the van. When I went to check out this spot I realized this would not be possible for me. Most passenger seat installs use the 2KW heaters which fit inside the space nicely. I had accidentally purchased the behemouth 8KW heater.
Looking for other options I eventually settled on the drivers side halfway up the van, it was a good spot beneath a seat that the previous owner had put in. It’d be closer to my battery bank and the giant heater would fit inside nicely. First I set about using the template plate that came with the kit to drill the openings for all the “thru-hulls” (great boat lingo for things that go through the floor, a bit scarier in boats). Soon I realied that I was not simply drilling through the metal floor of the van but about an inch of wood flooring above that. This complicated things a bit. The connections between the heater unit and the exhaust intake hoses were crucial and would need to be directly where the pipes left the unit. I figured I’d solve this by pre-attaching the hoses and cutting enough space in the wood flooring to fit the clamps around the bases. This worked surprisingly well and all of a sudden my heater was strapped in tight with two long hoses dangling beneath my van.
Under the van
First thing I did was strap the hoses to the side of the van so that they’d be secure. I was careful to make sure the exhaust always sloped down as instructed, supposedly liquid can come down it and if it backs up you’re going to get some things coming out of your heater. Once this was done it was time to setup the fuel line.
This was certainly the scariest step but I realized it was very simple. I follwed the guidance to install the fuel pump at a slight angle upwards and also so that the line from the pump to the heater was always sloping up so no air bubbles could form. The line from the tank going into the pump could be as crazy as you like. After drilling the pump into position it was time to cut the T in the fuel line. The kit I purchased did not come with a fuel line splitting T so I bought this fuel line splitter kit which mentioned the European heaters, thinking it would work for me.
After fiddling around with the pieces I realized the fuel hose and fuel line I had were not the same size as the auxiliary fuel line running out of my tank. Eventually I found a fuel hose at Lowes that would work as a buffer between the existing fuel line and the T kit.
Understanding the Controller
The controller that came with my heater was a bit odd but thankfully this great video helped me understand its functions and start the priming process. Priming runs the pump without the heater on to fill the fuel line with fuel. Seeing the fuel slowly go through the line was very exciting after all that work without any feedback!
The Afterburner Controller
A few months after installing the heater and using it frequently I heard of a device called The Afterburner. It’s a super easy to use/understand controller you can use in place of the one shipped with your heater. You need to first make sure your heater is compatible with this controller before you order it, the one purchased and mention above was. With the Afterburner I can turn on my heater by connecting to the Afterburners wifi network on my phone and it has a great display.
Update after a few months of use..
This heater has been exactly the thing I was looking for, it works durably and has not caused me any issues thus far. The only downside is the pump does emit a thumping sound that’s audible inside the van. It’s not super bothersome but I could certainly do without it. I imagine if anything happens to this heater I will probably buy another one just like it, the value is superb!