Thought plumbing was going to be easy? Turning out to be a little (a lot..) harder than you thought? Have a new respect for your local plumber?.. You are not alone! Here we will try to answer questions we had during the plumbing process.
Fresh Water Tank
The Fresh water tank is exactly that – a tank that holds your fresh water. These can come in all sizes as small as 7 gallons and up to 30 gallons or more! Typically, however, you won’t want anything less than 20 gallons, especially if there is more than one person in your van! High 20’s- high 30’s is the range I’d suggest if you have a sink and shower. This will allow you about 3-4 days worth of water before you need to fill up again. That is, of course, if you are using water sparingly when you shower. If not you could run that thing bone dry really quickly! There are certain tanks that are built to specifically hold fresh water. These will maintain that your fresh water stays fresh and uncontaminated in the event that tank heats up -- you do not want any plastics leaking into your fresh water. In our van we have the water tank located inside the rear of the vehicle. We built a little wooden compartment to give the water tank a home in the storage area where it, the water pump, and the water lines would be unaffected from anything in the storage area. We also put wood studs around the floor of the fresh water tank to hold it in place. You won’t want the tank flying around while you go around turns, press your brakes, and gas pedal. This wood compartment also has doors on it so that we can access the tank, pump, and water lines in the event of an emergency (leak) – very important!
Grey Water Tank
The Grey water tank is the tank that will hold all the water that drains from your sink and shower. THIS IS NOT SEWAGE. This is the water that is collected when you wash your dishes, wash your hands, wash your body and hair, etc. Relatively speaking, this water is somewhat clean – it’s not black water (sewage), but you will want a tank to hold this water if needed. In California, where we currently have our van, it is legal to drain your grey water anywhere (which makes sense because this is cleaner than a lot of other types of fluids that get released and drained on our roads and streets). This is nice because when we’re parked, we don’t want to have water spewing out the bottom of the van, so we hold our grey water in our grey water tank. Once we’re on the road we flip a switch that opens up and allows the grey water to drain. In some states/areas this is not legal and you need to drain your grey water in areas deemed “okay” to do so. Since, we’ll be traveling around a decent amount in our van (That’s the point right!) we figured it’d be a good idea to make sure we are able to comply with local standards wherever “local” may be. For our purposes, we decided to go with a small 7 gallon tank. To make draining easy, and to save space, we mounted our 7gallon tank to the bottom of the van directly underneath our shower area. We also ran power to a motorized ball valve, which allows us to flip a switch in the van to open, or close, the valve to either hold, or drain, the grey water from the tank. These are very easy to install, so long as you grab the right motorized valve because there are a lot of the same product, wired in various ways. It’s important to get the ball valve that is wired properly for van systems, so check out the ball valve we used (there is a link to buy to make it easy on you!). Another option I’ve seen quite often as a substitute for the ball valve is a solenoid valve. There are many problems with these however, so I’d advise against the solenoid. These problems are that they use more electricity, get very hot and have been known to cause fires, and are known to get stuck after a short period of time due to the grease and any small particles of dirt, sand, or food that may pass through. Just don’t use them for this purpose. The motorized ball valve is 100% the way to go!
Black Water (Sewage)
For some it is very important to be able to use the restroom in their van. I get it! We are those people. I, however, had zero interest in building pipes to drain poop and pee. And if anything ever went wrong with these pipes I knew I’d have zero interest in trying to fix it. Poop and pee is something I don’t want to be getting my hands in, so for that reason we don’t have a Black water tank. It is definitely possible though, and there are many vans that do incorporate the use of a black water tank. Personally, I think it is an outdated way to accommodate this amenity. Black Water, or sewage, is not something that you can drain just anywhere, so you will need to dispose of your black water at a facility built to do so. This means paying for the service to dump it, planning your trips around such stations, monitoring the tank capacity as to not over fill it, waiting for all your poop to drain out, dealing with the smells that come with having sewage sit beneath your van, etc. There are many better ways of doing this now, and I highly suggest looking into them. Here are the two best ways in my opinion.
There are compostable toilets, which have gotten pretty good, efficient, and smell better than they used to. You’ll typically want to build some type of fan or ventilation system to deal with the smells, but these can be pretty effective.
What we did is to order a Laveo Dry Flush Toilet. These things are a little pricey, but in the long run they will save money, time, hassle, and hopefully ever having to run my hands through poop (as you can tell by now it’s one of my top 10 fears). These toilets are pretty incredible. They don’t use any chemicals, or water and are 100% odorless. This is good for your water consumption, your olfactory system, and the well-being of the planet/the “foot-print” we leave behind. You poop, press a button, and the toilet vacuum seals your droppings and moves it to the bottom of the toilet and re-lines itself with a new bag for the next go. Each cartridge is good for about 20 flushes and they are sold in 3 packs. That’s about 60 poops! When you need more cartridges you’ll need to order them ahead of time as they take about 2 weeks to ship. You can either have them mailed to an address or to a Home Depot of your choice. The cost for a 3 pack is $55, so it costs just under a dollar/poop. Not a hefty price to pay to have the ability to poop whenever you need and without the foul odors. When the cartridge is full, and it’s time to replace it you simply press a button that seals the cartridge and you grab it and toss it. It’s 100% trash can kosher – beats having to find a sewage disposal place.
PARTS OF THE WATER TANK:
There are usually 4 holes in a water tank whether its your Fresh Water or Grey Water tank.
Fill port: The largest is the fill port. That is where the water will enter your tank. For Fresh water that is where you fill the tank. For the Grey water tank that is where the draining water from your sink and shower will lead to and fill the Grey Water tank.
Vent: One of the three smaller holes in the tank is used to ventilate the tank. It is something we often don’t think about, but in the world of physics if there is no place for the inward and outward movement of air (ventilation) then you essentially create a vacuum. When water fills the tank, the air that is inside needs to be pushed out to create room for the water. That air leaves through the ventilation hole. When water leaves, that void space is filled by air. That air rushing in to fill the space the water left behind also helps to push the water through your plumbing and water system. You can choose any of the holes to use for your ventilation. For our Fresh Water Tank I used the highest hole possible. This makes it harder for water to escape when its being sloshed around while we’re on the road! The Fill port and ventilation port are both connected to the exterior of the van using polycarbonate tubes. This way if any water sloshes up and out of the ventilation hole it has to travel up the tube and out of the van before it can be lost, and if it is lost it’s lost outside the van and not in it – that could get messy.
Drainage 1: Another of the three smaller holes on the water tank is for drainage. If you have a water tank it is because you want to carry water to extract it at some point. This is the hole where that takes place. For the Fresh Water Tank, the drainage hole is where the water pump will be connected and it will send water throughout your plumbing and to your sink and shower. For the Grey Water Tank, this is where the grey water will leave the tank. If you’re going to use a motorized ball valve, like we did, this is where you will connect it. You’ll want to use a hole that is lowest on the tank. This way gravity will help to feed the drainage. If your drain hole is on top of your grey water tank it will only drain to just below that hole and then stop, and in the case of the fresh water tank the pump will not be able to pull water below that line – common sense, but don’t do it.
Drainage 2: The last of the three small holes is also used for drainage. Maybe you want another pump to be connected to feed water separately? We didn’t, but its an option. Most commonly, this will be used to drain your Fresh Water Tank in the event you want to quickly get rid of the water not via your sink, or shower. It can also be used as a secondary way to more quickly drain your Grey Water tank. We used it as a safety precaution for drainage of our grey water tank. We used one of the top holes on the tank for this purpose. This way, in the event that our primary drain (controlled by the motorized ball valve) is shut off, and the Grey Water Tank is full, the excess water will drain out of the top hole and not backup into the shower and sink. Basically, it serves as an emergency/backup drainage hole.
PIPES & FITTINGS
If you’ve never dealt with plumbing before it can get overwhelming quickly. I had no prior plumbing experience, and going into this project I thought, “what could be so hard about connecting some pipes from a sink to a tank?” Well it’s a lot harder and more involved then you’d probably think. There are so many different options for plumbing materials, the different fittings to connect them, you have to be aware of inside diameters, and outside diameters, etc. There’s a lot going on in the plumbing world that I had never thought about. You can get creative and do it the way you feel best, but I’m going to give you what I found to be the safest, most efficient option that will give you quality at an inexpensive price.
Pipes - PEX
PEX piping is the type of piping you will want to use to carry water from your water tank to your appliances (i.e. Sink or shower). There are different sizes of PEX piping, but for van use, you’ll want to use the ½” PEX. PEX is nice because it is strong and sturdy, but is also somewhat pliable so it allows you to flex the piping to adapt best to it’s surroundings and to give you a little more leeway in getting the pipe to the fitting/connection point.
Fittings - Shark Bait
Fittings, connect the pipes either to other pipes or appliances, and can be somewhat of a hassle because it can be difficult to do so without causing a leak. There are all types of fitting/solutions people have come up with to make it easy on people like us. The best solution is the Shark Bait fittings. They are made for PEX and they are made for everyday humans like us. The fittings are made for different diameter sizes (i.e. 3/8”, 1/4”, 1/2”) so make sure to use the size you need. There are also adapter fittings that allow you to go from 1/2” PEX to 3/8” threaded connection for example. These are all things to keep in mind. These Shark Bait fittings are very nice and easy to use because you literally push the pipe into the fitting and you’re good to go! Usually there are 2 levels you’ll need to push the pipe in to the fitting, so make sure to push hard and do a push/pull test at the connection point when you’re done to be sure it’s connected properly. The other nice thing is that once the fitting is applied you can twist it around, rotating it to get the proper angle you need to connect the next PEX pipe, or appliance (It’s a HUGE help).
To start and end your connections, you’ll need a hybrid fitting that Shark Bait makes with the PEX connection at one end and a threaded connection at the other. Your Fresh water tank for example, will have a few holes in it (typically 4), one of which is a threaded female part (FPT) that you’ll need to connect to using a threaded male part (MPT) on one end and a PEX connection on the other. Make sure that you are using a fitting that is sized properly for each side. For instance, if the connection point of the water tank is 3/8” FPT (Female pipe thread), and the PEX pipe you’re using is 1/2” pipe, then the proper fitting would be a 3/8” (Male pipe thread) MPT x 1/2” PEX.
Pipes - ABS
ABS pipes are similar to the more commonly known PVC pipes, but ABS is black in color. Like PVC, ABS is used because they are non-toxic and resistant to abrasion, however ABS is easier to install than PVC. ABS piping is what we used in our van for all the drainage plumbing. All the water from the shower and sink drains into our ABS pipes which runs underneath the van and into the Grey Water tank mounted beneath the van. The downfall to ABS is direct sun exposure, which can cause it to become deformed. Luckily for us, the ABS is mounted beneath the van, so it will always and forever be in the shade. The ABS isn’t as flexible and easy to work with as PEX, nor are it’s fittings, so it’s not a great option for getting fresh water to your appliances, but it is a much cheaper option. Once you have the water draining under the van to a single point (your grey water tank) ABS will be the cheap, easy solution for your plumbing needs.
Fittings – ABS
The connection fittings for ABS are sized just like all other fittings, but they are typically larger (1”, 2”, etc.) This is because they are commonly used for plumbing in draining systems where larger quantities of water need to be accommodated. Here it will be important to note what size you will start and end at in the span of the grey water drainage. Let’s take the sink for example. Under our sink we had a 1 1/4” drainage connection. We connected a 1 1/4” P-Trap (discussed _____) to a 1” x 2” ABS adapter fitting. This allowed us to go from the 1” diameter under the sink to the 2” ABS pipe we wanted to use (this allows for water to drain easier without backing up – think, you will have both the sink and shower draining, which means more water, and you want it to drain easily – 2” ABS pipe will suffice!). The 2” ABS pipe travels down beneath the van and into a 90° (elbow) ABS fitting. From that fitting water travels in a 2” ABS pipe and into the grey water tank. Notice our plumbing for drainage starts at a size of 1” and ends at 2”, so we need to be sure to have the proper fittings to go from the smaller 1” to the larger 2”.
Pipe - Polycarbonate
Polycarbonate pipe/tube is another type of pipe we used in our van build. It is very pliable, which is what makes it most useful. It is helpful to use when you go from one ridged circular pipe, or solid spigot to another. We used a polycarbonate pipe to connect our fill port, located on the external body of the van, to the fill port of the fresh water tank. We wanted to be able to take a water hose, much like filling your car with gas, and open a door on the side of the van, stick a hose in it and let the fresh water run into the fresh water tank. This was a perfect application for the polycarbonate pipe.
Fittings - Jubilee Clip
A Jubilee clip, or hose clamp, is designed to fit around a soft, pliable hose (like the polycarbonate tube), and to be tightened using a wrench or power tool to securely fasten the tube/pipe and make it water tight. We used Jubilee Clips in a few places, but one example is where the polycarbonate tube fastened to the fill port of the van and to the fill port of the Fresh Water Tank. This allowed that tube and connection point to be water tight and secure.
PUMP & ACCUMULATOR
A water pump allows you to push water from your fresh water tank, through your plumbing, and to your sink and/or shower. They’re generally small in size and very effective and efficient. We are able to run our sink and shower at the same time and the water pressure is equivalent (actually better) than that in our previous home. Great news for you vanlifers! The water pump will connect to your DC electric circuit. The great thing about these pumps is it will automatically turn itself on and off, so you don’t have to worry about it. The way it works is when the pump detects a loss in water pressure it turns itself on, and when that loss in water pressure stops it will turn itself off. In laymen’s terms, when you turn your sink, or shower on, the pump turns itself on, and when you turn them off the pump turns itself off. It’s a great way to save time, energy, and ourselves from human-error. It is a good idea however to have the pump connected to an on/off switch in the event of an emergency. For example if you had a leak in a pipe, the pump would detect a drop in water pressure and turn itself on causing that leak to be worse every second. In this case it would be extremely useful to have a switch to turn the pump off, so that it wouldn’t be feeding the leak with more water from the water tank!
There are so many sinks on the market for van life. There are different sizes, designs etc. so be sure to check it out, and do your research on what suits you best. We didn’t want to lose counter-space due to our sink and stove, so for both we used a product from Dometic that allowed us to have both the appliances and the counter space. Both appliances are equipped with a sturdy, black covering that flips up when you want to use the sink/stove, and then flips down when you are done so that you can regain the full counter space.
In most sinks you’ll have the option for a hot and cold water connection. We didn’t see the need for hot water in the sink, so we connected both with a cold water supply line. If you want to connect it with hot and cold, more power to you! However, If you’re like us and don’t, make sure not to leave the hot water side of the sink unconnected. If you do there will be a leak. The cold water will run up to the sink and out the area for hot water connection and you’ll have water everywhere and none out of your faucet.
There is a lot to cover regarding building a shower in your van. For that reason we made an entire section informing you on all you need to know. This section however just covers the basic plumbing of the shower.
Unlike our sink, we wanted to have hot water to shower in – I loathe cold showers, and love hot showers, so the choice was obvious here. The main shower components are the water mixer, shower head, and shower pan.
The water mixer is the handle you turn your shower on and off with, and use to make the water coming out hotter or colder. Just like the sink there are two connections at the back of the mixer, one for cold water and one for hot water. The PEX pipes will carry both the cold water (from your fresh water tank) and the hot water (from your hot water heater), run up, and inside of, your shower wall and connect to the water mixer. The water mixer will need to be fastened to the wooden studs of the shower wall so that it is secure. Make sure to compensate for the appropriate depth of the wall so that when the handle and finishing piece of the water mixer are connected they sit properly and look nice!
The mixture of hot and cold water in the water mixer that you adjust manually by using the shower handle, will travel up the shower hose and out the shower head and onto your head to clean you – you filthy animal. That’s about it for the shower head! Simple enough right?
Shower pans come in all sorts of sizes, so you’ll need to pick one that will suit you, the space of your van, etc. best. For our van we chose the smallest shower pan we could find. We’re not looking for a luxury shower we just want to get clean! Shower pans are mad so that the water in them will drain out of the hole in the bottom of them – the drain silly! This is where you’ll need to get a shower drain that fits the size of the drain hole in your shower pan. Typically, wherever you buy the shower pan they will also sell a shower drain that is built for and fits your shower pan. I suggest buying them together! At the bottom of the shower drain you will connect to your plumbing that will feed into your grey water tank! Boom, easy as that!
FILL PORT & DRAIN
The fill port of the water tank is a small rectangle that can be fastened to the metal body of the van. It has a few nosels on it that allow for a tube/pipe to be connected from it to the water tank. This allows us to open up the fill port on the exterior of the van and pump water into the Fresh Water Tank via a garden hose. The ventilation tube connected to the ventilation hole of the Fresh Water Tank, is also connected here allowing for proper ventilation of the Fresh Water Tank and to safely dispose of any spill water outside of the van.
The drain of the sink and the drain of the shower are connected through ABS pipe that joins together via a Y-Fitting beneath the van. That water then drains to the Grey Water Tank through from the Y-Fitting, through the ABS pipe- and into the tank.
The water heater is necessary if you want hot water. Without it, you get what you get! You can get different types of water heaters: electric, propane, diesel, etc. Diesel is the best option, but its very involved as far as installing, and very expensive to acquire. Once you have it and its installed though it’s a great option. Propane is another great option. Much like the diesel it’s a very energy efficient way of heating water. However, propane is more expensive, and presents a fire risk. Propane leakes out of propane tanks, so you need to have a sealed box that is also ventilated, or else things (your van) will literally explode, and you need to be aware of the carbon-dioxide emissions it gives off. Propane water heaters burn propane to create a fire that heats your water. That fire creates carbon dioxide which is a poison that will, if not ventilated properly, kill you. Propane is an efficient way to heat your water, but it is probably the most dangerous way as well. We went with an electric water heater. It is not the most energy efficient, but you connect the in and out of water via PEX pipes, plug it in under the sink, and turn it on whenever you need it. The water heater heats up your water, and supplies you with a nice hot shower – ahhhh, very nice!
Details of the different types of wires.