A water system for van life can be as simple or as complex as you want to make it. In this article, I cover the various options available. I describe a simple system that uses refillable water jugs all the way to a complex system with a fixed water tank and a hot water shower.
As with many decisions you’ll make about your van lifestyle and build, the optimal water system will involve compromise. Do you need a shower in your van or is showering at gyms, campgrounds, and RV parks enough? Do you need hot water in your van?
I lived full-time in my van for the better part of a year and used a simple van water system. It consists of two 7-gallon fresh water tanks, an electric water pump, an accumulator, a pull-out spray faucet, a 7-gallon grey water tank, and a Dometic toilet.
In this article I’ll go over each of these components and more through the following sections:
- Blue Water System
- Blue Water Storage
- Blue Water Tank Sizing
- Water Weight, Space, and Distribution
- Refilling Water
- Detachable Versus Fixed Water Tanks
- Final Thoughts on Water Storage
- Pumping Water
- Sink and Tap
- Water Filtration
- Hot Water Heater
- Plumbing Hardware
- Blue Water System Sanitization
- Grey Water System
- Black Water System
- Where To Get Fresh Water
- Water Hacks
There are three main water systems in your van: blue, grey, and black water.
Blue Water System
The blue water system is the most comprehensive out of the three. It can be as simple as carrying water in containers and pouring it out for drinking and doing the dishes, or as comprehensive as you desire.
Before diving into each piece of the water system, keep in mind that you’ll want to pay attention to the components you’re using. All the pieces of your blue water system should be safe for human consumption. This means it’s rated as “food safe” or “food grade”, non-toxic, FDA approved, and BPA free. Some people don’t feel comfortable consuming water from plastic containers so they’ll opt for stainless steel water tanks. If this is you, you’ll want to consider how much these weigh which I’ll talk more about below.
Blue Water Storage
There are many things to consider when choosing your blue water storage setup.
Blue Water Tank Sizing
The optimal size of your water tanks is dependent on a variety of factors.
First off you’ll want to determine roughly how much water you’ll be using. At a bare minimum, it’s recommended to drink roughly a half gallon of water per day per person. Besides this, you’ll want to consider things such as:
- washing dishes
- washing your hands
- brushing your teeth
- taking a shower (if you choose to have one in your van)
- anything else that may be specific to your situation such as if you have pets
You should assume that even a short shower will use roughly three gallons of water.
Water Weight, Space, and Distribution
It’s important to consider how much weight you’ll be adding to your van when your water is full. This is important as water is heavy. One gallon of water weighs 8.34 pounds.
This means that carrying 50 gallons of water will add 417 pounds to your rig. Your van has a maximum gross weight allowance that should not be exceeded. Not to mention that the more your van weighs the more fuel it will consume.
In addition to the weight, the space that this water takes up is important. Van life can feel cramped at times and every inch of space is precious. Consider how much space your water tanks will take.
And finally, the weight distribution is important. You’ll want to keep your water (and anything else heavy) as low as possible in the van. Distribute the weight as equally as possible to maintain the optimal maneuverability of the vehicle. If the majority of the weight is high and/or on one side of the van you’ll feel it while driving down the highway.
How frequently and in what ways you refill your water is also a factor in your water setup. Boondocking for weeks at a time out in the wilderness will need a different setup than if you’ll be parking at campgrounds and RV parks where water is easy to find. Some people are comfortable carrying 50-pound detachable water jugs. Others appreciate the ease of having an external hookup to plug in and refill.
Detachable Versus Fixed Water Tanks
A detachable tank can (and usually must) be removed from the vehicle to refill water. A fixed water tank is permanently fixed either underneath or inside your van. They each have their own list of pros and cons.
Detachable Water Tanks
For my water setup, I use two 7-gallon detachable water tanks (similar to this 5-gallon tank) and it works great for me. I have one tank that is strapped in underneath my sink and another in the back (garage) to swap out for more capacity.
There are many advantages to using detachable tanks. First off, they’re modular meaning that you can start slow and expand your system if needed in the future. They are lower cost than purchasing and installing a fixed water tank. They are easier to access for cleaning. Because they are usually carried, it’s much easier to access water refill points. This eliminates the need to maneuver your van if it’s in a difficult area.
There are downsides to using detachable tanks as compared to fixed tanks. First off, you won’t be able to carry as much water and will need to refill more often. You’ll need to store them inside your van which will take up space that could be used for other things. Lastly, carrying a 7-gallon tank full of water weighs nearly 60 pounds, and not everyone is comfortable carrying that much.
If you do decide to go with detachable tanks, make sure that they have handles for easy carrying. Use straps or some other system of tying them down inside your vehicle for when you’re driving. The last thing you want is for a heavy water tank to be moving around your vehicle while you’re cruising down the highway.
Fixed Water Tanks
A fixed water tank is permanently installed, either inside your van or externally below. A fixed tank will offer you the highest possible water capacity and might feel like a more professional setup as you won’t need to carry water jugs.
There are a wide variety of fixed water tanks that are made specifically for van life. There are tanks that custom-fit over your wheel wells and standard tanks that can be positioned wherever you want them.
The disadvantages of a fixed water tank are that it’s more expensive to purchase and install. You might need to cut a hole in the body of the vehicle if you plan to mount it externally or if you choose to have an external water hookup. It will be more difficult to clean your tanks. You’ll need to have a water gauge to check the water level since access won’t likely be as easy as using a detachable jug.
Installing a fixed tank externally underneath the vehicle frees up space inside your van. It also improves handling because the center of gravity is low. At the same time, an external tank can freeze if you plan to travel in colder climates.
Having an external water hookup can be convenient, meaning you need to just hook up to a water source and refill your tanks. But it has a few downsides as well. First off, your vehicle will be less stealthy, impacting your ability to stealth park. You’ll also need to be able to park close enough to your water source which isn’t always possible. If you do decide that this tradeoff is worth it for you, make sure to mount the water hookup high enough that water doesn’t slosh against it. Also, make sure that it has a lockable cap, preventing others from accessing your water tank.
Final Thoughts on Water Storage
Given the considerations above, I recommend you do a thorough search for a water tank that fits your specific needs. If you’re unsure where to start, consider going with a modular system of detachable tanks. Get some collapsible water containers and/or a water bladder. This allows you to be more confident about what you need once you know your van life routine.
The next piece of the blue water setup is determining how you’ll pump water out of your water containers. There are three main ways to do this: gravity, manually, or by using an electric water pump.
Storing your water containers high up in your van gives you the option of opening a spigot and allowing gravity to do its thing. This is the cheapest and easiest option but comes with a few disadvantages. First off, as mentioned earlier it’s unwise to store a lot of weight high up in your van. It throws your center of gravity off and will impact the handling of the vehicle. Additionally, you won’t be getting much water pressure. This might be okay if you’re just getting started on the road, but most likely you’ll want to upgrade to a manual or electric option fairly quickly.
Manual Water Pump
The next step up from a gravity-fed system is to use a manual hand or foot pump. These are low-cost and reliable solutions but can get annoying. They come with the added benefit of not needing to wire them to an electrical source.
You can get hand pumps that attach to your sink such as the Flipper or Valtera pump. These need less tubing than a foot pump and take up very little space. Alternatively, you might consider getting the Dolphin hand pump that fits on any standard five-gallon tank. These tanks can be replaced at many Walmarts or grocery stores.
A foot pump gives you the benefit of hands-free water and provides more control over the water flow. These pumps will generally mount to the wall or the floor of your van. They’ll have two connectors for tubing, one leading to the faucet and another to your fresh water tank.
Electric Water Pump
The most sophisticated option, and the one I use in my own van, is an electric pump. There’s nothing like being able to turn on a faucet and have running water like we’re used to in a house. There are two types of electric water pumps: submersible and external pressure-sensitive water pumps.
Submersible Water Pump
A submersible water pump goes directly into your fresh water tank and connects to a 12-volt power source. You connect this power source to a switch to manually turn it on when you want to pump water. Or better yet you can use a water faucet tap that has a switch built in so that when you turn on the faucet, it sends power to the pump automatically.
External Pressure-Sensitive Water Pump
This pump maintains pressure throughout your entire blue water system so that water flow is available when you turn on the faucet. It’s automatic and reliable. This is also the most expensive option and will likely be the most difficult to troubleshoot should an issue develop.
If you decide to go with an electric water pump, consider using a non-return valve and a coarse pre-filter. It will operate more smoothly and extend the life of your system. Another big benefit of using an electric water pump is if you decide to install a pull-out sprayer faucet. I have this one installed in my van next to a window so it can reach outside for showers. It’s also great for filling up water bottles if I have a bunch of stuff in the sink – which happens often.
This is an optional part of your blue water system but will make it quieter and extend the life of your water pump. An accumulator helps create pressure so that your electric water pump doesn’t need to cycle on and off as much. It connects to the outlet of your pump and holds compressed air. From the accumulator, you send water to your faucet or any other water outlet you’ve installed. It’s smart to install a valve on each of these outlets which will assist in isolating issues should a leak occur.
Sink and Tap
The sink you choose will depend on your personal tastes. Many van lifers like Dometic sinks and stainless steel are quite common. Some enjoy having a cover that folds down, thus increasing precious countertop space.
It’s important to know that the water you’re drinking is safe, thus many van water systems use a filter. An inline filter will also prevent anything dangerous from damaging your water pump. There are a variety of other filters that will assist in killing bacteria and organisms from natural water sources:
- Sawyer Products Mini Filtration System
- MSR Miniworks Backcountry Water Filter
- Doulton SuperCarb Filter System
While far from a convenient or optimal option, if you don’t want to go with a water filter you can boil water for seven minutes or use iodine tablets.
Hot Water Heater
There are a variety of ways to get hot water in your van with varying degrees of sophistication.
Stove Heated Hot Water
This is likely the simplest way of getting hot water and is what I use in my van. If I want hot water for coffee or cooking, I boil water on a kettle on my stove.
Solar Heated Hot Water
You can mount a solar shower to the top of your vehicle or use a portable solar shower. These devices heat up the water as the sun shines to provide hot water for a shower. I don’t like the idea of having a permanently mounted solar shower as it adds weight up high, impacting the center of gravity of the vehicle. It also impacts the ability to stealth park. If a van has a solar shower on top, it’s hard to disguise as just another commercial work van. I purchased a portable solar shower to have stored in my van if I’m ever boondocking and away from showers for too long.
Propane Heated Hot Water
A common option for van lifers who value having a hot water system is to use a tankless hot water heater. These heaters give you on-demand hot water that heats with propane. They must be installed correctly as they get very hot and need to be vented because of the fumes created by burning propane. Two common options for propane hot water heaters are the Eccotemp and Camplux brands.
Webasto Dual Top Evo
The Webasto Dual Top Evo is an air and water heater in one. This system is rated very high and doubles as an air heater, keeping your van toasty warm while also providing hot water. It comes with an 11-liter tank and runs on diesel. The downside is that the unit itself, without installation, costs over $3,000.
There are other hot water options such as electric heaters, water boilers, and coalescers but they’re not as common for a variety of reasons. Electric heaters and water boilers require you to stay connected to shore power whenever you use them otherwise your batteries will drain quickly. The installation of a coalescer requires you to break into your van’s engine coolant system.
Most of the time van lifers will use PEX tubing or food-grade hoses for their van water system plumbing. You can use hose tail fittings and hose clamps to keep everything fitted correctly. For any threaded connections, you’ll want to use pipe dope and PTFE Teflon tape.
Blue Water System Sanitization
How frequently you sanitize your blue water system is dependent on how often you’re using it. If you refill your tanks and use your system consistently, you’ll want to sanitize it roughly every six months. If your van sits for a couple of weeks, particularly in a hot climate, you’ll want to sanitize it before using it again.
To sanitize your system, use a quarter cup of bleach for every 16 gallons of water in your tank(s). Dilute the bleach in at least a gallon of water and add to your tank. Do not add undiluted bleach directly to your tanks! Fill up your tanks the rest of the way and then run your water to circulate the solution into your system. Let the solution sit in your system for at least a few hours, preferably overnight. Drain the system completely, refill, circulate, and then drain again. Now you’re sanitized and ready to go.
Water expands when it freezes so it’s important to prepare your system for this if you plan to leave it in freezing temperatures. To do this drain all water from your system before storing it.
Grey Water System
Your grey water system collects and manages the water you dump down your drain(s) that isn’t produced by your body. This is water from doing dishes, brushing your teeth, or showering. Some van lifers install a hole through the bottom of their van where they can dispose of their grey water. This isn’t legal (or advisable) to do everywhere so be careful. Grey water doesn’t smell good so if you dump this water through the bottom of your van at a campsite it’s going to start smelling pretty gross fairly quickly.
I have a separate 7-gallon grey water tank under my sink that I would dispose of appropriately. Make sure to use an environmentally friendly, biodegradable soap when washing dishes. That way you’re not dumping chemicals when you dispose of your grey water.
Black Water System
Your black water system collects and manages your urine and feces. Most van lifers don’t have a built-in black water system and opt for a self-contained toilet. These toilets collect your waste into a container that you carry and dump at a black water dump station or into a toilet or porta-potty. I use a 5-gallon Dometic toilet and it works well. Many van lifers rave about the Nature’s Head composting toilet. Most van lifers I know, including myself, only use their van toilet while boondocking or if it’s an emergency as emptying it isn’t the most pleasant experience.
Where To Get Fresh Water
There are many places to find fresh water out on your van life travels. Most National Parks and State Forest visitor centers will have access to fresh water. City parks, RV parks, and campgrounds frequently have water spigots. If you visit family and friends, take the opportunity to refill your tanks. If all else fails, you can get water at refill stations in most Walmarts and grocery stores. Many van life apps will show the nearest places to refill your water tanks.
To make refilling your tanks easier, consider getting a water bandit and/or a refilling adaptor. This will ensure you can always collect water, despite the size of the water fill spigot. Experiment with ways of finding and conserving your water. For example, I use a spray bottle with water and a little dish soap to conserve water while doing dishes. I spray soapy water on a dish, wash it and then rinse it in a portable container that I fill just enough to submerge the soapy dish. If you have a shower rig in your van, turn it off when applying soap to your body and turn it back on to rinse off. Carry water bottles with you that you refill at water fountains you find along the way.
This article has shown you the major components that make up the water system for a van. I hope this has helped you to determine where your priorities are so you can develop a system that meets your needs.
Now that you’ve got the water system for your van figured out, go check out our ultimate beginner’s guide to van life.