Project Van: Home-Built Hot Showers

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Update by Tom Suddard to the Ford E-250 project car
Jul 21, 2019

We’re working on turning this $2000 van into a do-it-all machine that can tow a car to the track, then serve as a mobile workshop and hotel room for the weekend.

There's nothing better than a hot shower after a sweaty day in a race suit, but that can be a tough thing to find when you're camping. Sure, most tracks have showers, but they're often cold, overcrowded, broken, or a long walk from camp. That's why we decided to build our own shower system. 

And yes, we could have saved a lot of time and money by using a $10 solar shower. But we wanted warmer, higher-pressure water, and we didn't' want to wait all day for it. 

The hardest part of any trackside shower system is heating the water, so we started investigating options. There are two basic ways to make water warmer in a van: Using engine heat, or using an external energy source. We originally planned on using engine heat to warm our water, but then the cost of a sufficiently-sized heat exchanger and the realities involved in packaging it in our tight engine bay steered us towards a simpler solution. We found a portable, self-contained propane water heater on Amazon for about $60. (Here's the one we used: Ridgeyard 6L/ Min (1.6 GPM) LPG Propane Gas Portable Tankless Instant Hot Water Heater + Shower Head Indoor Outdoor Shower Use for Small Homes RV's Sailboats Cabins). 

Once it arrived, we looked it over: It was perfect, but also sported fittings meant for a house, not for a van. We placed another Amazon order, this time to purchase a 12v portable shower system for $15 and a pop-up changing tent for $30. We also went to our local home improvement store and cleaned out their brass fittings aisle, knowing we could return any extra parts at the end of the project. The final piece of the puzzle was a bin from our shed labeled "propane leftovers," where we stole some propane hose and a regulator from an old gas grill. 

Once we'd gathered all of our materials, things came together pretty quickly. We put an air-tool fitting on the propane input to make setup and teardown fast, and used normal garden-hose fittings for the water inlet and outlet so we could use any garden hose for water. We attached a garden hose fitting to the end of that 12v portable shower pump, too, and use it in conjunction with a water jug when there's no garden hose available. We used clear food-safe plastic tubing from the home improvement store, a few garden hose fittings, and the shower head from that 12v portable shower kit to make our shower hose. 

All that was left was to properly mount the system. We used rubber washers and rivnuts to mount the shower system to the side door, making removal as easy as undoing three 10mm bolts. 

We're using an old 10-pound plumber's bottle to carry propane, as it's plenty to run the shower and grill for a weekend of camping. We cut up an old bracket from a Miata to make a little hook for the bottom of the propane bottle, while the top is held in place but a rivnut and an additional tab of metal. The tank is rock-solid, but removes in a few seconds with a 10mm wrench. 

Success! For about a $100 total investment, we can have hot showers wherever we're camping. 

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Floating Doc
Floating Doc GRM+ Memberand SuperDork
7/21/19 11:45 a.m.

I may be having as much fun following the van modifications as you are doing them.

It's truly reached the Pinnacle of GRM-ness when you repurpose a bracket from a Miata.

I am feeling guilty however, about all the brass fittings that I never got around to returning.

bearmtnmartin GRM+ Memberand SuperDork
7/21/19 12:14 p.m.
californiamilleghia HalfDork
7/21/19 1:12 p.m.

Can you adjust the water temp ?  and is that by adding more cold water or turning down the heater  or changing the flow ?


Tom Suddard
Tom Suddard GRM+ Memberand Director of Marketing & Digital Assets
7/21/19 1:35 p.m.

Yes, the heater has temperature adjustments just like a normal shower. 

Rodan Dork
7/21/19 1:49 p.m.

Where does your waste water go?  Just out on the ground?

That may not be appreciated, depending on your location...

californiamilleghia HalfDork
7/21/19 2:10 p.m.

In reply to Rodan :

and to add to that , which "Green"  soap and shampoo do you use.....


Tom Suddard
Tom Suddard GRM+ Memberand Director of Marketing & Digital Assets
7/21/19 2:17 p.m.

Yes, waste water and biodegradable soap goes onto the ground. 

Floating Doc
Floating Doc GRM+ Memberand SuperDork
7/21/19 2:40 p.m.
Tom Suddard said:

Yes, waste water and biodegradable soap goes onto the ground. 

One more essential is a pair of flip-flops.

Growing up here in Florida, the old folks called them thongs. That's a different thing now, not suggesting that!

CyberEric HalfDork
7/21/19 3:28 p.m.

I KNEW there was some Miata in that van! 

This is great, and noted for my future van shower endeavors. 

irish44j MegaDork
7/21/19 4:45 p.m.

I dig the GRM-ness of the setup, but seems like a lot of complication (i.e carrying propane inside the van, for one) for something that overlanders have been doing for a lone time much more simply. Seems like with so much roof space on that van, you could just have gone with a pressurized (using compressed air) solar shower with substantial capacity (multi-tube or one of the purpose-designed roof tanks) I know you mention "not waiting all day" but....Your van is gonna be sitting there all day when you're on the track. Then again, when I get out of my suit, all I want is a cold (or lukewarm) shower lol....(that and I stay in cheap hotels rather than camping, for teh most part lol).  

When I get around to it I'm going to build this for my rig:

I've used one identical to this and there's surprisinly good pressure if you put a schrader valve on it and then you can just pressurize the tank with your little tire air compressor (and/or the sun will do it naturally while your van sits).

Anyhow, just an alternative. 

EDIT: just noticed the Amazon thing, so that explains it ;)

EDIT 2: So, does the unit itself pressurize the water, or is pressure provided by the feed water? What I mean is, on the photos where you show the water on it looks like you have a garden hose hooked up (which provides its own water pressure), but if you're drawing water from a jug (like in one pic, where the shower isn't on), is there a pump or something that creates pressure (and suction to get the water from the jug)?

edwardh80 Reader
7/21/19 8:28 p.m.

Very cool. On a nice low budget too!

The only part I'm nervous about is the air line fitting and hose clamps on the home-made propane line. I'm not sure of any good alternatives to this (I'm sure there will be some), but a small leak or failed hose clamps near a naked flame in the unit could quickly turn into a larger flame than you'd hoped for...

pilotbraden UltraDork
7/21/19 10:22 p.m.

I am inspired. I believe that hot showers may be available at my cabin in thw near future 

californiamilleghia HalfDork
7/22/19 11:05 a.m.

Hi , looking at an Amazon review it says

"You do have to convert from BSPT (British Standard Pipe Tread) to NPT in the US"

Is that what you did ?


pinchvalve GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
7/22/19 12:13 p.m.

I like the Amazon disclaimer: "Yes, Amazon is paying us to tell you about the products we would be telling you about anyway."  I love a good win-win!  FWIW, lots of van-life foks add a length of black PVC pipe to the roof that stores water, provides water pressure, and can heat it in the sun. I don't see any roof racks, but its a good addition if you decide to go that route down the road.  My favorite had a second length of metal pipe on the other side that acted as a tank for air pressure.   

Tom Suddard
Tom Suddard GRM+ Memberand Director of Marketing & Digital Assets
7/22/19 12:48 p.m.

In reply to californiamilleghia :

IIRC, mine came NPT.

Tom Suddard
Tom Suddard GRM+ Memberand Director of Marketing & Digital Assets
7/22/19 12:49 p.m.

In reply to pinchvalve :

Yeah, we finally signed up for that Amazon program after years and years of recommending stuff. It's not much–I think we get like $2 if somebody buys a shower, for example–but every little bit helps.

You can see more stuff we recommend here:

cdeforrest Reader
7/22/19 5:06 p.m.

In reply to Tom Suddard :

I've seen that somewhere before

ChasH Reader
7/22/19 5:21 p.m.

When I was in the Army, we just left a coupla dark colored jerry cans full  of water out in the sun

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