June 24, 2024

Can You Install a Diesel/Gas Heater in an RV?

YES. The Webasto gasoline heater I installed in our Class C motorhome could be the best heater I’ve used for winter RV camping. It’s a great alternative to propane heat. Still, I’m not aware of any other RV owners who have installed one.

In this article I’ll explain what lead me to install this type heater and why more RVers who enjoy boondocking should consider one.

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What’s wrong with portable propane heaters?

Heating with an on-board propane furnace is certainly the most common heating option. To minimize power consumption off-grid, many folks use a portable propane heater when camping for extended periods in remote areas. This can cause problems over time. Here’s why.

When propane gas burns, it also creates water vapor as a byproduct. Your primary propane furnace should vent this moisture outside, but popular portable propane heaters do not. Non-venting propane heaters used inside, can generate condensation on windows and walls. This could lead to mold or mildew build-up over time.

Condensation on window
Condensation inside windows that can build up overnight in cold weather

Large propane RV furnaces also have large blowers that consume a large amount of electricity (roughly 8 amps) when running. This can drain a small battery bank when used through the night.

Portable propane heaters like the Mr. Heater Big Buddy Heater and Olympian Wave 3 Catalytic Heater consume little to no electricity and are generally effective in small spaces as long as you take the necessary precautions. They are an affordable heating option and are generally safe to use indoors. Despite this, most RVers I know (including myself) avoid running a portable propane heater unattended or through the night.

Who uses diesel/gas heaters? 

Also referred to as parking heaters, diesel heaters are mostly used in the trucking industry. You’ll also find them installed on school busses or large agricultural equipment. 

Full-time van dwellers, cruising yachts, and European diesel-powered RVs (caravans) have also adopted them. Use of these heaters hasn’t quite caught on with motorhome manufacturers here in the United States for reasons I’ll speculate on later. 

There are also gas/petrol versions of these heaters available for those of us who don’t burn diesel. This was a key feature that attracted my attention since I have a very large gas tank in my motorhome.

Video: How to Install a Gas/Diesel Heater in an RV

What are the benefits of a diesel or gas heater? 

The most significant difference between a gasoline heater and propane heaters is that it burns gasoline (or diesel fuel) instead of propane. 

This makes them best suited for RVs like motorhomes with large gas or diesel fuel tanks. If you have a towable RV, you can install an inexpensive external fuel tank to supply the heater.

A gas or diesel heater can be a worthwhile investment if you want to stay comfortably warm when off-the-grid. Here are a few key reasons why. 

They consume very little fuel and electricity

You can leave it on all day and night. A high efficiency gas heater like the Webasto Air Top or Espar D2 consumes as little as one gallon of gas in a 24 hour period and draws between 0.8 – 2.4 amps of current at 12 volts DC when heating. 

They produce a dry comfortable heat

There’s no moisture generated which will decrease or eliminate condensation which can cause mold and mildew inside your RV. In fact running the heater will act like a dehumidifier and help dry out your RV. 

They are very safe to use

The fuel and exhaust components are completely sealed inside the heater. The fuel line, combustion intake and exhaust are located underneath the RV. So there’s absolutely no smell or venting needed.

Webasto Heater Connections
Exhaust, fuel line and combustion intake connected through the floor below the heater

You’ll feel comfortable leaving it running unattended or through the night.

They are compact and typically hidden from view

This heater is small and can be permanently installed in a location on the floor where there is access to air-flow. There no need to store the heater and any additional components when not in use.

The combustion air intake, exhaust and fuel line run through a sealed hole in the floor. Heater controls are also very small and can be mounted anywhere for easy access. 

A steady temperature can be maintained

An on-board furnace typically has two modes, on (at full blast) and off. This creates large temperature swings inside the living space. These gas/diesel heaters will adjust the output as needed to maintain an even temperature. This not only helps provide a comfortable environment, but also allows it run more efficiently. The output noticeably drops to a lower level as the target temperature is reached and maintained.

Webasto Heater Controls
Webasto Control Unit

Some control units, like the one my Webasto kit came with, can be programmed for each time and day during the week. It’s a set-it-once and forget it kind of system. 

What are the drawbacks of installing a diesel or gas heater? 

For years we’ve used several propane heating solutions. We haven’t been fully content with any of them. The lack of good temperature regulation, condensation, and energy usage has always been an issue. 

The Webasto heater has been a great solution, but there are a few reasons why this may not be the best option for you. 

Not worth the investment if you’re on full-hookups most of the time

If you have electric hookups and don’t spend much time boondocking or dry camping, then using an electric heater will probably be your preference. Using one or two small space heaters is very effective for keeping the RV comfortably warm. 

You’ll need access to a diesel or gasoline fuel source

You may not have access to a diesel or gasoline fuel source. Even if you do, some vehicles don’t have an auxiliary fuel port on their gas tank. You’ll have to have one installed or install an auxiliary fuel tank. 

Webasto Heater Fuel Pump Installation
Incoming fuel line, fuel filter and fuel pump mounted under RV floor (Note: The pump is mounted at a 15 to 35 degree angle for best results)

Note: Having removed my generator, I was able to reuse the generator fuel line on my RV. This worked out very well to fuel the heater.

The heater may not function at high elevation

Carbon build-up inside the heater can cause compact gas/petrol and diesel heaters to fail at elevations above 5,000 feet. Gasoline heater models are more prone to this than the diesel models.

I tested my Webasto Air Top 2000 heater at very high elevation to see what it’s limitations were. The heater exceeded the rated elevation limitation but eventually got filled with carbon and stopped working. Watch this video to see the carbon build up inside and what was required to get it running again.

Video: What happens to Webasto Gas heater at high elevation

Both Webasto and Espar models claim to be adjustable for higher elevation, but results can be inconsistent. It seems that many prefer Espar heaters for this feature over the Webasto Air Top 2000 STC which has a rating of up to 4,900 feet. Webasto recommends their larger EVO 40 heater which can be used up to 7,200 feet.

If you live at high-elevation or plan to camp for several days or weeks in the mountains, consider upgrading to a larger heater like the Webasto EVO 40. If you have one of the smaller heaters installed, you may be able to get by at high elevation for a few days if you follow this tip.

TIP: Before heading up in elevation, it’s recommended to run the heater on high for a few hours to burn out any carbon that may have accumulated inside. When you return, repeat the process.

Can be an expensive heating solution

Finally, Webasto and Espar heaters can easily run over $1000 when installed. Many who own them have started with less expensive propane options first before deciding to upgrade to a diesel or gas heater. 

Are the Chinese-made Diesel Heaters on Amazon any good?

The patent on the Webasto heater design recently expired after 20 years. As soon as that happened, lots of inexpensive Chinese-made versions of these heaters hit the market at a fraction of the price (typically under $200). At that price, it’s no surprise that they have become very popular.

There are many versions of the diesel heater on Amazon, but I haven’t seen a Chinese gas/petrol version.

Are they any good? Well lots of people have installed them and are very satisfied. Heat is heat. In fact, I installed one in my workshop. The build quality was pretty poor on the model I purchased, but it did put out heat.

I initially had fuel leaks, exhaust leaks, and a loud noise. The loud noise ended up to be the fan rubbing against the housing. A little cutting and duct taping fixed that issue. I also replaced the exhaust and fuel line with some better components that I had left over from my Webasto install.

After making those changes, the heater always starts up and continues to warm up the shop during the winter. So yes, it works. The takeaway for me is that there’s no guarantee what you’ll get. So shop around and read all the reviews before deciding which one to buy.

My primary focus was safety when deciding which unit to install our RV. Having a gas burning heater running while we slept was already a concern. So I ultimately decided to go with a Webasto unit that had a 20+ year track record.

Why aren’t Diesel heaters installed in RVs?

I can only speculate on this and assume it’s for one of these reasons.

Most new RV owners aren’t going to be camping off-grid much. For those that do, a propane heater and generator will typically meet their needs for short periods.

Secondly, most RVs sold today are towables (i.e. travel trailers and fifth-wheel RVs). They have one or two propane tanks but no gasoline or diesel tank.

Lastly, diesel/gasoline heaters are not manufactured here in the United States and have not been adopted by American RV manufacturers.

Many custom van-build shops can install them though, especially on diesel-powered Sprinter vans.

Where can you buy a Webasto or Espar Heater?

Webasto and Eberspacher/Espar are the two main manufacturers of diesel or gas/petrol heaters located in Germany. In fact, I’ve heard that their factories are very close to each other.

Your best option is to purchase from a U.S. distributor like HEATSO. That way you’ll get product support, original parts and add-on components you may need during installation.

Do they need to be professionally installed? 

Most van build shops can install these heaters for you. You could install it yourself if you have a good set of tools and basic electrical and mechanical DIY skills. Keep in mind that you may need to get your installation inspected by an authorized dealer to activate the warranty.

Here’s a list of diesel/gas heater kits and accessories you may need.

As always, do your research ahead of time and watch a few DIY installations on YouTube first to see if this is a project you want to take on yourself.

Conclusion

Heating and cooling your RV off-the-grid are two of the biggest challenges to staying comfortable on the road. Having a diesel or gas heater definitely can eliminate the heating challenge. It’s definitely worth considering if you do a lot of dry-camping in cooler climates and are not satisfied with your propane heater.

Most of those who’ve installed diesel or gasoline heaters will agree that it’s the best option available. 

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