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There are a multitude of reasons why you might want to think about installing some plumbing into your first conversion of a van. While there are those people out there that are more than capable of living off of the land and using water very sparingly, there are also those of us who would rather not go without a water supply for more than a day or two. With that being said, we need to talk a bit about just what plumbing is, what it entails, what you’ll need to pull it off and how I’ll take care of it so that it doesn’t turn out to be a disaster.
Firstly, let’s talk a bit about what plumbing is in relation to van life. Plumbing, as you all know, is just a way of transporting water around your home. Whether that water is meant for waste removal, use in a shower or cooking uses is completely dependent on where the water is ending up. There is a regular water tank which will hold your water supply that is safe for using and drinking. Then there is the blackwater tank. This is the water tank that houses all of the water that you have used and are trying to discard. That includes waste and water that may contain chemicals from a recent shower.
It’s important to know the difference between the two kinds of water tanks, as well as why you need to have both of them. For a lot of places, it is legal to just dump your waste water wherever you want to. You will need to bring it to specified areas that specialize in waste removal. In most cases when it comes to van life, you’ll be bringing it to an RV park, a campsite with blackwater support or a toilet in which you can dump a smaller blackwater tank. Since we’re going to have a rather large blackwater tank, we won’t be using the latter of that list.
To start, let’s talk about what we’ll need, how to connect the plumbing up with everything in the van that uses water, how to prevent leaks and how to actually get the water moving from place to place.
Step #1: What kind of Pipes?
You can’t just buy any old pipe you find for the cheapest price to be your water pipes. You need to make sure you’re getting exactly the right ones for the situation you’ll be more likely to find yourself in. The pipes depend a lot on how long you think you’ll need to water to travel and how you intend on making the water travel. For waste removal, we’ll just be using the power of gravity. That means we can get away with our pipes mostly being straight lines that dumb directly into the blackwater tank.
Something along these lines is a good start when I was looking around for plumbing pipes. These might work for me, but they aren’t guaranteed to work for everyone who wants to make a blackwater tank system.
There’s so much more to the pipes than just simply making sure they connect without leaks. There are certain pipes and angled sloped pipes that are used for so many different situations. These may not be as common if you’re doing plumbing in a van, so this is where things could get tricky.
Most commonly, however, the pipes used in a van build when installing plumbing aren’t made of metal, but of plastic tubes that look to be rather flexible. This is especially true when moving clean, hot and cold water to showers. Our water heater will be doing the lifting for us, and that will be what moves our water to the shower and the toilet.
Step #2: Where will they connect to?
It’s not enough to just have a way to move blackwater around if I have nowhere to put it. So I have been looking around and think something like this is the right choice when it comes to storing the blackwater until I can get rid of it at the appropriate spot. The way that we’ll connect the shower and the toilet to the blackwater tanks is pretty simple and will only require us to place them somewhat above our tank.
This is a bit more complicated for the fresh water tanks. We need to make sure that when we have the water tanks plumbed, that the angles of the pipes match up to what would be code in any other living establishment. That means that if an inspector were to come and look at our pipes, we should be confident that it could pass.
Connecting your water tanks to the plumbing system is just step one. The other most important part? Keep the tanks from moving! I think for me I’ll try to store the tanks below the van, that way I can limit how top heavy my van is. Having too much weight on the top of any vehicle can make them more prone to flipping over and rolling during an accident.
To properly connect these tanks, I’ll have to make room underneath for them. I’ll also need to find some really strong brackets that can hold these in place! The normal metal brackets that I used to hold the desk and bed frame in places just won’t cut it. I’ll need to get something that wraps completely around the tank and pair that with the brackets that screw into the designated spots. I need to make sure that these tanks don’t wobble or leak from improper installation. If the wobble too much, it could very well eventually come loose. The last thing I want is to lose a full water tank on the highway!
Step #3: Moving the Water
For the most part, our water will be moving due to the forces of gravity. I want this build to be really simple, so i’m not going to be doing anything that’s too fancy or complicated. What I’d really like to manage to do is to make my water heater do the work of heating up the water, and sending that water to my shower. As we will talk about in a later part of the series, it’s important to me that I find a low pressure shower head and toilet. The less water I end up using with this whole process the better.
Having to go and restock on water and unload my blackwater is going to be a bit of a challenge. But when it comes to loving my blackwater out of the tank, there are several different hoses that are sold that can do the job. What I need to do is make a spot on the side of the van that is dedicated to removal of the waste water. This means I either need to drill a hole in the van so I can get to the valve to let the blackwater out in the places I’m allowed to do so, or have a hose pull it out for me.
Plumbing is probably the second hardest part of any van build. The electric was for sure harder since it poses the most threat and is the most complicated to get right. With plumbing, you need to stay on top of it, keep it clean, check for rust and leaks and make sure that you regularly empty your blackwater tanks. You also need to make sure that you keep an eye on how much fresh water you have left at all times, so you know exactly when you need to refill.
It isn’t the most glamorous part of the build, but if you want to have a working toilet and shoer without needing to rely on shower bags and disposable toiletry bags, then this is the price you’ll have to pay.
Next time, we’ll talk more about the plumbing though, since we only started to scratch the surface of what we’ll actually end up doing now that we have all the plans laid out and the van is ready to be equipped with a shower and a toilet. There are a lot of options to choose from, but only a few of them will actually suit our needs for the van life. If you pick the wrong shower head of the toilet model, you could find yourself running out of water so fast you won’t even be able to leave town!