Most of us don’t worry about water at home. We get a mains supply with enough pressure so when we turn a tap, fresh drinking water flows.
It’s all different in a campervan.
We need to store and carry a supply of freshwater, pump it to the taps and make sure we can re fill when we’re running low.
We need to dispose of dirty water and might even want to heat a little for an occasional shower.
Part of planning your own DIY camper build includes working out how you’ll get enough fresh water for drinking and washing.
In this post, we’ll cover everything to do with a campervan water system.
We begin with the basics, consider how much water you need to carry, how to store and heat water.
We’ve provided a detailed campervan water system design diagram, walking you through each component and how to install it.
So spanners and plumbers tape at the ready, let’s go!
- How much water do you need in a campervan?
- Water system layout in your campervan
- Campervan water system | The basics
- Campervan water system | The design
- Campervan water system | Step by step installation guide
How much water do you need in a campervan?
As with most decisions in a campervan conversion, the design of the water system is full of compromises. Consider these fundamental points:
- Cost | Water tanks don’t come cheap so the more water you carry, the more it’ll cost to fit.
- Space | Water takes up a fair amount of space. Each 100 litres of water needs 0.1 cubic metres of storage so you’ll need to get creative with where to fit the tanks.
- Weight | Water is pretty heavy at 1 kg per litre. Vans have a gross vehicle weight and it’s not legal to exceed it. And anyway, the more weight we carry, the worse our fuel consumption.
- Van life | Do you expect to live off grid much or will you use campsites more often than not? The amount of water you need to carry will vary upon your lifestyle and access to showers and fresh drinking water.
Daily water consumption of van lifers
We need to drink at least 2 litres of water a day in temperate climates to avoid dehydration.
In hot climates and high humidity, we need a lot more. For example, we spent 3 months travelling in Brazil in our van and drank over 3 litres of water every day.
Then you might like an occasional shower. An average shower uses 45 litres of water.
Even if you adopt the military approach (tap on – get wet, tap off – soap up, tap on – quick rinse – tap off) you’ll still use around 12 litres.
Include water for cooking, cleaning house and laundry and you could consume 50 litres a day.
There are plenty of creative ways to conserve and reduce water consumption though.
Based on our own experiences, we reckon frugal users will average around 25 litres per day, per couple.
How often will you fill up?
Now consider how often you can replenish your water supply. This depends on what sort of van life you’ll live and where you’re going.
It’s easy to get free water in most camper stops around Europe so get away with carrying enough water for 2 or 3 days.
In contrast, access to drinking water is more challenging in Africa.
Even so, with a few compromises and an effort to conserve water, you can still avoid fitting huge tanks.
We’ve seen some overland trucks fitted with 1000 litre water tanks. Finding that much drinking water is a challenge in some parts of the world.
There aren’t many garden taps once out of Europe. Even if you find a hand pumped well in a remote African village, a responsible traveller won’t take much.
Besides, 1000 litres of water weighs 1 tonne and needs a cubic metre of load space. To us, these points alone far outweigh any benefit.
Calculating how much water to carry
In our Unimog camper Mowgli, we carried 230 litres of fresh water. We bought Mowgli pre-built so this wasn’t our design decision.
Even so, we had plenty of water.
The longest we lasted on one tank was 9 days, the last 2 of which we were ultra careful on our consumption.
When we calculated how much water to carry in the Sprinter van conversion, we assumed we’d use an average of 25 litres per day and carry enough water to only need to refill once every 5 days.
We decided on 125 litres but by the time we’d sourced the water tanks (more on that below), we ended up with 170 litres, including 20 litres of hot water.
Water system layout in your campervan
There’s a few things to consider before finalising the layout of the water system:
- Where will you install the sink?
- Will you put it close to any bathroom you plan to install? The plumbing is easier to install if they’re close together.
- How will you fill the fresh water tanks and empty the grey & black water tanks?
- If your layout demands pipes are fed through the floor of the van, make sure the chassis and cross members don’t get in the way. They can’t be moved!
- Will you store your water tanks inside or outside the van?
- Outside storage of water in winter conditions may lead to freezing so you’ll need to think about this if you plan to live in the campervan in the winter or travel to colder climates.
- Does the layout allow easy access for future maintenance? You won’t want to dismantle the entire camper because you need to replace a water pump.
- And don’t forget to consider the weight distribution of full water tanks and how this might affect handling of the vehicle. You can get more advice on this in our post on modifying your van build.
Campervan water system | The basics
In summary, a basic campervan water system is made up of a handful of components:
Additional components like accumulators and water filters aren’t essential but serve a purpose for an enhanced set up.
You can add water heaters too so you have hot water for showering and washing dishes.
We’ll go through each of these components here.
Campervan Water Tanks
There’s potentially 3 types of campervan water tanks you might need.
- Fresh water tank
- Grey tank
- Black tank
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Fresh Water Tank
The most simple and budget friendly option for carrying fresh water in your campervan is to use a jerry can.
But water is heavy and a full 20 litre jerry can weighs in at 20 kilograms. Lugging that around isn’t ideal for everyone.
Portable tanks are an option for those who don’t plan on stealth camping.
The ultimate solution though is to fit permanent fresh water tanks.
If you plan to spend winter months in your campervan, will you experience temperatures below freezing point?
If so, consider fitting at least some of your water tanks inside the van because any outside may freeze.
We haven’t winterised our Sprinter van and all our water tanks are stored underneath the van outside.
Fresh water tanks come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. You can find tanks that fit snuggly over the wheel arches too to help optimise the indoor water storage.
You can have more than one tank too. We have 3 tanks under our van.
Once you’ve calculated how much water you need, decide where to store it. Then shop for the water tanks and check the measurements closely before you buy them.
This was our biggest challenge in designing our campervan water system.
You need a way of filling the fresh water tanks.
Most camper vans and motorhomes have a filler fitting on the outside of the van leading to the water tanks.
Some have a filler fitting just inside one of the doors, nearest the location of the water tanks.
Some water tanks have tank vents pre-fitted. They allow air to fill the tanks as the water is emptied. Without a vent, the air can’t escape and you’ll end up with air locks.
If your tank doesn’t have one pre-fitted, you’ll need to fit one.
Grey Water Tank
Any campervan water system needs some form of container for collecting waste water from the sink or indoor shower.
The simplest approach is to feed it directly into a jerry can securely stored beneath the sink.
Make it a different colour to your fresh water can so you never get them mixed up!
Some portable grey water tanks have wheels and live outside the van when parked.
They’re great if you plan to spend most of your van life in campsites.
You’ll need to connect a hose from your sink through the campervan floor then connect the portable tank each time you set up camp.
This isn’t ideal for stealth camping or off-grid living though and you’d need to store the tank inside the van when travelling.
Alternatively, fit a permanent grey water tank to the underside of your campervan.
We have fitted a 50 litre grey water tank to our camper. It has a tap so we can empty and keep it closed the rest of the time.
There’s several campervan toilet options you can go for in you.
Some are self contained units where the waste is collected in a compartment attached to the toilet.
Some campervan toilets flush waste into a black tank.
You’ll need to find space underneath the van for a permanent tank. If you’d prefer the portable tank, you’ll need to find somewhere to store it when you’re travelling.
We don’t have a black tank because we have a composting toilet in our van.
The section above provides just a short insight into water tanks. There are a variety of solutions for the different types of water storage. For loads more detail, check out our post on campervan water tanks.
To get water flowing from the fresh water tanks to the taps, you’ll need a pump.
Manual pumps provide a budget friendly and easy installation option for a cold water set up.
These hand pumps work by pumping the handle back and forth. They look pretty cool too.
This foot pump is a bit more robust and provides a half decent flow. Again, this is designed for small galley use.
You’ll never get a shower from this kind of installation though.
If you’re serious about have a long term water system in your campervan, you need to install an electric pump.
An electric pump keeps the entire water system pressurised all the time.
When you turn the taps on, assuming the tanks aren’t empty, water will flow. How civilised!
Pressure at the tap or shower head is affected by the size of the bore hole, the length of the hose from the pump to the shower as well as the size of the pump.
If the pump is too powerful, you’ll use way too much of your precious onboard drinking water.
A 30 psi pump is a pretty standard size for a campervans and motorhomes.
Try to go for a pump that doesn’t deliver too much water per minute though. It may sound great but a shower can quickly deplete your water tanks.
Our pump flows a little less than 11 litres per minute and is ideal.
Fit electric pumps in an operating position easy to access. Pumps are known to breakdown after many years of use so you may need to change it at some point in the future.
Keep shower heads, hose and taps clean and limescale free. Limescale build up is one of the culprits for low water pressure issues.
Debris can sometimes find its way into your water tanks. Pumps don’t respond well to this so to help prolong the life of them, make sure to fit a filter.
Our pump had a filter included but you can buy them separately too.
12v water pumps switch on when they sense a drop in pressure, like when the taps are turned on.
An accumulator reduces how soon the pump switches on by acting as a pressure store.
Arguably, they save energy. Our view is while the accumulator may stop the pump kicking in so soon, the energy still needs to be generated to re-prime the accumulator.
Regardless of your school of thought, accumulators are optional.
We don’t have one installed in our water systems and suffer no hardship.
Sink & taps
There’s a huge range of campervan sinks on the market.
You can buy sinks integrated with a cooker for the ultimate in space saving kitchen design.
Hinged lids make for a useful extra workspace when not in use and folded down.
You can buy taps that fold flat, taking up little space.
While the sink and taps you choose are as much about personal taste and design, there’s a few things to consider before buying:
- Do you need an integrated draining board? Wet dishes on a wooden counter top won’t do your wood any favours.
- How deep do you need the sink to be? The key is to have a sink large enough to comfortably wash you biggest pot but not so big you’ll use too much water or so deep it uses too much under counter space.
- There’s some beautiful tall taps on the market. In a moving vehicle, especially if you plan to drive off-road as we do, the taller the tap, the more likely it is to work itself loose.
- If you plan to install a hot water system, consider a mixer tap instead of single taps to save space.
- We recommend a swivel tap too so you can move it out of the way – helpful when washing up the big pot!
- Check if your sink includes the drainer and plug – often they don’t and you’ll need to buy them separately.
In some parts of the world or when living in a van off-grid, access to clean drinking water can be challenging.
Our delicate stomachs might become upset by nutrient levels we’re not accustomed to.
Water can have an unpleasant taste if treated with chlorine.
At worst, it could harbour dangerous diseases.
While this water may be ok for washing dishes and even cooking if boiled, it might not be sensible to drink it straight from the tap.
A micro pore filter is a simple solution, allowing you to filter water from any lake, well or stream to use as safe drinking water.
It cleans water using a combination of ceramic and carbon filters.
The ceramic element removes most bacteria while the carbon elements eliminates most chemical traces.
Whilst not 100% effective, they do improve water quality significantly.
The relative low cost of the filter units make installation a bit of a no brainer.
If in doubt, boil your drinking water and add an occasional cap of bleach to your fresh water tanks to keep harmful bacteria at bay.
Read more: What Water Filters You Need in Your Camper
Hot water heater for campers and RVs
Hot water in a campervan is a luxury and one we’re not happy to live without.
We don’t have a huge capacity but it’s enough for washing dishes and an occasional shower.
When designing your campervan water system you need to decide how you’re going to heat it.
Your options to heat water in a camper are:
- Solar heated
- 240v electric water heater
- 12v immersion heater
- Electric propane water heaters
Solar heated water
The sun provides the simplest solution for getting hot water in your campervan.
Even on a cloudy day, this portable solar shower can be quite effective.
This involves a rather basic approach of placing a dark container on the roof of your van and letting the sun heat it.
There’s no need for any plumbing indoors. If you only use your campervan for short trips and don’t need hot water inside the van, this could be an ideal low cost option for you.
This is an efficient way of heating cold water through the engine’s cooling system.
As you drive, water is circulated around the engine block, passed through the radiator and returned to the hot water tank.
When you park up at the end of a long drive, you have tank full of hot water. Nice!
Installing a coalescer involves breaking into the engine coolant system so you need some confidence in your skills to fit one.
240v electric water heater
Less efficient than the coalescer, a 240v or110v hook up is needed.
Much like the old water tanks so many of us used to have in the attic in houses, a heater coil is submerged in the tank to heat the water.
The main advantage of this is realised when parked up on a campsite for a few days.
With the available hook up and an electric water heater, you won’t run out of hot water for washing up if you keep your tanks topped up.
12v immersion heater
A 12v immersion heater works in the same way as the 240v system, only no hook up is needed.
Really you’d want to run your engine to heat your water though as otherwise it’ll drain your deep cycle campervan batteries quickly.
The downside of this method is you must remember to turn the heater off when you’re not driving so it doesn’t drain your batteries.
It’s perhaps the cheapest and most simple method of getting hot water in your van though.
Our hot water tank is designed to heat water by the engine coolant system and by 12v too.
We only use the 12v capability when we’re hooked up to mains electricity.
Electric propane water heaters
If you already use gas for cooking, you could go for an electric propane water heater.
It removes the dependancy on your batteries but puts a greater demand on the gas. A commodity not readily available everywhere you might travel.
Even so, electric propane heaters are perhaps the most common way to get hot water into campervans.
Showers for campervans
There’s a large range of showers for campervans, from basic solar heated shower bags to complete indoor set ups.
In our campervan, we have 2 shower facilities.
One is a Bullfinch shower point. It can be installed inside or outside the van. The hose gets locked into the shower point when in use and it acts as a mixer tap.
The water supply is provided by the water pump.
We’ve installed ours at the back of the van beside the doors and use it outdoors only.
We can hang a shower curtain at the back door and shower even in less remote areas.
The 2nd shower is a Bushranger shower.
We discovered this clever device in Morocco while camping next to a camel’s watering hole with fellow overlanders we met along the way.
As we pulled up for the night in the Sahara Desert, one of the other overlanders pops the bonnet on his Defender, throws a hose into the well and have a long hot shower!
What a brilliant gadget! So we had to get one for a Baloo.
The Bushranger shower heats water by pumping water around a heat exchanger via the engine coolant system.
It’s easy to install and completely separate from the main campervan water system.
Instead of using our onboard water, another 30 psi water pump is fitted in the engine bay to draw water through a fine filter from a river, well, lake or bucket of cold water and pump it through the heat exchanger.
Now we can shower without depleting our drinking water or for as long as the river is full!
Monitoring and system controls
We fitted a water gauge to our water tank so we don’t have to guess at how full or empty they are.
With the gauge located at the base of the driver’s seat it’s easy to check daily.
It’s not a completely accurate reading but it gives a good approximation of available water.
Campervan water system electrics
Our camper water design needs a few 12v power supplies for the water pump, gauge and 12v heater.
Mixing water and electrics can be dangerous so if you’re not sure what you are doing, you might want to outsource this part of your build.
Campervan water system | The design
We based our campervan water system design on our specific needs.
Planning to live in the campervan long term, we didn’t want to scrimp on the set up.
We wanted enough fresh water to last at least 5 days off grid, shower facilities and the ability to cope with dubious water sources.
This is our campervan water system design.
It’s pretty generic and aside from sizing and component specifics, is what most motorhome, RVs and camper vans have installed.
The Bush Ranger shower is a little different though.
If you’re looking for a design for your own van build, this is a great base to start from.
Use the link below the image to download a full size image and tweak the design to suit your exact needs.
A summary of our design
- We carry 170 litres of fresh water in 3 tanks, 1 of which is a 10 litre hot water tank
- All the tanks are fitted to the underside of the van outside and not winterised
- We have a 50 litre grey water tank
- No black tank needed or fitted
- We use a coalescer to heat the water by the engine coolant system. We can also heat the water by the coalescers’s 12v system
- A Doulton ceramic water filter provides clean drinking water
- We decided to install the shower at the back doors for outdoor use
- A Shurflo electric water pump supplies the sink taps, water filter and rear outdoor shower
- To monitor the water level, we fitted a water gauge at the side of the driver’s seat.
- We added a Bushranger shower too. The water is heated by the engine.
- We added extra connectors on each water tank so if we ever need to drain the tanks or bypass one, we can do so with ease
Are we happy with it?
We’ve been living in the van full time now for a little over 2 years.
We’ve never run out of water so feel we got our capacity just about right for our lifestyle.
We use the water filter a lot. While we’ve not had to fill our tanks with water we felt was unsafe, we have had water that has a slightly chlorinated taste. The filter does a great job of getting rid of most of that.
When we fitted the shower at the back door we knew we could re-plumb it to move it indoors easily if we felt the need.
Needless to say, 2 years and we’re quite happy with it where it is. It wouldn’t be ideal if you spend most of your time in urban areas though.
The Bushranger shower is one of the best things we have on the van. We’ve used so much water from Patagonian lakes and rivers for almost endless hot showers.
We really only use the 12v water heater if we’re on hook up as it’s quite heavy on the batteries.
We got rid of our flat hose because after much use, it sprung a few leaks.
Our replacement is a more robust garden hose. It takes up more storage space but we keep it inside the engine bay so it makes no difference to us.
Campervan water system | Step by step installation guide
This is our step by step guide of how to install a campervan water system.
It is based on our own water design as shown above.
We’ve not included how to install the Bushranger shower here. It comes with instructions and is completely separate from the main campervan water system.
We’ve estimated a total of 5 days to complete the job. Some of this is preparation, including design and shopping for products.
If you’re familiar with plumbing it may not take you as long as it took us.
Whilst your own design may vary in specific components and even layout, the main principles behind installation are fairly generic.
We’re happy to answer any question you may have. Just leave a comment at the end of this post and we’ll get back to you.
- Your design including where your fill pipes, hoses and tanks will be fitted.
- Fresh water tank(s)
- Sink and sink drain
- Shower mixer
- Shower hose
- Shower head
- Water inlet fill cap
- Connectors for water tanks
- 2 x standard hose T-piece joints
- 1 x reducer hose T-piece joint (included with filter kit)
- Jubilee clips
- Drain soil pipe
- Water level sensor
- Water level gauge
- Grey water tank
- Hot water tank
- Tank brackets - we made our own from flat bar iron
- Electric cable
- 2 switches (one for water pump, one for the 12v hot water heater)
- Print your campervan water system design so you have it as a handy reference
- Fit connectors to water tanks
- Install the water level sensor to tank 2 as per the manufacturer’s instructions
- Partially attach tank holding brackets to the securing points you’ve chosen on the van
- Fit all the fresh, hot water and grey water tanks in position, tightening the holding brackets
- Fit the water pump securely to its operating location
- Drill a hole in the floor for the hose from the cold water tank to the pump
- Drill a hole in the floor for the hose from the pump to the hot water tank
- Drill a hole in the floor for the hose from the hot water tank to the hot tap
- Fit the sink, taps, filter tap and shower mixer to their operating positions as per the manufacturer’s instructions
- Fit the sink drain hose to the sink and lay it to the grey water tank
- Fit the water inlet fill cap to the hole in the side of the van where you’ll fill the fresh water tanks
- Fit the hose from the fill line from the water inlet fill cap to the first water tank and secure it at both ends with a jubilee clip
- Connect the balance line between tank 1 and tank 2
- Lay the hose from tank 2 to the water pump inlet, connecting each end with jubilee clips. Don’t forget to attached the grommet to the hole in the van floor.
- Fit the pump outlet hose, attaching the first standard hose T-piece joint
- Lay the hose from the T-piece joint to the hot water tank inlet. Don’t forget to attached the grommet to the hole in the van floor.
- Lay hose from the T-piece joint to the 2nd standard hose T-piece joint. This one splits off to the shower and the taps
- Lay hose from the T-piece joint to the Bullfinch shower mixer and attach it securely
- Lay hose from the 2nd standard hose T-piece joint to a position near the sink
- Fit the reducer hose T-piece joint for the filter tap spur
- Lay hose from the standard piece of the T-piece joint to the tap
- Lay hose from the reduced piece of the T-piece joint to the filter tap
- Connect the water sensor wiring to the water gauge as per the manufacturers instructions, securing the gauge to it operating position
- Fill water tanks, checking for leaks
- When any leaks have been fixed, check the water gauge reading is full to confirm this is working correctly
- Connect the campervan electrics to the water pump
- Insert the water pump fuse
- Switch the water pump on
- The pump should operate until the system pressure reaches 30psi before shutting down. This could take a few seconds while the pump primes
- Test the tap, shower and water filter are all operating with cold water (at this stage, no hot water is connected)
- Fix any leaks or operating issues
- Connect the hot water tank as per manufacturer’s instructions
- Test the hot water system works as expected
- Make your self a cup of tea and wash up to congratulate yourself!
- If you need to drill holes in the van’s side wall for your fill line, do this first. Make sure you avoid any strengthening webs, structural and mechanical components.
- If your water tanks are inside the van, you do not need to drill holes in the floor.
- Consider running a vent hose to a higher position to prevent spillage when driving with full water tanks.
- The connectors on the fresh water tanks may already be fitted. If not, fit them before fitting the tanks in position.
- We had to fit our hot water tank on the opposite side of the van to the fresh water tanks because of available space. Because of this, we had to install the inlet and outlet hoses for the hot water underneath the van.
- We drilled 4 holes (3 for the fresh water and 1 for the grey water) because we didn’t want one large hole in the floor. This way we could use grommets to seal the holes and prevent chaffing of the hoses on the hole and ingress of dust & dirt.
- The balance line between the 2 fresh water tanks acts as the fill line for tank 2. The connectors should be at the bottom of tank 1 and the top of tank 2.
- All T-piece joints should be secured with jubilee clips
- Keep hoses tidy and secure with P clips at intervals along their length
- Our water pump included a water filter. If your pump doesn’t, you’ll need to buy a water filter separately.
- Mixing water and electrics can be dangerous so if you’re not sure what you’re doing, you might want to outsource this part of your build.
- If hoses are too tight a fit for the connectors, try to soften the ends in boiling water for a few minutes.
- Use plumber’s tape to help seal any threaded joints.
- If your hot water system is like ours and heats by 12v and by the engine coolant system, connect the 12v system first to make sure it works correctly before you breach the engine coolant system.
- Once the entire campervan water system is installed, sterilise your water system.