Chinese Diesel Heaters

Succinct and pertinent information regarding the install of a cheap, Chinese diesel heater in your van, trailer, or motorhome.

Chinese diesel heaters have become all the rage with the explosion of “Van Life” and DIY Aisrtream and RV restorations.  For around $200 for a 5KW unit, there is NO cheaper way to get a LOT of heat into your rig’s  living space.  There isn’t a lot of quality control, and there is certainly NO chance of holding one of these manufacturers responsible for anything that goes wrong, so using one of these heaters is solely the risk and responsibility of the person purchasing and installing them.  As such, one should take every measure to mitigate any possible dangers or faults that might result from the install.  There’s nothing you can do about defective equipment or something that wasn’t put together correctly at the factory (except not buy one of these in the first place), so it’s even more important to make sure the install is as perfect as possible.

If the above information worries you and you have a little more cash to spend (well… quite a bit more, actually), you are in luck.  Eberspacher and Webasto are two companies that have been making these heaters for decades (and even ones that run on regular fuel instead of diesel), so you have the option of spending around $2-4k for a really fantastic version of these Chinese risks. :-D  Buying from Eberspacher or Webasto also means you will get great customer service to help with the purchase and install, as well as a warranty.  These companies really are excellent, so if you have the money, I highly recommend going the much safer route.

Before I get to the installation information (that’s fun to say!), I want to point out that there is a lovely Australian gentleman who goes by John McK 47 on YouTube who has put together a series of around 20 videos that present the most useful and pertinent information on this subject anywhere.  Seriously.  I can’t believe how thorough and informative these videos are (and I don’t think he’s even monetized his videos –he’s just created and presented all this stuff for the good of humankind!).  You would be doing yourself a huge favor to watch every single one of his videos on the Chinese diesel heater topic.

Finally, this is far from the most comprehensive post on the topic of Chinese diesel heaters.  Think of it more like the information you need for your install once you’re sick of reading the hundreds and hundreds of posts on this topic and you just want to get to putting the heater in your vehicle.  So let’s go…

Mounting the Heater Body

On my first install it took me a while to decide how to mount the unit, and what kind of a hole was necessary for the intake/exhaust ports on the bottom of the unit.  Now that I’ve installed a couple of these, I feel like I’ve got it down.  Here are some tips regarding mounting the heater to the floor…

The metal plate should be mounted to a flat and stable surface.  The plate doesn’t seem to get that hot, but on my first install I thought I would go the extra mile and place ceramic fiber blanket between the mounting plate and the deck (the subfloor of the trailer).  After a bit of use, I think the ceramic blanket is overkill, but I do think a sheet of high temp silicone (the material used for modern oven mitts) can be a good idea.  Not only does it offer peace of mind regarding high temps against wood decking, but it also offers a little vibration absorption to help mitigate the noise caused by the heater being fastened to a huge flat surface which inevitably acts as a drum/amplifier.

Pro tip:  you should put almost everything together before you fasten the heater to the floor; this way, you don’t have to make all the connections on your back while crawling under the vehicle.  Thread the fuel pump electrical wire and coupler through the deck plate keyhole (that little extra hole connected to the intake hose hole), then fasten the deck plate to the heater.  Fasten both the exhaust hose and intake hose, and then attach a small piece of rubber fuel hose to the fuel port to be used for attaching the nylon fuel feed tube once it’s time to hook up the fuel pump.  When you’ve got all this put together, you can see what kind of hole you should create in your mounting surface.  It can be rectangular or round.  Just make sure of two things: the hole should be smaller than the mounting plate, but it should be big enough to give as much clearance as possible for any heat coming off the exhaust outlet.

The end of the exhaust hose should not be anywhere near the opening of the air intake hose.  If you are installing the heater on a moving vehicle, make sure the exhaust is behind the intake.  Also make sure your exhaust hose does not have any low points between the heater and it’s termination point.  Moisture is one of the things being “exhausted,” so if there is a low point in the exhaust hose, then water will pool in that area.

Along the same lines, make sure you position the exhaust muffler on it’s side.  It might seem like it’s meant to be mounted flat against the deck/floor, but it actually has a top and bottom edge, and should be mounted against a side support, so moisture can drain out of tiny holes in the bottom edge of the muffler.

The fewer bends in your intake/exhaust, the more efficiently your heater will run.  There are specific guidelines on maximum lengths and number of bends, but I’m trying to keep this post tight!  Just remember, the fewer restrictions on your lines, the happier your heater will be.

Fuel Lines

On the *feed* side of the pump (between the pump and the heater), you want hard nylon tubing, not soft rubber.  These pumps are made to feed intermittent fuel to the heater separated by tiny bubbles.  If you use rubber tubing, the vibration will be absorbed and the bubbles won’t properly form.  Typical rubber fuel lines can be used on the intake side of the pump (from the tank to the fuel pump), but anything after the pump should be the hard nylon line.  Your heater most likely came with some rubber fuel line (hopefully in addition to the hard nylon line), and that rubber hose should be used as the unions where the nylon tube attaches to things like the pump, filter, and heater.  Make sure that the nylon tubing presses directly against anything with which it is being coupled.  If there is a gap inside the rubber fuel line being used as a union, air gaps can form inside the rubber hose and will disrupt the flow of fuel to the heater.  From what I have read, it’s not a good idea to make the nylon supply line any longer than around 3 meters (15 feet) and the supply side rubber hose shouldn’t be any longer than 3 feet.  In any case, the shorter the fuel lines the better.

The Fuel Pump

The fuel pump should be placed as close to the fuel source (the tank) as possible.  It is easier for the small pump to push fuel than to pull it.  The fuel pump should also be placed on a slight incline.  By design, these pumps make tiny little bubbles that you want *floating up.* You can get away with placing the pump completely horizontal, but if the flow is positioned at all down, the pump will not function properly, so it’s best to position it with the “out” port above the “in” port.  You also want your fuel

The Plastic Fuel Tank

I’m not sure how great these tanks are for this purpose.  The tanks that are included with these heaters are translucent plastic.  If you mount them exposed to sunlight (whether it’s inside or outside the vehicle), your fuel will be compromised by UV rays.  Not only that, but the plastic tank itself will also break down over time.  I think it would be better to utilize an aluminum or stainless tank.

The included plastic tank does not come with the “bung” (the fuel port) installed.  You need to drill a hole and install the port.  If you haven’t done it before, it seems impossible.  How in the world do you hold the port from the back side… inside the tank?!  The answer is either a wire or string.  Drill the hole for the port, then feed a wire, coat hanger, or string through the hole from outside of the tank, through the tank, and out through the fill port (where you pour the fuel in).  Next place the bung over the wire or string and let it slide down to the hole.  If you used a string, tie a nut to the far end so you can pull the string tight to pull the bung through the hole.  If you used a wire or coat hanger, bend the far end into an L shape, so you can pull the bung through the hole.  You can make the hole a bit smaller than the bung threads so that the bung actually threads into the plastic, or you can just rely solely on the rubber washers pressed on the inside and outside of the tank.

Some people say putting a bung in the bottom of the tank isn’t a good idea because you’ll get sediment in your fuel line.  The preferred method is using an “uptake” line positioned 2cm from the bottom of the tank (like in a car’s fuel tank).  With these little pumps, I don’t think it’s a good idea to make them work harder in order to *suck* fuel up a fuel uptake.  Since you want the pump as close to the fuel source as possible, if you’re adding a fuel uptake, you’re basically moving the pump farther away from the source and making it work harder.  Not only that, but if your heater is mounted on the floor, it’s usually going to be difficult to place the tank much lower than the heater (to keep the fuel feed moving up as it should).  Therefore, it’s best to let gravity do it’s work with getting fuel to the pump, and the bung needs to go in the bottom of the tank.  Just make sure you check your fuel filter regularly so the flow of fuel isn’t being blocked by sediment that may collect in the bottom of the tank.  The bung is also made with extra material on the inside of the tank, so that the port is actually around 1cm above the very bottom of the tank.  Thus, even a bottom mounted bung is pulling fuel from a similar gap to what an uptake would utilize.

Additional (important) information…

Make sure you prime the fuel pump before starting the heater.  Simply put, this means getting fuel going through the fuel lines without actually running the heater.  This clears the air from the fuel lines and allows the fuel to lubricate the interior heater parts, so the heater is not “running dry” when it begins the start cycle.  For units with a digital panel, priming is activated by pressing the down arrow and OK button at the same time until the read out shows H-OF.  The pump will activate when you let go of those buttons and press the up arrow so the read out reads H-ON.  Press the down arrow again to halt the pump.  If you have a manual knob controller, turn the knob so that the low/high indicator lights up, then press the “off” button for more than three seconds to activate the pump.  Once you have let the pump run for a while to prime the pump and lines, press “off” again to halt the flow of fuel.

The flexible tubes (exhaust, intake, heat routing) that come with these units aren’t of the greatest quality.  You may want to update your tubes, dude.

Though it may seem like a good idea to put the heater on a switch, DON’T DO IT.  These heaters have various cycles that keep them functioning efficiently and safely.  If the power is cut before the heater can finish one or more of these cycles, it can damage the heater and/or lead to dangerous operating conditions.

Finally, make sure you install a carbon monoxide detector!  It could be the difference between life or death.  If that sounds dire… it is!


For more complete information, I think this guy put together a pretty good (and more comprehensive) post on the subject of Chinese diesel heaters (probably the “easiest” single-source on the topic, if that’s more what you’re after):

Updating RV Cooking Appliances

After a couple of years of real life experience on the road, I’m deciding to update the appliances in my 1975 Argosy/Airstream 24. Which is to say, I’m going to get rid of the original MagicChef range and oven.

I have a really great (relatively compact but powerful) microwave and a really great toaster oven (big enough for a 12″ pizza) in the pantry, but those can only be used on shore power or generator.  I’ve always thought it was a good idea to be able to *fully* prepare meals while running only on propane, but after a lot of time in the vehicle, I’m rethinking that notion.  Plus, I’m about to buy a dual-fuel generator, so technically I will be able to use those electric appliances via propane.

A quick aside before I go on… in the past, a “combo” microwave/oven has not been a realistic option.  The technology has just not been there.  No combo microwave unit could cook a crispy crust pizza, so that was that.  I think the technology is improving, but I am still utilizing two separate units.  I make toast/bagels often enough that I feel justified in having a separate microwave and toaster oven, and the toaster oven definitely makes a good pizza (or poppers, or frozen egg rolls, etc.).  Also, there are some really great multi-function toaster ovens now that include an “air fryer” option, so I think a microwave with a separate toaster/oven/air fryer is currently the best set up.

On to the cook top…

In the past, I usually scoffed when I saw galley set ups that included only a two burner cooktop.  In reality, I have NEVER used more than two burners at once.  I do almost always use two burners, but never more (quoth the raven).

The actual oven has never been used for anything but “storage” (and bad storage at that).  Not in my Argosy; not in my Landyacht; not ever.  Since the toaster oven is a good one, I have always done any “baking” (usually a pizza or lasagna) in the toaster oven.  I know if I was without shore power I couldn’t do this, but at that point planning a different meal is fine.  Plus, I recently installed an exterior grill (Olympian 5500 professional series) that could easily function as an oven if I absolutely had to have a propane powered oven to cook something.

So now the question is: what cooktop to install?  The main issue I have with the current cooktop (other than taking up too much counter space), is that the burners don’t have a high enough output.  I think they were probably originally rated around 6500 BTU, but after 40 years, even that is likely an optimistic figure.  It takes a million years to heat up water for coffee, and I can’t even think about boiling a large pot of water for pasta.  This probably makes this particular cook top safer (it’s not creating as much combustion exhaust inside the camper), but I am aware of the issue and pay attention to that factor when cooking, so I’m comfortable moving to something with a higher BTU output.

Another factor that needs to be considered is the “travel-ability” of the cook top unit.  What this means is being able to cover it up (ideally creating a flush countertop) and not having the burner covers, cooking grates, etc., rattle around while bouncing down the road.

There are a slew of $100-200 two burner units on Amazon, etc., but even if they are labeled “drop in,” almost all of them sit above the counter.  They also have grates and burner covers that simply rest on the surface, so they will definitely bounce around and cause a lot of noise (and possibly damage) with road vibration.

It’s also surprising to me how many cook top burners, even ones designed specifically for RV’s, have only 120v igniter options (they plug into a regular household outlet just to start the flame).  Why in the world isn’t 12v or even a AA battery the standard here?!  That problem can be easily remedied with modification (installing your own igniter), but it seems crazy that I will have to make this mod in the first place.

Dometic seems to be the only readily available unit that is properly “recessed,” but the burners are only rated 7,200 and 5,400 BTU.  This unit does however have a 12v igniter, so at least there’s that.  I don’t think I would be happy cooking on the “wire” grate pictured on the unit above, but for an extra $50 they do offer a more sturdy cooking grate option.  Here’s the kicker though… all of the reviews I’m reading about this unit (mostly 1 star) are people ranting about the fact that the description does not disclose that you can’t use it over 4,500 ft.!  I LIVE at 6,000 ft., so this thing won’t even work in my driveway!  Obviously the Dometic is not for me.

All of the other recessed propane burners I’m finding are really chintzy looking “camping” units (I’m looking at you Atwood and Suburban), so I have a feeling I’m going to end up finding a commercial two burner unit and modifying it for my own needs.  I plan on installing a butcher block countertop, so I could modify the opening to allow the cook top to sit lower, and then I can make a flush-fit cover.  So… as usual, I guess custom is the only answer.  Perhaps I will dismantle a stainless steel grill and go from there.

I do have to admit, this little Wedgewood is gorgeous…

Creating an Exterior “Pass Through” Box

When I dry dock in the driveway, I usually run a Cat6 ethernet cable directly from the router for the television rather than rely on wireless signal (wireless sometimes drops out when I’m that far from the router).  I also have a 12v wireless router set up in the Airstream, but I usually only use that when I’m traveling (it allows me to run a physical ethernet line directly from my host’s router, so I don’t suffer from signal drop when I’m parked in their driveway/yard or on the street).  I’ve been passing the ethernet cable through the small window next to the door, but that’s a pretty inelegant solution to something that I do fairly often.  I also don’t like that routing the cord that way will eventually deform the window gasket, not to mention it pinches the cable.

My original thought was to place an outlet box with ethernet and coax ports on the outside of the Airstream, but the more I thought about what the port could be used for, the more it made sense to simply create a “pass through” hole.  Sure, the ethernet and coax ports would look more “pro,” but coax is pretty much obsolete already, and I assume ethernet will be there in the not-to-distant-future, so why not do something a little more future-proof?  Plus, I can think of plenty of other things that I might want to pass through the Airstream wall from inside to out or outside to in (extension cord, gas line for portable grill or heater, 12v power, etc.).

So I started by cutting a heavy duty plastic outlet box down to size (depth) so it could fit snugly in the wall between the inner and outer skins.

Trimming an outlet box to fit between the skins.

I then drilled rivet holes, drilled to mark the corners of the opening on the exterior skin, and then cut a  hole using a 4″ cut-off wheel.

After cutting the hole, I put TremPro 635 on the back of the outlet box to secure and seal it to the inside of the exterior skin, then riveted the box from the outside (so the rivets look good on the exterior).

Finally, I used butyl tape around the outside edge of an aluminum weather-proof outlet face plate, and riveted the plate in place over the outlet hole.

The inside will be finished with another spring loaded, weather-proof face plate, but could also be completed using a keystone face plate for dedicated ethernet, co-ax, etc. ports.  The box is below the deck of the dinette seat, so it won’t be visible, thus I’m just going with the spring-loaded door for more universal use.

Mounted box ready for interior face plate.



Laminating the Dinette Kick with Salvaged Aluminum Skin

Today I put the finish on the dinette kick by laminating salvaged aluminum sheet (interior skin) to the front surface.  I’ve found that the 4×8 1/4″ “utility panel” at Lowe’s is the least expensive substrate I can find, and it’s actually a pretty decent product.  It’s readily available (always in stock), plenty strong (especially once you adhere aluminum to it!), and in a pinch can even take a coat of stain and look acceptable on its own.

I cut the new kick panel to size from a salvaged ceiling skin, and then adhered it to the face of the kick plate with DAP contact cement (used for laminating countertops and available at any big box/hardware store).  Because of the inner curve of the dinette corners, it didn’t take much to clamp the aluminum sheet in place (it basically stayed there on it’s own, but I clamped the upper edge to be sure it was nice and tight).  This was fortuitous, as I was not looking forward to building clamp plates to hold the sheet where it needed to be, especially at those inner corner radii.

The salvaged aluminum sheet had some rivet holes from it’s previous life as a ceiling, so I shot rivets through those existing holes to further secure the skin to the utility panel since the holes would need to be filled anyway.

I will eventually paint the skin to match the rest of the Airstream.

I think it came out looking really nice, and it is definitely a strong and sturdy surface that I don’t need to worry about when it gets kicked and banged over and over again for the next hundred years!

Things I Learned on Roadtrip #5

So… we’re getting there.  This is the first trip where things started being… genuinely comfortable.  We traveled over two thousand miles in nine days from Denver to Alamosa (via the mountainous highway 285) to ABQ to the Grand Canyon to Las Vegas and back.

All appliances function as they should.  We’ve got running water and drains, a working toilet (which is completely custom and water-less, though not quite perfected yet), a working dishwasher, kitchen cabinets for pantry storage, a powerful whole-house vacuum (a must-have with dogs), a dining table with seating, television with game console (N64!), propane heat, air conditioner, a Fantastic Van, and comfy beds.  The only major thing that’s missing is a water heater (and eventually the radiant heat system), but we didn’t really miss it on this trip, even though there were times when outside temps were below freezing (in a pinch, if you really need warm water to wash up with, you can always heat up a pot on the stove).

I still need a more permanent window covering solution (we’re currently using panels that fit inside each window cavity), but I’m getting close on that.

The Fewer Things You Have to Move for Access the Better

I made the dinette seating so you can keep bins below for “utility stuff” and other sundries (extension cords, bungees, lantern, tape, velcro, etc.), as well as access to the 12v system (batteries, converter/conditioner, and 12v fuse panel).  While it’s really nice having all that storage space, it really is a pain to have to move people, cushions, and anything else sitting on the bench before lifting the bench panels to get at the things you need.  And I found out quickly that I need to get at those things a LOT more often than I anticipated (don’t even think about keeping dog food under your seating!).

Future builds will definitely include a larger exterior-access utility bay for tools and other “heavy utility” things, and I am still working on ways to make the under-seating storage better without resorting to front-access panels/doors/drawers (I don’t like the look or the function of front access storage at feet level).

You Can Use a Lot Less Water Than You Might Think

Because I’m still dealing with freezing temperatures (March in the mountains), I have been testing out an auxiliary interior water tank system.  I found a nice looking 10 gallon, silver colored Thermos drink cooler (like you’d use at a Soccer or Football game).  I removed the bung/spout where you’d get your drink from, and replaced it with a valve that hooks directly to the water pump.  This trip was 11 days long (including two days in the driveway), and I only filled the tank once.  To be fair, we never ran the dishwasher, but I tested that before we left, and a full load of dishes only uses three gallons of water.  So teeth brushing, washing up (there was a lot of that with all the work on the Tow Vehicle), cleaning dishes, etc. didn’t use more than around 15 gallons for the two of us for 11 days in the desert (CO, NM, AZ, NV).  I’m sure we’ll use more in the summer, but that’s kind of the beauty of the auxiliary tank for winter use when temps are below freezing outside the Airstream.

Put a Conveniently Located Switch on Your Water Pump

After several stops where water was evident in the sink, on the countertop, and in various other places, it became apparent that it would be a good idea to shut off the water pump while driving.  At first I was just removing the fuse, but it’s a pain to access on a regular basis, so I decided to mount an on/off switch next to the kitchen sink to control the water pump.

Dogs Make a Huge Mess

There doesn’t seem to be any way around this. Towels and carpet are the only apparent “solution,” but they can only do so much (catch dirt and water to make it a bit easier to clean up).  A “buffer area” outside the door (under an awning with a rug) would be a good step, but we aren’t quite there yet.  Luckily I’ve got the whole house vacuum installed, so we could perform a “meaningful” clean up whenever we had an electrical hookup.  And the dogs had to learn to sleep on the floor on this trip.  There’s just no way 11 days on the road can be comfortable with two 80 pound, adventurous (meaning: covered in nature’s filth) beasts in your bed.

Your Refrigerator Might Not Be Closing All the Way

I couldn’t figure out why our fridge wasn’t getting cold enough.  I switched between propane, 120v, and 12v, but it just wasn’t getting much below 50 degrees F.  I tried cleaning the exhaust flue and making sure the exhaust fans were working.  I adjusted the propane flame.  I messed with the thermostat and the thermistor (the wire attached to the fins inside the fridge).  Nothing was changing the situation.  Finally I realized there was a small gap around the door and the door wasn’t sealing completely.  It turns out a plastic washer on the door hinge had worn away and the door was sitting slightly lower than it should have, thus it was rubbing against the bottom of the fridge and not closing completely.  This has also happened when items inside the fridge aren’t Tetris-ed perfectly.  Once I realized the door wasn’t actually closed (!!!) and fixed the problem with the washer hinge, our 50-year-old Dometic was back to keeping perfectly cool.

The Hensley Hitch is Massive Overkill for my Setup

With the ongoing issues I’ve had with the Hensley hitch (see other posts), I decided to use only the “back up hitch” on this trip (the kind with chain leveling bars and a small, friction-based sway bar).  It worked fine, and that included facing the huge trucks on Interstate 40 as well as crazy Arizona cross-winds.  The Hensley Hitch is still more of the “dream” while driving, but factoring in all the issues I’ve had with its inadequate design, plus the  added size and weight, I have decided that the standard WD Hitch works plenty fine for a 25ft. Airstream built to be a little lighter than factory issue… even when being pulled by my tiny Jeep Liberty CRD.  And the non-Hensley Hitch is certainly more dependable.

Exhaust Will Find a Way into an Unsealed Airstream

Things are still getting covered by a fine, black film/powder (particulate matter).  Obviously, diesel exhaust is easier to *see* than gasoline exhaust, thus, I am privy to just how much tow vehicle exhaust is still entering the Airstream.  This thing is sealed up like a drum… except where it’s not.  I currently have a drain running “open” (not to a tank), and I also haven’t sealed up the front panel where the tow vehicle electrical harness enters the Airstream.  I can see lots of diesel dust at those points of ingress.  It’s amazing how badly vehicle exhaust wants to be inside our trailer!  I am certainly looking forward to finally having things all sealed up and not having to deal with black dust anymore.

Dinette Kick

Just some updates for the current build…

Working on the dinette kick plate.  This is the bracing that goes behind the finished layer of aluminum to match the skins on the walls. The minor cracks in the radius of the curve won’t matter, because they will be behind a sheet of aluminum.

I’ve also included a couple pics of laying in the LVP (“luxury vinyl plank) flooring.