Off-Grid On-Demand Hot Water

When we picked up our 1973 Holiday Vacationer, it was in a barn, and the seller told us “everything works”. Since I knew I was taking it no matter what, I just shook his hand and drive away, knowing full well that wasn’t true. (If you’re buying an old camper, be pragmatic… chances are, nothing works.)

As I expected, the original water header was rusted up, and the gas lines were rusted shut, so to the landfill it went. I started researching the best way for us to have hot water on a budget, and the cheapest available option being more than $350 does not qualify as “budget”.

Enter Vent-Free Tankless Propane Water Heaters. These nifty little on-demand heaters are affordable and efficient, leaving me with one final problem - how to install it?

Installing a propane heater inside would require me to vent it, and The Nonsuch is small, so there was no real space I could lose in order to install it. Furthermore, I didn’t want to introduce a new, large vent hole in the roof.

Solution? I changed the original water heater externior door into a hatch, and hang the new water heater on the outside of the camper, right above the hatch. Since the heater fits through the hatch, setup is a breeze. It’s permanently attached with some sink lines and a propane hose, and I installed a gas cutoff inside the hatch.

Setup is a breeze. Since my reconfiguration of the water tank required me to move the water inlet, everything water releated is in this hatch under the bed. I just pop the hatch off, pull out the heater and hang it on it’s hook, and turn on the gas valve. Literally just a few seconds.

We chose the EccoTemp L5 because it’s popular, well rated, and would fit through the 13” hatch. Here are the important components:

Since I was connecting the unit directly to my freshly replumbed camper, I don’t have exact links to the connecting hoses and fittings I used. Here are representative links of what I chose that could handle the repetitive stress of being put in and out over and over.

The propane hose is the same length as the supply lines, so everything is uniform.

As you will see in the reviews for the Eccotemp L5, the only issue we have is maintaining a flame on a windy day. Since over many trips I’ve learned that it doesn’t put out a ton of heat, I feel comfortable fabricating a wind screen out of HVAC ductwork and painting it enamel white to match the unit. Something like this:

After ten trips, the system is working fine. While the more expensive direct replacement water heater would be “no fuss”, this allowed me to reconfigure the inside of the camper and still meets our needs.

Total cost for my on-demand hot water system - $109 (Eccotemp L5 on sale) + $13 (water supply lines) + $12 (gas line) + appx $20 (various fittings and supplies = $154.00

It looks perfectly acceptable, even on an otherwise vintage camper:

Plumbing connections were easy:

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