The 4 skoolie heat options are electric, wood, diesel, and liquid propane (LP) gas heaters.
In this guide, I go through each option to detail out:
- Benefits of each option
- Downsides to each option
- Best scenarios/situations for each option
- Cost upfront for each option
- Estimated monthly cost to heat a skoolie for each option
You will be able to understand which of these are basic heat options for a skoolie that would be better as a backup option, which are great primary skoolie heat options, and which options are doable with some heavy investment.
This guide will definitely get you thinking about how to heat a skoolie for your specific application.
Complete Guide to the Best Skoolie Heat
Heat in a skoolie was an important topic for us to study (and we tried several options) as we live in Wisconsin. Winters in Wisconsin are cold and there are times of long-duration, sub-zero temperatures… so having good skoolie heating options for us was a must!
I (Chris) have worked in heating and cooling for my stepfather’s heating and cooling business off-and-on as needed since I was 16. The family business has does apartment complex (mini splits), regular home furnace, radiant floor heating (even in driveways as many people hate shoveling every day in winter here in Wisconsin), wood stove venting, and large commercial heating contracts with units as big as a bus.
With that base knowledge from working in the family business, I went through each of the different options that theoretically could be used for heating a school bus conversion. We’ve personally tried many of these over the first 2 winters in our skoolie and landed on 4 options that allow us to be barefoot in shorts in our skoolie on even the most extreme cold days.
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General Skoolie Heating Basics
After living in our skoolie for a full Wisconsin winter, we have learned many things about living in a skoolie during winter. Here are some basic things to consider when making your decisions on the type of heat in a school bus conversion build.
Window Condensation & Insulation
School bus window condensation in a skoolie is common and hard to prevent, no matter what heat source you pick.
School bus windows have window condensation due to the windows being made with only a single pane of glass. There are extreme temperature differences on each side of this single pane of glass in the winter months which cause this to happen in skoolies.
If you are not planning on removing the school bus windows in your skoolie, then there will be condensation on your windows. We have tested insulated skoolie curtains, reflectix on skoolie windows, and the standard home window winterizing kit commonly used in old homes with drafty windows. All of them still have some window condensation. We have a few ideas to test this coming winter that are a bit more involved, but more on this in another article.
Myth: RV Propane Furnaces Cause Moisture in a School Bus Conversion
Propane RV furnaces DO NOT create really moist heat. RV furnaces are 100% vented and only circulate internal air over a hot heat exchanger. All intake and exhaust air for the actual combustion of the propane to create heat is vented directly out of the skoolie, if installed correctly.
The air from inside your skoolie is blown over a heat exchanger to heat it, so it is actually fairly dry heat unless you already have a lot of moisture in your skoolie – at which point you should look for other issues like window condensation due to having single-pane windows, a leaky roof, leaky pipes, cooking without a vent fan, or sitting water.
Installing Heat Options Later “Down the Road“
Each option will have varying degrees of difficulty to add to your skoolie down the road, depending on your skoolie floor plan and layout. This is important as we are currently experimenting with adding and changing items on our skoolie to further optimize our living. We know first hand right now that adding heat options is difficult.
We have discussed adding a mini split mostly for air conditioning our skoolie a bit more in the summer months. However, options of where to put the interior piece of a mini split are limited now.
We have also discussed adding in two diesel heaters. We want to add diesel heaters for better heat when driving in winter and for heat security measures in-case we run out of propane and are not at our bus. More on this later, but you get the point.
If you do not want to buy all the heating options you think you should have or might want to have if things do not work out, then I would suggest making sure you plan room for them of where they would go. You could go as far as building out a spot for them in-case you want to add them later.
All options will have some difficulty with adding them after your build is “complete,” but at least trying to plan ahead can really eliminate some headaches down the road.
Skoolie Heat Costs Upfront vs Overtime
In the next section, we will look at the 4 heating options for school bus conversions. There will be an obvious trade-off of up-front cost vs monthly cost.
I would highly recommend reading through the comparisons and applying them to your situation.
Plan on going to RV parks all the time or parking your skoolie long-term? Electric heat would make perfect sense.
Plan to drive a lot and be off-grid a good amount of time? Desiel heaters with a wood stove might be the way to go.
Want ultimate convenience and control over your comfort? An RV propane furnace would be your best bet coupled with a diesel heater. Maybe add a tiny wood stove in there for ambiance?!
There are many different scenarios and ways to combine all the options we will go through, so keep that in mind when figuring out your specific skoolie heating system.
Have Multiple Heat Options for a Skoolie
One of the best tips we can provide is having multiple heat options for a school bus conversion, especially if you are traveling during winter.
The last thing you want to do is be out of LP gas for your skoolie RV furnace, low on wood for your tiny wood stove, use up diesel fuel when the next gas station isn’t close by, or panic because the sun hasn’t come out and your house batteries are low.
Having multiple heat options can help turn any of these individual situations from being a major issue causing you to bundle up in winter jackets and layers of sweat pants to be a simple problem solved by switching to another source.
We personally have 4 different heat sources and are considering adding one more. We’ll get into our setup later in this article.
Four Ways to Heat a School Bus Conversion
The four different ways of powering heat in a school bus conversion:
- Liquid Propane (LP)
All of them have their differences as to what makes the best option. Below is an infographic explaining the side-by-side comparison of each in a clean table format.
Electric Skoolie Heat
Electric heat can be a very eco-friendly option if you plan to have a large solar set-up on your skoolie. However, if you are not planning to invest in a large array of solar panels and equipment for other reasons, doing it just for heat can increase the total cost of the initial investment and your overall build significantly.
A monthly cost can range from $0 on solar to $40 per month if you are hooked up to shore power, or more depending on the electric rates where you live/will be located.
Your electric skoolie heat options include:
- Mini Split – Our Primary Heat Reccomedation for Electric Heat
- Space Heaters – Good Emergency Backup Heat Option
- Electric Radiant Floor Heat – Electric Radiant Heat is Not Recommended is Safest in Tile Flooring
You can use electric heat when driving, but it will use alot of power so you will have to drive when the sun is out during the day to replenish it or have a DC-to-DC charger to charge your batteries while it runs.
We would not recommend using space heaters when driving unless they are very securely mounted and nothing can come flying to hit it.
Diesel Skoolie Heat
First, diesel heaters can be used when you are driving. When you buy a school bus they do come with 1-2 heaters in them that provide heat by running the hot coolant from the engine through the heat exchangers in the units inside your bus. We had two, but only kept the front driver one due to the back heater not working with our design.
When you are driving in winter, you will want heat throughout your bus. Diesel heaters are very efficient and can be hooked up right into your bus’s diesel fuel tank. Your MPG while driving will go down when running diesel heaters in winter, but this is really the only option that makes more sense to use compared to electric heat when driving.
There is a small draw of 12v power required to run the blower motor and fuel pump for diesel heaters. The power draw is nowhere near the power draw of a normal electric heat pump like a mini-split or even space heaters.
Liquid Propane Skoolie Furnace
One of the most common heating options is using an RV furnace that runs off liquid propane (LP) gas. The Suburban RV furnace is a popular brand in school bus conversions.
An RV propane furnace is by far the most convenient and powerful heat source of a school bus conversion. They can heat a skoolie up from 40° F to 70° F in less than 15-30 minutes depending on the size of your bus conversion, but you will feel the heat immediately no matter the size!
The nice part about these is any regular house thermostat can be hooked up to these, including wifi thermostats like a Google Nest or Ecobee to control your skoolie’s temperature from anywhere in the world as long as it is connected to the internet or a mobile data plan.
The blower motor does require 12v, but again the power draw is much less than the electric heating options.
Tiny Wood Stove
A tiny wood stove is a good choice for anyone looking to have another heat source, lessen the cost of other primary heat options in their school bus conversion, and add a little ambiance.
The fires in a tiny wood stove only last about 2-3 hours, which is not ideal for getting a good cozy night of sleep, but they can really put off some heat and reduce the cost of other heat sources in your skoolie. It also can be used as a primary heat source if all else fails!
Some people worry about soot, but these tiny wood stoves are very clean (and actually self-clean) as long as you use the correct types of wood.
Finally, the ambiance is something that makes these little things worth it in a school bus conversion. Having all the lights off with the natural light from the fire fluttering through the skoolie on a snowy winter night out in nature is a very cozy, peaceful experience.
Best Skoolie Heat Pump, Diesel Heater, RV Furnace, & Wood Stove
Our Skoolie Heating System
This section goes through our initial heating setup and the improvements we made over time, just you have an understanding of what we have tried and what our experience has been.
We started the winter of 2019 with just our Cubic Mini Grizzly. This worked ok, but we could not get the front of the bus warmer than 50° F when the bedroom was all the way up to 85° F+…
We then installed an Atwood RV blower in-duct fans with 3″ vent pipe that sucks hot air from the back bedroom area right by the fireplace and blows it out of a vent right in the front of the couch.
We also knew this would help move are around inside the bus and help move our cold air from the AC unit in the back of the bus up to the front area in the summer months, too.
Our version of a “skoolie central heating and air conditioning system” in our school bus conversion.
This worked pretty good with keeping the front of the bus at 65° F while the Cubic Mini was roaring in the back and the bedroom was around 82° F on an average 30° F day.
But, we still had a problem…
We wanted to sleep longer than 3-4 hours at a time, but waking up to a dead fire, 50° F-ish temperatures in the bedroom and low 40° F-ish temperatures toward the front of the bus was not going to cut it for us with 6 weeks into a 4-6 month long Wisconsin winter.
We decided to install the Suburban RV propane furnace into our bus conversion connected to an ecobee3 lite smart thermostat. We actually did this right before we took a trip with my parents for Thanksgiving back in 2018. The entire week while we were out there we were able to monitor the temperature in our bus. When we landed and we were 20 minutes out from the bus, we logged into our app and turned the temperature from 54° F to 73° F, so it was nice and warm when we walked in.
Between the two heat sources, we have not had any issues! However, propane can be expensive in winter. We spend about $150 per month on propane (about 10 propane tank refills using one tank every 3 days) in winter months between cooking, hot water, and keeping it 73° F in our skoolie.
This $150 per month is about the same we paid in winter months for our utilities in the last apartment we had. We could probably lower it down several degrees to save a good chunk of money, but we like being really comfortable.
For reference to the consumption, we just went from May through mid-September with two 20lb propane tanks ($30 in propane), even with the furnace kicking on a few times in the last two weeks.
We do have two electric space heaters that we keep in the bus for backups, but we have not really had to use them yet.
We are currently planning for our Wisconsin “winterization” of the skoolie with some improvements from last winter.
Here are a few things we are going to attempt this winter to improve our heating and lower the cost:
1) Plexiglass: We are currently figuring out installing window framing that will have the capability to place in removable plexiglass panels over each window. This would help with creating a “double-pane” style window using the current bus windows to eliminate the draftiness of the cold winds, the cold from radiating off the glass, and potentially eliminate the condensation! (fingers crossed)
2) Diesel Heaters: We are going to install 2 of these diesel heaters as long as we can figure out how to tap into our skoolie’s diesel fuel tank without drilling a hole. We would install one for the back bedroom and one near the mid-front of the bus near the couch/desk.
These diesel heaters would mostly be used as a fail-safe heating option that we could set at 54° F. If we ran out of propane and for some reason were not by our bus, the diesel heater would kick on to maintain heat for a longer duration of time.
We calculated that a diesel heater set at 54° F with a full fuel tank could last about 2-3 months, which is an awesome safety net to have! We would probably also use it on very cold days instead of the RV furnace as it is a bit more cost-effective to run in extreme temperatures.
Please write a comment below with what you have going on and your question so we can help you out!
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