Choosing a skoolie water heater is a bigger, more complex decision that is often looked over during a skoolie build due to everything else going on that calls for attention. Many issues can come up if you buy a water heater that doesn’t fit your needs or you don’t fully understand the potential trade-off decisions that need to be made.
Our goal with this guide is to walk you through all the decision criteria to choosing the best skoolie water heater for your desired skoolie lifestyle and current budget.
Best Skoolie Water Heater Fuel Source
The best skoolie water heaters use either electric or liquid propane (LP) gas. Most skoolie owners go with electric water heaters if they plan to be plugged into the grid or have a large solar power setup. Liquid propane is the next best option for an off-grid skoolie with a smaller electric system. Diesel is another less common option as the units are more expensive.
I will go through each of these types of water heaters a bit for you to fully understand the tradeoff decisions a little bit more and the scenarios where each of the types might be a better option.
Electric Skoolie Water Heater
Electric skoolie water heaters are a great option for several reasons. Overall, electric water heaters in skoolies present less risk than propane hot water heaters can introduce.
Pros of an Electric Water Heater in a Skoolie
There are a few specific benefits to electric water heaters I’d like to highlight:
- Reduction of fuel types
- Reduction in cost over-time on solar
- No potential gas leaks
- No carbon monoxide produced
- Simple plug-in and hook up water lines
Cons of Electric Water Heater in a Skoolie
The potential downside is the amount of power electric water heaters consume. You will need to be producing enough power each day from solar, a DC-to-DC charger, or be plugged into shore power to support the required amps the electric water heater will consume.
Powering an Electric Water Heater in a Skoolie
To power a skoolie electric water heater off-grid, I would recommend having a large solar power bank were adding an electric hot water heater is negligible or having a smaller solar power bank to have power replenishing when parked with a DC-to-DC charger.
I also do believe electric hot water heaters are the best type of hot water heaters when shore power will be readily available most of the time, such as those looking to mostly live in their skoolie when parked in one place or at camp ground.
Liquid Propane Skoolie Water Heater
Skoolie liquid propane hot water heaters can come with tank or tankless options. Both options can provide near-on-demand hot water due to their efficiency of heating water compared to an electric hot water heater. With a larger off-grid solar system being a larger expense, it may be beneficial to select a liquid propane hot water heater for a skoolie planning to be on the road or off-grid for a good amount of time.
There are a few different options for liquid propane hot water heaters that can be used in skoolies, so I will go through each option.
Ventless Propane Hot Water Heaters (Be Careful!)
There are no true “ventless” propane hot water heaters. The liquid propane hot water heaters that market as “ventless” operate the same as vented options. The only difference is the enclosure and whether it comes ready to be vented to the outdoors with pipe or is “ventless” with an open design letting all of the combusted fumes and gas flow right into the room it is mounted in.
Essentially, the word “ventless” pretty much means the unit does not come ready to be vented to the outdoors. This means that the combustion exhaust from the propane flame heating the hot water inside the water heater will flow out of the top of the hot water heater and into the air where it is mounted. This includes any potentially harmful compounds created by an inefficiently burning unit, such as carbon monoxide.
A ventless hot water heater in a skoolie can be harmful to your health. However, it depends on where it is mounted and how the area is ventilated.
I would be VERY careful mounting a ventless propane hot water heater inside of a skoolie. The only way I would really even go with a “ventless” liquid propane hot water heater in a skoolie is by mounting it in a “garage” area that has some form of natural fresh air ventilation to clear out the fumes and the area is completely separated from the interior through a wall.
We learned this from experience…
Vented Propane Hot Water Heaters (Safer Propane Option)
Vented propane hot water heaters are much safer for skoolies than the ventless options as they exhaust the fumes back out to the outside. Some models of RV vented propane hot water heaters are even better as they bring in fresh and expel the exhaust completely to and from the outside.
Exhaust Only Vented Propane Hot Water Heater
The first option is a vented propane hot water heater that only has an exhaust vent to be run through the wall of the bus to the outside. They pull air within the bus and vent to the outside. This can result in a potentially more efficient burn, especially when it is much colder outside than it is inside the bus.
There are some situations to consider though that one should be aware of when buying an exhaust-only vented propane hot water heater. Having only the exhaust vented and not a fresh air supply from outside the bus will create a negative pressure inside of the bus to the outside. This will result in fresh air being pulled in from areas not fully sealed in the skoolie such as windows or holes in the engine firewall area.
Having only the exhaust vented will probably not be a big deal by itself when it comes to pulling in the fresh air. My bigger concern would be when opening the sealed entrance door while the hot water heater is running.
If you have ever opened a sealed entrance door of a well-insulated skoolie, you know that a larger pull of negative pressure is created by the door opening. This negative pressure of a sealed door opening could potentially cause exhaust flow to reverse and briefly be pulled into the bus. This will not be nearly as bad as a “ventless” liquid propane hot water heater just exhausting all the fumes into the skoolie, but it could result in some fumes and smell coming back into the bus.
Fully Vented RV Propane Hot Water Heater
Fully vented RV propane hot water heaters are the safest propane hot water heater option for skoolies. RV propane hot water heaters are designed to be completely vented with the intake and exhaust vents to be direct to the outdoors. They typically come in either tankless or with 6 to 10-gallon reserve tanks.
RV propane water heaters do require cutting a hole into the side of the bus to install them. However, doing this will result in the intake and exhaust is completely sealed off to pull in fresh air from and exhaust the fumes to the outside.
As previously mentioned, they typically come with hot water reserve tanks of 6 – 10 gallons, which is usually way more than enough to take a hot shower. They also have tankless versions, virtually unlimited hot water as long as you have a hookup to a water source, and enough propane.
Diesel Skoolie Water Heater
Diesel hot water heaters in a skoolie can seem like a good idea, especially for a skoolie already using diesel for the engine and potentially a diesel heater. However, the cost of diesel hot water heaters for skoolies makes them not a good choice.
I am not going to go into too much detail on diesel hot water heaters for skoolies simply because they can cost $5,000+ for the unit. This is almost ten times the cost of the most expensive propane RV hot water heater and over twenty times as expensive as electric hot water heaters.
I simply wanted to mention that they do exist and can be an option for those few building a skoolie with a limitless budget. I put a few of the popular models in the best skoolie water heater list below in case you want to look more into them.