Agua Fresca
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Plumbing System according to Meghan with technical interjections by Stephen.

We realize this might not be the most helpful build post, but if you’re new to the world of plumbing a van and have a sense of humor, you might discover some golden nuggets that will spare you grief and save some cash.

 

We likes water, we does. We drinks it. We washes our dishes, and we washes our toesies. And we wants to be able to do all these things knowing it’s clean. We researched long and hard about pipes, storage tanks, and fittings to ensure the safest water possible within the confines of a tiny, tight, twisty space. We did our best. We might do some things differently if we had to do it over, and we may make changes someday, but this is our system for now and we are confident in it.

We’ll start at the back end of the system and work our way to the front

Filtration

All the water that comes into our van is filtered through a dual canister system; a 1 micron sediment filter, followed by a .5 micron carbon block filter. We are very grateful to Dave from the RV Water Filter Store for educating us and recommending a solid whole van filtration system that we love (no strings attached, just a pure-hearted review of gratitude). The system cost about $120 (including filters). We have found that after a year on the road, we change the sediment filter every 3-4 months depending on how dirty it is; the filters are quite cheap. We have changed the carbon filter twice; these filters are more expensive at roughly $20 a pop. We are learning that we may be overestimating how often our filters need changing but that is a work in progress…

Size matters

We have a 25-gallon water tank (thank you FaroutRide! once again) seated on our passenger side rear wheel well. We can comfortably go 8 days using the water for drinking, cleaning, and everything else you’d need it for. If we’re super psycho about conserving, we can make it last 10 days. That said, life is a lot more enjoyable in the 8-day window.

The water tank is held in place by 2 U-shaped aluminum brackets we had made at a metal shop. They’re ⅛-inch thick and held down by 4 #12 ¾-inch wood screws at each end. The brackets are attached to our ½-inch plywood wall. We lined the brackets with minicell to help them fit more securely and not dig into the plastic. This design has worked incredibly well; the brackets have just enough play to allow for expansion and contraction of the tank as it’s filled and emptied, all while securely holding it down.

  • Water enters the tank through the top left hole after being filtered by the dual canisters mentioned above.
  • The other top hole serves as a gravity fill, but is usually plugged (because we get water via pressurized sources). (Stephen is cracking up about my use of the word holes everywhere.)
  • The bottom hole serves as a drain should we ever need it. You know, like, when one discovers a leaky connection and has to drain the tank. Not that we’d know.
  • There is also a hole on the very top of the tank that serves as a vent. If you don’t have this, the air will not be displaced by the water coming in. This will lead to pressure buildup and eventually you won’t be able to fill the tank anymore. Simply put  — water comes in, air needs to be displaced. This works in reverse as well — water is pumped out and creates a vacuum, the vent needs to be able to take air in as the water is displaced.

Pro Tip:

  • It is hard to find a tank that has ALL THE HOLES you need. We took ours to an RV dealer and they were able to spin weld a fitting onto the top for our vent. Now we have all the holes.
  • We opted for a 50-foot hose to use when getting water. There have been many times when we quietly thanked FarOutRide for their recommendation. Trust me, a 25-foot hose will not be long enough. Remember to get one that is lead free and rated to use for potable water.

Under Pressure

The water is pumped from the freshwater tank via our Shurflo 4008 pump and to our sink faucet in the front of the van.
Pro Tip:
  • Make sure you have a switch installed for the pump. It will save you grief if you ever need to depressurize the system in a hurry. We have ours on all the time because it doesn’t use any electricity when it’s not pumping, and it’s nice to know that we can easily switch it off if we need to.
  • With the addition of the accumulator tank, it helps the pump turn itself on and off less frequently. This is good because that sucker is loud.
We used reinforced food-grade nylon tubing and pex-style Oetiker clamps. Sadly, even with the right crimping tool, we found it hard to get a good seal. We ended up using a combination of these clamps as well as worm gear hose clamps. (Incidentally, when we had the leak seven months into our travels, it was an Oetiker clamp that failed. We replaced it with the latter and it’s been fine ever since.)
Pro Tip:
  • Don’t waste your time with the Oetiker clamps. Worm gear clamps are far superior and more flexible.
  • The reinforced vinyl tubing we used was incredibly easy to work with. Huge plus there. But, at the same time, I wish we would have taken the time to use PEX instead. It’s an industry standard. That’s all I have to say about that.

Sink and Faucet

We wanted a beefy faucet, so we splurged and bought this one we’d seen in another build. It is pretty and we love it, but wouldn’t use it again. Here’s why: see that lever?

  • It’s too easy to accidentally open it and waste water. We do it about a thousand times a week. And when I say “we,” I mean me (Meghan).
  • Also — and the Amazon reviews mentioned this, the neck is fairly loose. No problem if you’re level. Sorta annoying if you’re not.

One of my requests for the van was a sink that was larger than a thimble. To this end we went with one of Ikea’s Norrsjon beauties that is about 14” x 15¾“.

Honestly, sometimes, I wish it was even bigger, but then we would have a large sink with a little van on the side and that just wouldn’t do. As it stands we can fit almost any dirty dish in there, and lots of them if we stack them right 👍 We also wash our hair in it and it’s big enough that there’s not too much sloshing of wet hair all over the van.

Pro Tip:

  • A plumber who, you know, does this for a living, told me the best stuff to seal your sink with is GE 100% Silicone All Purpose Caulk. So that’s what we used. Because, Plumber knows best.
  • Spend more time than we did deciding where you want your faucet. Once those countertops have holes in them you’re stuck with the location forever. If we did it again, we’d move both faucets to the left corner so they would be more out of the way.  

top view

Gray Water

We use a very simple solution for our gray tank. A 5-gallon jerry can serves to collect our gray water — soap suds from dishes, washing our hands, brushing our teeth, etc. The sink attaches to a Camco Flexible Drain Tap that goes to a two way valve. From the two way valve we have the choice to run our gray water to ground* or into our 5-gallon jerry can.

Pro Thoughts:

*11 months into our travels we decided to pull the trigger and drill a hole into the floor for an alternate gray water drain. This was THE BEST decision. Even though it sounds terribly negligent to be running gray water to ground, it’s not as bad as it seems. We only use biodegradable soaps, and never dump any chemicals or anything else harmful or nasty onto the ground. We only use it when we’re in a place the water will be easily absorbed, or if we’re parked over a storm drain or something to that effect. We love nature and would never do anything to harm it. The gray water outlet alleviates the need to find nasty black water RV dump stations to rid ourselves of our tiny bit of gray water.  

Hot Water

This is our single greatest regret. We chose the IsoTherm Slim Square Electric Water Heater with a 4.2-gallon capacity. Here’s the rub — it works perfectly — beautiful HOT water and 4.2 gallons of it. The catch though (or 3 catches):

  1. It takes massive amounts of energy to heat the 4.2 gallons of water. How much you ask? Well, around 700W for approximately 1¼ hours. This translates to about 60A-70A for the duration; just over of 20% of our battery’s capacity.*
  2. The other zinger is that once you pull the smallest amount of water from the tank, it lets cold water back in, requiring water to be reheated.**
  3. Water is our premium resource and the first thing we usually run out of. When we’re in an urban area where water is plentiful, it’s not practical to take showers out the back of our van and/or it’s prohibited to dump water on the ground. Inversely, when we’re in the woods or a remote BLM camping spot, we don’t want to waste water by taking hot showers.

Showering in our van is a luxury usually reserved for times we absolutely need it.

*To accommodate for the crazy energy draw we have a second high amp alternator that feeds directly to our battery bank. Our thinking was that we would simply turn on our alternator and heat water when we were an hour out from our next destination. To our credit this works seamlessly — if we’re driving all the time. But that is seldom the case. So, in the summer when we have plenty of sunlight, making hot water isn’t really a problem since we have solar panels for days. But, if we’re parked for an extended amount of time in the winter, the hot water heater is not a viable option for us.

**The IsoTherm has an option to route your engine coolant through it. This will, of course, mean that we could have blazing hot water whenever the engine runs for even a short amount of time. We’ve also found that the water stays hot up to 6 hours. These two features combined keeps us considering a nice bonus install sometime in the future. All said, considering this is our greatest mistake/regret, we did pretty okay. If I had to do it over I think I’d opt for what these folks have. Holy cow batman.

Dry Run

With all of our plumbing components in hand we laid out our plumbing in the van, everything in its approximate place with approximate lengths of pipe. Then, we took everything outside, made all the connections, and actually tested the set up, because we had no idea what we were doing and expected to see Old Faithful erupt.  

Fingers crossed….

Well SHOOT! Two baby leaks. But hey, we’re novices here…

This is why you test your plumbing OUTSIDE your newly cabineted van. A few adjustments, and the waters flowed like wine. Too bad we don’t have a wine tank.

Drinking Water

We are really picky about our water. Enter the Alkaway Ultrastream. It is one of our other favorite things inside Ubu (we love it so much that we dedicated an entire post to it.) Best of all, it’s an easy install — if we can do it anyone can — and, bonus, the manufacturer’s directions are clear and straightforward. The Alkaway basically taps into the cold water line, goes through another canister style filter, then a pressure regulator, then the main filter, and comes out the separate faucet situated above the sink.

There is a lot to love about the Alkaway. Our biggest reason for going this route was that the water quality is comparable to RO (if not better), but it doesn’t create any waste water. It also doesn’t need constant pressure or an accumulator tank, yet still filters water on demand. What more can you ask for? Oh, and it gets rid of lead, arsenic and pretty much any nasty thing you can imagine.

The only negative is it’s spendy and will set you back around $900. For us, this was an easy decision because we knew we’d be moving around all the time and would never really know the quality of the water we’d use. No fuss, no mess, and piece of mind — clean water that you know isn’t killing you.

Once all the plumbing is in place, celebrate! First coffee made in our van with our own plumbing system 👏

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