Picking the right source of heat for your bus conversion.

-Written By: Brock Butterfield -

For those of you looking to live full time in your converted school bus and need a plan for colder climates there are a couple different options out there. I've put together some of the most common ones I've seen in bus conversions so far. Each with their pros and cons.

The four main types of heat sources for bus conversion are:

  • Propane
  • Wood
  • Electric
  • Diesel

Determining what heat source is best for you will depend on your budget, space and desired comfort level. So let's start with the most common for it's simplicity and cost of fuel to burn.

Propane

The other white gas. I'll let you make an educated redneck guess to what the first is... Propane is fairly cheap and easy to find in most towns. There's a good chance you're already using propane for cooking so being able to tap into your existing line can be easy with a few parts.

You have two types of propane heaters to consider. Standalone portable propane heaters such as Mr. Heater products or vented permanent propane heaters for bus conversions.

I've used and tested both the Buddy and Big Buddy propane heaters from Mr. Heater in my bus conversion as they are indoor safe and easy to operate. For my 76 square feet living space I've found the Buddy heater will raise the temperature in my bus in the winter by 35-40 degrees in roughly 45 minutes. I use it the most when my wood stove has burned out during the night and I need a little heat to talk myself into getting out of my zero degree sleeping bag. They have an O2 sensor that when it detects the oxygen level is getting low it shuts off automatically. I always crack a couple windows to allow fresh air to flow in as a precaution and to help with condensation. 

Mr. Heater Buddy also serves as my boot warmer in the mornings before heading out into the cold.

The other option for propane are the vented systems such as the ones made by the company Suburban. They can be accompanied by a thermostat to get the most out of your fuel by letting it turn on and off throughout the night. With only a 4.5 amp draw it wouldn't put much strain on your battery bank either. With venting to the outside of the vehicle you don't have to worry about cracking a window for ventilation.

Suburban's 30,000 BTU vented propane heater.

 Ok, so now let's talk about the cons of propane heaters from my point of view which is also known as an opinion and we all know what opinions are like... Propane is a "wet" fuel/gas so you'll notice that you get a fair amount of condensation on your ceiling if you left it metal as well as your windows and windshield. My only complaint about this is I typically move everyday so if I've been running the propane heater then I either have to wait a pretty long time for the defrost to burn off the moisture on the windshield or use a towel if in a hurry. The towel method usually comes back to haunt me when driving at dusk into the sun and you see all the towel smudges.

With that said let's talk about a dry heat.

 

Wood

There's nothing quite like the feeling, smell and novelty of a wood burning stove. It's also currently the hipster thing to do for a bus conversion right now as I'm seeing people who don't plan to live in the bus full time or in cold climates for extended periods of time. But dammit to be able to claim you've got a wood burning stove in your bus conversion is something to brag about as you sip from the newest IPA at the brewery while wearing your lumber sexual attire!

For my bus conversion I chose a wood stove because I wanted dry heat for staying warm and wet snowboard gear drys out much quicker when your heat source is literally sucking the moisture out of the air. Wood stoves can heat a small space very efficiently which means they don't have to be the giant wood stoves that you've seen in your grandfather's cabin. My little Kni-Co Packer wood stove is only 16" tall, 10" wide and 23" deep and is MORE than enough for my 76 sq ft. I actually have to crack windows and the top vent because even in a t-shirt it's toasty. 

Kni-Co Packer wood stove with a heat powered stove fan.

 

 Another popular and highly efficient wood or solid fuel burning stove for bus conversions is the Dickinson stove such as the one used in Will Sutherland's 95 Chevy Bus Conversion. It's also a very popular stove for boats.

The small yet efficient Dickinson solid fuel stove.

The only con and non-hipster thing about this type of heat source is that fact that you'll actually have to cut down a tree and chop wood. While this can seem like an inconvenience to some people it's also kinda therapeutic for me. It's also nice that I don't have to worry about making a trip to town when I run out of propane as I can usually step out into the woods, find a dead tree, use my chainsaw to bring it down and then haul it back to the bus for chopping. A drawback is the amount of space it takes to store wood as opposed to a tank full of propane.

If you go the wood burning stove route here's a few extras you'll want to look into that I've found to be a must.

  • Windbeater Stainless Steel Chimney Cap - I had issues prior to getting this cap with wind back blowing into my chimney and filling my bus with smoke. This has withstood 65mph gusts during winter storms without blowing smoke back in due to it's design. It also won't blow ash around while you're driving.
  • Metal Roof Pipe Flashing - Initially tried automotive high heat silicone to create a seal around the chimney pipe on the top of the bus roof and that failed. Have since swapped out with this high heat stove pip flashing and haven't had an issue yet.
  • Heat Powered Stove Top Fan - This thing is amazing and works by generating electricity when hot air from your stove rises up through the metal. It circulates air throughout my bus rather than letting it all rise up in one area.
  • Stove Pipe Thermometer - It is extremely important to knowing how efficiently you're burning and how hot your stove is getting. This thermometer attaches to your stove pipe by magnet and gives you your stove pipe temp.
  • Inside Thermometer and Humidity Monitor - This is great for letting you know what the temp is inside the bus as well as the humidity level. If it's too dry you can set a pot of water on the stove to put some moisture back in the air.
  • Outside Window Thermometer - I just threw this in because it's kinda rad to see how cold it is outside when you're wearing a t-shirt inside with a wood fire cranking.

Windbreaker chimney top and high heat pipe flashing.

 

If you're not too keen on being a lumber jack and will have a place to be plugged in all winter then you'll want to consider an electric heat source.

 

 Electric

If you're lucky enough to have somewhere to be plugged in all winter than an electric heat source is a good option to look into. Most bus conversions I see running this type of heat source tend to like two different styles. Space heaters and oil filled heaters.

Oil filled electric heater.

Electric heater for small spaces. 

These in wall Cadet heaters are great if you want to plan them into your bus build.

 Last but not least I'd like to talk about a great alternative to heating your bus conversion especially if you're already using the fuel source to drive around. Diesel!

Diesel

I first heard about this method from an Alaskan who was living out of his truck with a custom truck camper or tiny home. The second time I was able to see it in person from the Native Eyewear sprinter van conversion. It allows you to tap into your existing diesel fuel tank and uses a drip system that is highly efficient. The most popular system is the Airtronic from Espar but you can find similar designs as well. I've heard from a few people that the installation can be a bit daunting but really isn't that bad if you're good with reading directions.

 

Diesel fuel heater taps right into your existing gas tank.

Now obviously a con can be the complexity that is required to install as well as you're tapping into your driving fuel source. You'd just want to make sure you don't post up for too long and drain your gas tank. An extra gas can of diesel is a good idea regardless as you never know when you could run out.

 

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