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Our Portable Diesel Heater setup and review

As the rain falls from the remnants of a tropical cyclone heading south, I’m reminded of how much fun it is to go camping and 4WDing in winter. The cold weather, the camp fires, the mud, high water levels and raging rivers. At the end of a fun day, you crawl into bed, and hope that you’ve got warm enough clothes on for the night. Except, we don’t anymore, as our camper is always toasty warm thanks to a Portable Diesel Heater.

I will do a comprehensive post on Diesel heaters soon, and what you need to look for, but this post is purely about the portable units.

Portable Diesel Heater

A Portable Diesel heater is the ultimate upgrade for cold camping

What is a Portable Diesel Heater?

If you still haven’t heard of diesel heaters today, you’ve been missing out. From the moment the colder weather hits, its one of the most commonly asked about camping appliances around, and for good reason. They are cheap, easy to use, safe and a complete game changer when it comes to camping in the cold. 

Most people permanently mount their diesel heaters into a caravan or camper trailer, but there are some portable options out there. Essentially, a portable diesel heater is a self contained unit that you can pick up, and move around as required. 

Chinese portable diesel heater

Our portable diesel heater

What’s so good about a diesel heater?

Just briefly, diesel heaters are an amazing solution. They are cheap to purchase, easy to use, draw very limited power (meaning you don’t need to be plugged into 240V), are cheap to run in terms of diesel consumption and do a seriously good job at warming anything up you need them to.

Why get a portable diesel heater?

We love camping. We head away at least once a month, and probably average about 50 – 60 nights a year in our camper trailer. However, we are also very comfortable when we head away, which makes it more enjoyable. If you have a bad camping experience, I guarantee you won’t want to do it again.

A while back, we picked up a soft floor camper trailer, and Sarah and I would sleep on the queen bed up the top, with our little sons in porta cots down below. For most of the year, the temperatures are reasonable, and anything down to around 10 degrees at night is fine even with young kids. However, one weekend we chose to stay down at Nannup in the middle of winter, and it was FREEZING. 

Nannup caravan park

Camping down at Nannup, where it went below zero with two young kids in our camper trailer

I remember our little boys waking up a few times throughout the night, and even with about 8 layers of clothing on our youngest (with 3 sleeping bags), he wasn’t keeping warm. His hands were like ice blocks, along with his head and face (which you obviously can’t cover). We spent the last few hours of the night together in the one bed, and were still cold. 

When I got home, I said no more; lets get something to warm the camper up, and I spent a long time looking for a solution. Being a soft floor camper trailer, there was no where that I could run the hot air into the camper trailer from the body, and we didn’t like the idea of lugging a diesel heater around all the time, when it probably gets used for 10% of the year.

The solution was simple; get a portable unit that would sit outside the camper trailer, and pipe the hot air in through the canvas door, with the zipper holding the inlet in place. I picked one up off on eBay for about $280, and it arrived not long after.

Portable Diesel heater

The thought was to do exactly this; feed the air outlet in through a door

Ironically, not long after we picked up our Reconn R2, and never got a chance to use the heater.To make it worse, the Reconn has a door, which makes it all but impossible to run the hot air into the camper without drilling holes. I spent ages again, trying to find a solution, and then it hit me. Remove one of the storage pockets from inside the camper, and run it in through the kitchen storage hatch!

I knocked something up in a few hours, and picked up a length of 100mm flexible ducting from Bunnings. This now lives in our camper, and we just drop it down and slide it over the heater outlet when we want to use it.

Reconn R2 diesel heater

The portable diesel heater warming our Reconn R2 up down near Arthur River

Where can you get them from?

There are lots of places you can get Diesel Heaters from. There are the originals (Eberspacher, Webasto etc), and then there are the Chinese copies, which are being installed by the thousands all over the world. There is a significant difference in pricing, and probably in quality too, but the Chinese units are extremely common.

I actually purchased two portable diesel heaters, as the first one arrived damaged. When I opened it, I could see it was mangled, and had been damaged in transit. I repaired some of the damage, and fired it up, but the fan wouldn’t spin properly. I contacted the seller, who offered me a 30% refund (Yeah, right!), and then refused to answer any further communications after I agreed to send it back. I simply submitted a claim through eBay and Paypal, and got a full refund, including the postage costs to return it.

The second unit that arrived was in good condition, and has been used for around 20 nights, without any issues.

Portable Diesel Heater

Despite the price, these are fairly reliable

Advantages of a portable diesel heater

There are some obvious, and less obvious benefits of a portable diesel heater over a fixed one.

Weight and space savings when not in use

If you keep these portable, for the large chunk of the year that you don’t need it, you just leave it at home. That means your weight is reduced, and you have more room for other gear.

They are quieter

Diesel heaters by nature aren’t the quietest units around. This is mainly on start-up, but you will hear the fan and the ticking from a reasonable distance away, and if it is attached to your van, you’ll hear the noise more. You can install them in a variety of ways to reduce this, but a portable unit can be further away, and by just sitting on the ground, you’ll hear less.

They create less moisture in the air

Normally, a diesel heater will re-circulate the warm air that they create. If you have a portable unit though, it just takes the air from outside, warms it up and sends it inside. For one reason or another, this reduces the condensation and moisture issues that you can experience inside a caravan, but more likely in a pop top and camper trailer. Recirculation of the air inside (like most permanent solutions) will create more condensation inside.

You can use them for multiple solutions

Being portable, you can use these for camping, but also for anything else you may have in mind. You wouldn’t be the first person to keep a house warm using one, or a garage, or shed. In between your camping trips a portable diesel heater can be re-purposed, and that’s pretty nifty.

Portable Diesel heater

Full tank, heater, plumbing and wiring all in one portable unit

If it all goes wrong, the unit is away from you

There have been failures of diesel heaters before, and I kind of like the idea of having it all outside, away from where we are sleeping. If a hose lets go, or something fails, its not mounted underneath my bed!

Disadvantages of a portable diesel heater

There is no free lunch here. Being portable means you do have some disadvantages, and some of them I never really thought about.

Continuous setup and pack away

By nature, these are portable. However, they still need setting up. You need to store them somewhere safely, pull them out, plug the power in, hook the hot air lines up, make sure its safe and then when you are done, do it all in reverse. Doing this a few times isn’t an issue, but if you are moving regularly it wears thin pretty quickly. Ask me how; I’ve done it for weeks on end, and you get to a point where you say ‘It won’t be cold enough tonight to need it’, and then when it is, you regret not putting the effort in.

A permanently mounted unit can be turned on and off super easily, and its always ready to roll.

Portable Diesel heater

Every time you set up, you have to set the heater up too

They are less efficient

I mentioned above that a portable unit normally doesn’t recirculate the warm air. That means that all of the air going through your camper trailer has to be taken from ambient temperature, to what ever temperature you have it set to.

This is appose to having the the caravan or camper trailer warm up using the heater, and stay warm just by re-heating the warm air. Once its been running for some time, you might be taking 15 degree air and turning it back into 20 degree air if it recirculates. If it doesn’t though, you can be trying to turn 0 degree air (or what ever the ambient is) into 20 degree air, and that means you use more fuel.

The other point of difference is how you plumb the hot air into the van or camper trailer. On a permanent install, the outlet is right next to the heater (and the heater is inside) so there is no heat loss. On a portable install, especially like ours, the air has to travel a greater distance outside, in the cold air, and you lose heat before it even gets into the camper trailer.

To give you an idea, we can run our diesel heater all night on low, and it maintains a comfortable temperature inside our tiny hybrid. Our friends have the exact same unit, but have split it and mounted it permanently, and in a van that has probably 10 times the volume of air inside. They can’t run their unit on low for more than an hour, or it starts to roast inside. 

Our Reconn R2 does not have good insulation, and that’s simply because of the PVC popup section. To keep it warm inside, we have to use more energy; its as simple as that. 

However, if we were to mount the unit inside, and it was to recirculate the hot air (and not have the losses from being outside) I think it’d struggle to keep the temperature reasonable without turning on and off.

Weather issues

One of the things I didn’t really think about with a portable diesel setup is that the unit has to sit outside, and in winter its not uncommon to have rain.

I’ve managed to have ours set up under the camper trailer so it doesn’t get wet, but I imagine these wouldn’t last very long with regular showers. It’s also annoying to slide the unit under the camper, and you have to be sure the exhaust isn’t going the wrong way where it can do damage, or start a fire.

Another interesting thought is that you are susceptible to wind outside blowing the exhaust gasses towards the inlet of the heater. If it was bad, and you set it up poorly, you could easily end up with exhaust gas getting sucked up and sent into the camper trailer!

Rain when camping

We’ve found it fits under the camper trailer, but you can’t have them getting wet

They can be easily stolen

Anything portable is more likely to grow legs. Portable solar panels get taken far more often than fixed ones. Good luck stealing a permanently mounted diesel heater, but a portable one is easy as. Still, at under $300 its not much more than a good solar panel, and everyone leaves them out. We tuck ours under the camper, and run the risk.

The temperature settings won’t work

With the heater outside, the temperature that it measures is always going to be the ambient, which makes it impossible to set a temperature that you want it to heat to, and maintain. A permanent setup recirculates the air, and if you set the heater to 20 degrees, it will just maintain that temperature. A portable unit just needs to be controlled off the pump speed, which means if it changes temperature dramatically overnight, you may need to adjust the settings.

It also means that you really need a remote to control the unit, or you’ll be getting up to turn it on and off, and adjust the settings. The good news is that a lot of the portable camping heaters come with this as standard.

Diesel heater temperature

The controller on our diesel heater, which works with a small remote

You must get a gas monitor

If you are getting a diesel heater, you MUST get a gas monitor. This is not negotiable. The combustion process of a diesel heater creates CO, or carbon monoxide. If something goes wrong, and you get CO into your van or camper, it has the potential to hurt, or kill you and your family. This (very sadly) has happened many times with fridges, gas heaters and probably even diesel heaters. 

You cannot smell or see CO, and unless you are awake and start to feel unwell you will simply pass away in your sleep, if the levels are high enough. A CO monitor can be purchased for $30 – $50, and will go off if anything is unsafe. I make sure mine is working every night before going to bed. It’s just not worth it.

How much fuel and power does a diesel heater use?

Diesel heaters are extremely frugal when it comes to both diesel consumption, and power use. We can run our 5kW unit all night on low, and barely chew through 2 litres of fuel. Sure, that’s a couple of bucks a night, but you save that by not having to camp in a caravan park and its totally worth it.

In terms of power, they draw about 10 amp hour on start-up (for a couple of minutes), and then it drops down to less than 1 amp hour when running. Call it under 25 amps overnight, meaning you can run them off a fairly small system.

I’ve done rough figures, and I reckon running a diesel heater in Perth would be a similar cost to using a fan heater at home, which is pretty amazing as you can’t take a fan heater into the middle of the bush and turn it on!

Diesel tank

The 5 litre tank would comfortably do 3 nights on low

How should you size a diesel heater?

This is where things get interesting. If you lose a lot of heat (like a canvas camper trailer, or a pop top caravan) you will need a larger system than someone in a full size, walled and insulated van. Be aware that the diesel heaters sold are sometimes identical, and just labelled differently. 

Ideally you don’t get a unit that is too large, as running it on low for extended periods can make it cake up with carbon. Of course, the temperatures that you camp in will hugely vary the amount of heat you need. If you are camping where it snows, or regularly hits zero or below you will need more energy than someone who doesn’t see sub 10 degree temperatures very often.

Ours is a 5kW unit (although the packaging says 1 – 8kW?!), and on the lowest setting, keeps our small hybrid warm unless it gets below about 5 degrees, and then you just bump it up a few notches.

Diesel heater specs

Our Chinese diesel heater specs

Alternative heating options

There isn’t too many other options for heating when you can camp. You can use a reverse cycle air conditioner (but you need 240V power unless you have a crazy power setup), or a normal fan heater (you’ll definitely need 240V power), or a gas heater (expensive to purchase and install, and they use a lot of gas).

Electric blankets are a pretty good option too, as are hot water bottles. There really isn’t much else to compete with the diesel heaters though, which is why they’ve become so popular.

Should you get a portable diesel heater?

It is next level amazing to wake up on a freezing winters morning in a camper trailer or caravan that is a comfortable temperature, and with everyone having had a good nights sleep because of it. If you are aware of the above items, and you still want a portable unit, get one. They are awesome. If your kids are older, and don’t mind the colder weather you don’t really need one, but they make camping with young kids much easier, and it is quite luxurious!

A diesel heater is one of 14 ways to keep warm when camping, and its not suitable for everyone. We are happy with ours overall, and would recommend one if you are looking for a better way to keep warm!

I suspect we will permanently mount one into our setup eventually, but for now, it does its job well enough that I won’t bother. These units can be easily pulled apart and mounted permanently, if you are so inclined.

Undoing the case

Undoing the case of our portable diesel heater

What do you use? Are you happy with it?

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