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Caravan heaters – electric vs diesel vs gas

Caravan heaters are a big comfort when travelling in colder areas of Australia. But which type of heater is best for your caravan?

The answer is not a one size fits all approach; it depends on your budget, existing equipment and power supply. I’m going to walk you through the main types of caravan heaters so you can make an informed decision before you invest in a heater.

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The main types of caravan heaters

Gas, diesel and electric are the three main types of caravan heaters. They vary wildly in cost and each has its own pros and cons.  Here’s a more in-depth explanation for each option.

The Truma S 3004 gas heater for caravans © Truma

Gas

Caravan heaters fuelled by LPG (Liquefied Petroleum Gas) are a popular choice. The gas flows from the cylinder through to the heater where it ignites, creating an open flame. This flame heats up the surface area of the heat exchanger which in turn, heats up the air that is drawn from the cool cabin. This heated air is then distributed back into your caravan living area to make it toasty warm.

The reason gas caravan heaters are so popular is that many caravans are already hooked up to gas for other appliances. This means that you can simply connect your heater to the existing gas tank. Electricity is still required to run the fan but it’s minimal, so it can be run on 12V power.

One important note about gas heaters is that it is illegal to fit them yourself. Due to safety reasons, they must be installed by a certified gas installer and there are limitations as to where they can be placed inside the caravan. This is one install that should be left to the professionals.

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Pros

  • Many caravans are already using gas for other appliances
  • Large range of models available
  • Fuel efficient
  • Quiet to run

Cons

  • Must be installed by a certified installer
  • Limitations to where it can be installed
  • It may be challenging to find LPG in rural areas 
  • You will need adequate 12V capacity to run the system
caravan heaters
Truma Vario Eco Gas Heater © CaravanRVCamping

Diesel

Diesel heaters are small and produce clean dry heat. They are considered safer to use than gas because diesel itself is less volatile and less likely to ignite and cause an explosion. Both gas and diesel produce carbon monoxide, but it’s less of an issue with a diesel-fueled heater.

A diesel heater works by drawing air from an external intake pipe, which is then passed into the heater’s combustion chamber. It mixes with the diesel and is ignited to heat up the large surface area of a heat exchanger. Like the gas process, an internal blower draws cool air from the cabin past the heat exchanger where it is warmed up and then blown back inside the cabin to keep you at a comfortable temperature. 

You can install a diesel heater yourself but like gas, 12V electricity will still be required to run the system.

Pros

  • Diesel is readily available across Australia
  • Safer and easier to store than LPG
  • Low rate of fuel consumption
  • Greater flexibility as to where it can be installed

Cons

  • More expensive than LPG heaters
  • Noisy
  • Needs periodic maintenance
  • Diesel is smelly and stains if spilt
  • You will need adequate 12V capacity to run the system
caravan heaters
Autoterm Diesel Heater © CaravanRVCamping

Electric

There are two main options for electric caravan heaters: small portable space heaters and reverse cycle air conditioners. Both usually require access to 240v power and even then, you run the risk of tripping the safety switch when used in conjunction with other appliances. 

Electric heaters can be run off-grid with a generator or lithium battery bank via an inverter but it comes at a cost as both generators and lithium batteries are expensive. Generators are also incredibly noisy and good camping etiquette dictates you wouldn’t use one at night anywhere near other campers.

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Small portable space heaters

Small portable space heaters are the cheapest option but you need to have the space to both store and place it when in use. They work by circulating the air across a heating element (usually either ceramic plates or metal coils) and then an inbuilt fan blows the heated air around the room.

Pros

  • Cheap
  • Heats up quickly
  • Practical for occasional use

Cons

  • It takes up already limited floor, bench and storage space
  • Usually not designed for confined spaces 
  • Equipment required to run them off-grid is expensive  

Reverse cycle air conditioning

A reverse-cycle air conditioning system is more versatile as you can cool your van in the hotter months. They do a great job of keeping to a set temperature but are known to make the air become dry.

A reverse-cycle air-conditioner works by reversing the flow of the refrigerant (a cold liquid) used to cool the van. The refrigerant is pumped down through chambers and into a condenser by a compressor. As its being compressed, it warms up, thus creating your nice hot air.  A fan then pushes this toasty hot air out to warm up your caravan space.

Pros

  • Can control the temperature precisely
  • Can cool your van in hotter months

Cons

  • You may need roof reinforcement to install it
  • Will most likely need to be installed by a professional
  • Equipment required to run them off-grid is expensive
  • Uses a lot of power
  • Expensive to purchase

If you always stay in powered sites at caravan parks, this is a comfortable option for heating your caravan.

Interesting to note

Combination caravan heaters are becoming increasingly popular. A combination heater is a gas space heater and water heater all in one. A small water tank is integrated within the heater and you would usually have the option to heat the water independently of the caravan space in summer when it’s not required. 

This article contains affiliate links to products. We may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

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