They often cost less than dinner for two, but are the diesel heaters offered online hot stuff or fire risk? Should you buy a cheap Chinese diesel heater?
With most of the country in the grips of what feels like a colder than average winter, many RV owners will be considering fitting some sort of heating to their caravan, camper or motorhome. If free camping is on the agenda, then a diesel-fuelled ducted heating system is the obvious choice. But which one do you choose? The expensive name brand or a cheap unit from China? In this article, we look at the pros and cons of both and speak to both owners and repairers about their experiences so you can make an informed choice.
When it comes to diesel heaters, there are the trusted brand names in such as Erberspacher and Webasto, as well as a seemingly endless number of suppliers of cheap copies available online, predominantly sourced from China. The price difference between the two options is considerable. The entry-level Erberspacher D2, which has a rated heat output of 2200 watts, sells for around $1900 whereas the price for a 5000-watt heater from China can be as little as $270 online. Its a huge price differential and explains the appeal of the Chinese units.
However, the Chinese heaters tend to get a bad reputation for reliability, parts availability and, most importantly, safety. Chris Emmerson of CJE Caravan Repairs has seen a lot of dodgy products come through his workshop, but increasingly he is being asked to fix issues associated with cheap diesel ducted heaters.
Chris said, “Caravan and motorhome owners are tempted to purchase these units because of the huge price difference between them and the name brand equivalents. The problem is the cheap heaters are often inferior in many ways.”
Chris told us most the issues he has are to do with replacing faulty parts which he says are difficult, if not impossible, to source. “The companies that sell these cheap heaters are located overseas and often do not return emails if a warranty claim is made or if replacement parts are required, making repairs almost impossible.”
However, it appears it’s not all bad news for buyers of the cheap heaters. For a start, there is a huge online community of owners who have posted lots of supporting material on the internet including a vast number of YouTube videos detailing the installation process as well as troubleshooting problems.
There is also a handful of groups on Facebook dedicated to these cheap Chinese heaters. The Chinese Diesel Air Heater – Troubleshooting and Parts Sales Facebook group is by far the most popular with over 25,000 members across the world. They have developed an extensive array of documents in their files section that anyone installing one of these heaters will find extremely useful when researching what heaters to buy and how to get them working successfully.
Looking through the posts on the group, the most common issues seem to be inadequate wiring, faulty glow plugs, smoky exhaust emissions and numerous error codes on the higher end controllers. These issues are not insurmountable with many members offering any number of solutions.
A common complaint of some cheap diesel heaters is noisy fuel pumps and the exhaust systems. It appears some units may not be supplied with adequate silencers making life for you and your neighbours particularly unpleasant. We recently camped next to another van fitted with what we suspect was a cheap diesel heater due to the rather unpleasant noise coming from the exhaust port. It was certainly much louder than many others we’ve experienced.
Fuel seems to be another major issue with some users finding running straight diesel fuel causes the combustion chamber to choke up with excessive carbon deposits. Some users suggest to mix the diesel fuel with various ratios of kerosene in order to solve this issue however we would highly recommend you check with the supplier before making any such changes.
And this leads us to probably the most important question when it comes to installing any form of heating inside your RV. Just how safe are these cheap heaters?
Chris told us he believes many of these cheap heaters are made from inferior quality materials such as the thickness of the metal used for the heat exchanger which is prone to burning through to the heated air outlet allowing exhaust fumes to escape into the living space. Not only is this a fire risk but it also means carbon monoxide could enter the living space of the caravan.
Carbon Monoxide poisoning is a very real danger, particularly with caravans and motorhomes. Being an enclosed space, they are required to have adequate ventilation to prevent the build up of poisonous gasses. Unfortunately, these vets may be partially or completely blocked by items stored in the RV. If a heater is left going overnight and carbon monoxide builds up, the occupants would be completely unaware of the danger, risking brain damage or loss of life.
The brand name heaters make much of the fact that they are very safe. For example, Webasto advertises a number of safety features that include:
- Under / Overvoltage cut-off
- Overheat temperature sensor (in case of a blocked vent)
- Heater lockout after 3 failed start-up attempts
- In case of an error or fault code, the pump will shut off preventing the burner chamber flooding with fuel.
Chris’s advice is to check the specifications of any diesel heater to ensure it has these safety features before committing to purchase.
The DIY installation of these diesel heaters can also present a number of issues. Chris told me he had a customer complain that when he first used his heater, he had a strong smell of diesel fuel inside the caravan. Upon inspection, Chris found the owner had installed the unit himself and had zip-tied the fuel line to the exhaust outlet…! Not the smartest move in the world.
Chris admits that these installation issues can happen with any brand diesel heater however, he did point out that the installation instructions that come with the brand name heaters are normally much clearer than the cheaper alternatives.
Chris recommends that if you do have one of these cheaper diesel heaters installed in your RV that you have it inspected by a specialist to ensure it is installed properly and working correctly. As an added safety measure, he also recommends installing a carbon monoxide alarm near the sleeping space of your RV. Most hardware stores and caravan accessory retailers sell units that are suitable for caravans and motorhomes.
That just leaves us with one last question. Just how reliable are the cheap heaters? Again, it’s a mixed bag with some users having no end of problems yet others report not having any ongoing issues at all. One friend of ours, Jan, had a cheap heater installed in her caravan only for it to fail within a few weeks. She was unable to get any response from the seller and ended up purchasing a new one. She is pleased to report it has been faultless thus far.
A user from the Facebook group mentioned earlier contacted me to describe his experience with his diesel heater. He switched the unit on after installing it only to have the cabin of his motorhome fill with noxious white smoke 45 minutes later. He was unable to get any technical assistance from his supplier, instead receiving a full refund.
On the other side of the coin, a couple of members of the Roadstar Caravan Owners Group have recently installed a cheap Chinese heater into their caravans and has thus far not experienced any issues at all.
The reality is that as long as there are expensive name-brand goods that are popular, there will be cheap copies available online. Some will be good and some will be very ordinary. When it comes to diesel heaters, you can almost purchase ten cheap units before you spend the same amount of money for a single name brand item. With a bit of research and good fortune, you may end up with a good one or only having to replace one faulty unit and even then you would still be way ahead in terms of cost.
But cheap doesn’t necessarily mean safe. If you intend to purchase a diesel ducted heater, we recommend that you stick to the name brands for peace of mind. However, if you cannot afford one, purchase a cheaper unit from a reputable Australian seller. Make sure it has the safety features of the more expensive brands and that it is supported by a local warranty with spare parts availability.
For added peace of mind, consider having it installed by a professional caravan repairer.