Love camping but wish you could enjoy a hot shower as well as the great outdoors? That's what portable water heaters are for! Here's everything you need to know about the various types available, their pros and cons, and a few tips to make sure you have ample water pressure in the wild.
When You Need A Portable Water Heater
Nearly everything comes in a portable form these days. Computers have been turned into handheld smartphones, boomboxes are now tiny Bluetooth headphones, and even Oreos come in snack packs. However, some of these portable devices are far more useful than others.
Take the portable water heater, for example. It can provide the luxury of a hot shower whether you’re on the road or off the grid, and can even help to ensure you’re tackling the bacteria that resides on dirty dishes. Hot water has hundreds of uses, which is why these devices are so attractive.
If you’re in the market to buy one and are wondering where to start, you’ve come to the right place. This article contains everything you need to know about the portable water heater from the various types out there to their benefits and drawbacks.
Water heaters come in all shapes and sizes, but portable ones fall under a specific definition. They need to be able to heat a smaller flow of water and must be easily moved around. These are very different from the tankless variety you might find installed in a house that relies on electricity.
They also aren’t exactly immersion heaters, the ones that are placed within a body of water to heat it. No, a portable water heater is a class all its own. Here’s how to distinguish the various types on the market.
Types of Portable Heaters
You can separate these portable heaters by their ability to heat flowing water or a tank, the type of heat source they use, and a few smaller factors. Mainly, you will find flow-based and volume-based varieties.
Flow and Volume-Based
Flow-based portable water heaters are designed to heat flowing water that usually comes from a pressurized source. Volume-based heaters are meant to bring up the temperature of water found inside of a small tank. You can also find a combination of these two that utilizes a storage area on top of the heater which uses gravity to force liquid through the heating element.
Flow-based designs usually connect to a garden hose. Whether you run water through a hookup at a campsite or are pumping water from a clear source, this ensures that you’ll have hot water on tap when you need it. As a note of caution, make sure any water pumps have enough pressure to meet the requirement of your flow-based portable water heater.
Volume-based designs usually require a tank or bag, the heating source, and an outlet to provide power for the heat.
Many of these portable heaters already come with a bag that you can fill with water. The benefit of volume-based heaters is their ability to go on and off without a pilot light, ensuring you have short bursts of hot water for doing the dishes and showering.
A portable water heater can run on a variety of different heating sources. This is one of the most differentiating factors between models. Most run on:
Propane models tend to be the most popular for their ability to provide instantaneous heat. As an energy source, propane is easy to transport and does not require electricity or sunlight to operate. While those features are attractive, they also come at a higher price.
Smaller canisters used in portable water heaters tend to cost more per pound than their larger counterparts. Luckily, several models come with an adapter that allows you to connect them to a larger tank.
Electric models are often cheap and convenient as long as you plan to stay on the grid. These models usually operate at around 110 volts with low amperage, which means that they lack the heating ability found in propane models. You’ll still get hot water, but it will not be as hot or as pressurized as water connected to a propane heater.
When it comes to efficiency and operating costs, solar powered models take the cake. These “solar showers” use large plastic or vinyl bags connected to a shower hose. After filling the bag with water, you leave it out in the sun to warm up then hang it above your shower, allowing gravity to pull the water down through the hose.
Finally, there are fire-powered portable water heaters. These models utilize a coil heating method and two canisters. Your campfire heats up the coils, which siphon water from one cannister to the next. This method often requires multiple pass-throughs before the water is hot enough but remains cost-efficient and compact for easy transportation.
A Note on Operating Cost
One aspect you’ll want to consider before making a purchase is the cost to own and operate it. Aside from the cost of the unit itself, it is important to consider any additional supplies you’ll need such as a water pump, connectors, or a hose. Electrical models require additional energy cost, while others might require batteries for longer trips.
Some models also require specific batteries and canisters to operate. All of these factors can add up quickly, making it worth your time to decide on the right model for your hot water needs in order to save some cash.
The majority of portable water heaters do not provide high pressure or heavy water flow. Since the heating source is limited in size and power, it doesn’t make sense to run a large amount of cold water through it. However, there will still be times when you need pressure for various tasks.
Maintaining a steady water pressure while camping can be tough, but opting to add a water pump into the mix can solve your issue. These are especially useful for propane heaters that require increased pressure to operate. All you need to do is pump water from a lake or stream, add a filter to the end of the intake, and only use the water for bathing.
Another option is to install a one-way valve on a pressurizer tank between your pump and heater. The pump will pressurize the tank so long as it has power. When the power is turned off, your tank will provide ample pressure.
If you plan on an extended stay, consider adding a water tower to your campsite. You can pump water up into the tower, then enjoy plenty of pressure as the water flows down and out.
Brands Worth Noting
There are at least one or two brands in each type of portable water heater that are worth mentioning. We’ve split them back into their categories and explained the pros and cons below.
The ease of solar powered water heater bags makes them highly attractive, as does the price and simple portability. In this category, the two main creators are SunShower and Advanced Elements.
SunShower creates bags ranging in size from 2.5 to 5 gallons, and their quality is superb. Their five-gallon bag only weighs a pound and is capable of providing a hot shower to multiple campers, as long as they’re careful about conserving water. All you have to do is let is soak up the sun for one hour, hang it above your showering spot, and enjoy.
Advanced Elements makes a larger ten-gallon bag designed for camping parties. It features two hoses instead of one, allowing two people to take a shower at the same time, and holds enough water for four to six people. That comes in handy on lengthy trips.
An immersion heater falls under the electrical category, but these models are placed into a body of water to heat it. These come in large and small varieties, with the larger being more applicable to this article. The small ones are basically for heating coffee or tea, but you’ll need an outlet in your cabin for that.
Allied Precision makes a bucket water heater designed to heat five gallons of water up to 150 degrees within just a few minutes. It features a portable 120v plug (1000 watts) and has a sleek design that makes it easily portable.
While designed to be perfectly safe, it is important to keep in mind that immersion heaters do run on electricity. A single faulty component or the slightest bit of loose wire could cause severe burns and fatal electrocution. Always play it safe with an immersion heater.
Choosing the Right Water Heater
The right portable water heater for your needs depends on your personal preference when away from home. Each has its own benefits and provides a different experience when camping, making it essential to weight their pros and cons. By following this guide, you’ll make the right decision to suit your hot water needs.