Installing Our Water System: DIY Van Build Plumbing Made Easy

If you plan on going off grid for any length of time, you need water in your van. And if you like to cook as much as we do, you’ll also want a sink for washing dishes and a way to catch waste water. But how do you go about setting all of this up?

The water system was a big area of confusion when we started our van build. We knew we wanted an actual sink with running water of some kind, but we didn’t know the best way to make that happen.

Plumbing can be a bit like electrical: overwhelming and intimidating if you don’t know what you’re doing. But once you get your bearings, it’s really not that difficult.

Every van water system has the same basic components:

  • Fresh Water Tank
  • Water Pump
  • Faucet and Sink
  • Grey Water Tank
  • Plumbing/Tubing

In this post we go over the water system in our van, how we decided what components to use, and exactly how we installed everything.

Choosing a Freshwater Tank

water tank front view

There are a lot of options out there for freshwater tanks in a van build, but pretty much all of them have one thing in common: they’re made out of plastic.

And we personally don’t like the idea of our drinking water sitting in contact with plastic for extended periods of time. We still remember when BPA was considered safe, so who knows what other harmful chemicals can leech into our drinking water from a plastic tank.

Plastic water tanks do have a lot of advantages. They’re relatively cheap and widely available. There are many different shapes and sizes, from easily-replaceable 5-gallon water cooler jugs to full-blown RV water tanks. Most people go with some sort of plastic tank for their van build. Still, we really wanted to find something other than plastic, so the hunt was on for a stainless steel tank.

And man, is it difficult to find a water tank that’s not plastic! We spent weeks searching around on the internet, and we couldn’t find anything that didn’t need to be custom-fabricated.

Then we stumbled upon this 14-gallon stainless steel fusti tank on winemaking supplier MoreWine.com and we knew it was perfect. The fusti tank is more expensive than most plastic tanks, but we think it’s worth it (if you decide to go with this tank, make sure to buy the ball valve attachment also).

Choosing a Water Pump

Water pumps generally come in two different varieties: electric and manual.

An electric water pump will give you actual running water in your van, but it’s also one more component to add to your electrical system install. And when you have actual running water, it’s a lot easier to just let it run and waste a ton of water in the process (I was notorious for leaving the sink running unnecessarily at our house).

So for us, a manual pump was the way to go. Not only would it be simpler to install, it would also help us conserve water. And when you’re living off grid in a van, water conservation is incredibly important.

After searching around, we settled on the MKIII Gusher Galley Foot Pump from Whale Water Systems. Whale makes a lot of great products for marine use, and components made for boats also work perfectly in vans. Plus, having a foot pump means we can keep our hands free for washing dishes.

Choosing a Sink and Faucet

sink and faucet

Since we were using a foot pump for our water, we didn't need a faucet with any sort of hand controls. It was a no brainer to go with Whale System’s telescoping faucet, since it's built specifically for use with Whale foot pumps.

For the sink, we wanted something big enough to do dishes in easily, but not so big that it would dominate our limited counter space. We found a 16” stainless steel bar sink on Amazon that was the perfect size.

What to Use for a Grey Water Tank?

pipe and bucket

Our original idea for a grey water tank was simple: get a 5-gallon Homer bucket and lid from Home Depot, cut a hole in the lid for the drain pipe, and ratchet-strap it to the cabinet under the sink. It sounded great in our minds, but it didn’t end up working out too well.

First, we miscalculated the amount of space we had to work with. The Homer bucket fit perfectly under the sink, but we couldn’t get it through the cabinet door opening. Not good for something we need to take out and empty regularly. So we bought a smaller 2-gallon bucket and lid on Amazon to use instead, and that’s what we hit the road with.

And we immediately knew it was a problem. The lid didn’t seal properly, it was tough to remove it from the van without spilling everywhere, and the small capacity meant we had to stress out finding a place to dump it way too frequently.

We ditched the bucket as soon as we could, and found this 5-gallon plastic hedpak container that fits perfectly under our sink. With 5 gallons of grey water capacity we only need to worry about dumping it every 3-4 days, and the smaller opening means we have much less splashing and spilling.

Plumbing Everything Together

plumbing everything together

Now that we had compiled all the pieces, we had to figure out the best way to connect them together. There's just not a whole lot of information about this out there on the internet, so we had to experiment with different options.

We first tried using PEX pipe, which is the standard in residential plumbing. PEX is cheap and easily available, but the downside is that you need crimp connectors and a special crimping tool to work with it, which adds to the cost.

And we quickly discovered that PEX just wouldn't work in our van. Our components needed tubing in ⅜” ID (inner diameter) and ½” ID sizes. But those are nominal sizes not actual sizes, and different types of plumbing have different actual size standards. So the ½” PEX ended up being too small for the ½” hose connections on our foot pump.

After some research, we settled on flexible beverage tubing. Beverage tubing is made for plumbing beer, water, and soda lines. It's food safe, easy to work with, and flexible enough to stretch over any fitting.

Hooking Up Our Van’s Water System

Installing the Foot Pump

installing the foot pump

We made our awesome kitchen cabinets with a purpose-built inset for our foot pump, and we also pre-installed the sink and faucet into the countertop. You can read about how we did all that here.

Before installing our kitchen cabinets in the van, we dry-fit them and marked exactly where the foot pump should go. We then took the cabinets back out and screwed the foot pump down to the floor using 1” screws.

After we permanently fixed the cabinets into the van, we popped in more screws connecting the foot pump directly to the cabinet for extra security (all these screw holes come pre-drilled into the foot pump).

Installing the Water Tank

installing the water tank

We designed our kitchen with the water tank compartment on the far right side, just behind the driver’s seat. So that we don’t have a 100-lb fusti tank sliding around inside our van, we first installed four steel anchor points on either side of where the tank goes using ¾” self-tapping screws. That way we could hold the water tank in place with two 1” tie down straps.

Next, we screwed the ball valve attachment into the opening at the bottom of the fusti tank (this is much easier to do before the tank is installed). Then, we dropped the tank into place and strapped it down.

Hooking up the Tubing

connecting the tubing

The ball valve coming from the fusti tank accepts ⅜” hose, while the connector for the foot pump takes ½” hose. So, we needed to install a ½” to ⅜” reducer coupling.

First, we attached a few inches of ⅜” hose to the fusti tank and secured it with a hose clamp. Then we added the reducer coupling, and ran ½” hose from the other side of the reducer to the intake connection on the foot pump. We secured all these connections with hose clamps.

The faucet also takes ½” hose, so we just ran another hose from the output connection on the foot pump right up to the faucet, again securing the connections with hose clamps.

Finally, we strapped the hose down to the floor and cabinet frame at several points using ¾” conduit straps. This prevents the hose from moving around while we’re driving and takes the stress off the connections. We definitely don’t want to bust a hose and have 14 gallons of water pour into the van!

Sink and Drainage

installing the grey water tank

First, we used plumber’s putty to install the strainer basket in the sink. Then we attached the sink strainer tailpiece to the underside of the strainer. We also cut the tailpiece short so it extends just an inch or so down into the plastic grey water container.

Next, we test fit the grey water container and marked spots to attach steel anchors points to the cabinet on either side of the container. We screwed the anchor points down using ¾” self-tapping screws, and strapped in the grey water container with a 1” tie down strap.

We Couldn’t Be Happier With our Water System

Our whole sink and water setup is one of our favorite features in our van. The stainless steel tank gives us great peace of mind, and the 14-gallon capacity (plus our 6-gallon reserve container that we stash in the trunk) means we can be off grid for about a week without refilling water.

Plus we don’t think we could ever go back to not having a foot pump. It’s just awesome using your feet to control your water flow, and the manual pump makes it easy to use only the water we actually need. Now when we use regular sinks we frequently catch ourselves trying to pump water with our feet!

For more build guides and vanlife tips, be sure to follow us on Instagram @gnomad_home and on Facebook. Cheers!

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