Vehicle Shower

Water is the single most precious commodity you need to carry for your trip. Although heavy, we need to carry it for drinking, cooking and washing. When it comes to personal hygiene during remote travels, we often scrimp on the luxuries and make do with a quick wash of the arm pits and other spots. It's this sort of roughing it that puts off some travel partners, but there is a solution. This article talks about the components in a vehicle shower system and includes tips on water reuse and temperature regulation.
Article By: Damian Baker
Created: June 2008
Revised: September 2009
Latest Feedback: June 2013

What is a Vehicle Shower?

Imagine yourself after a hot day of driving, hiking and setting up camp... you have trekked through desert dust and your muscles are tired and sore. What better way is there to wash and scrub up than under an invigorating hot shower. But you're in the most remote part of Australia, so it must be a dream, right? Wrong - we're not talking about cold showers here, or even solar hot water showers but real hot showers with pressure that you can enjoy on even the most remote outback trip. Most of the components for these showers are installed under the bonnet of your vehicle and utilises the engines cooling system to heat up an external water supply. This supply may be water from a creek or water-filled container and is pumped to a Heat Exchange Unit and then back to your shower – nice and hot. So now you like the idea? Yes, most of us do, so let's look go over the common questions.

How Much Water is Used?

Typically, a 5 - 10L bucket of water is suitable for a shower for one person. Recycling shower water is a smart trick for showering the family. Simply, stand in a big bucket while you shower with the inlet hose taking the run-off back into the system. This way you can cycle the water through the heat exchanger continuously. Soap suds etc do not damage the heat exchange unit.

How long your bucket of water takes to empty depends on the pressure that your pump delivers the water and if any flow restrictor is implemented on your shower head. You can do the maths by working out how many litres of water the pump is designed to deliver. Some water pumps are designed to deliver around 4 litres of water a minute (4 LPM), whilst others may deliver up to 7 litres per minute (7 LPM).

Do I Need a Shower Screen?

The answer is one of personal preference. Consider that when you are in a place where you will actually use the vehicle shower, you will likely be in a camp that's fairly remote. If no one is there to see you, then there's no need to cover up. A shower screen or shower tent is quite bulky to pack and store for a non-necessary item so if you're planning long term travel, you probably don't need one. If you do prefer to purchase one, shower screens are available in most department stores and shower tents are available in many specialist camping stores Australia wide.

Are Vehicle Showers Restricted to 4WDs?

Not at all, in fact 2WD family cars can easily be fitted with a shower system. A lot of small caravans don't have a shower so adding a shower system can mean you don't even need to visit caravan parks and instead spend the night at your favourite remote location. There are also many other uses not related to camping such as washing down the dog at the beach, or even the horse after a sweaty ride.

Full Kit or Components?

Depending on the manufacturer, vehicle hot water showers can come in either kit form or sold individually as components. The complete kit will come with everything needed to setup the vehicle shower, including any additional cables, hoses and clamps. For those who like to DIY, then you can purchase maybe the Heat Exchange Unit and hose fittings from the manufacturer and decide on a specific shower rose and water pump of your choice later.

Vehicle Shower Components

These types of shower systems basically comprise of a Heat Exchange Unit, a water pump, a shower rose and the hoses, fittings, brackets, cables and fuses that are needed to put it all together.

Heat Exchange Unit (HEU)

This is one of the main components of a hot vehicle shower system. This cylindrical copper-manufactured device commonly has four ports and utilises two of these to connect to the vehicle’s heater system. The remaining two ports are used for the water inlet and outlet for the shower itself. Hot engine-heated water is carried into the main chamber of the Heat Exchange Unit and heats the copper coil that carries the colder shower water. Generally, the longer the length of this inner coil, the more heat will be transferred and thus lead to hotter shower water.

How are they Made?

Copper is the material that’s used for the Heat Exchange Unit (HEU) because this metal transfers temperature very efficiently. Inside the HEU comprises of copper piping, which is wound in a tight coil. This coil is usually made from one continuous length with no internal joints as to ensure there are no leaks. The coil is encased in copper tube and capped and may use baffles to direct the flow over the coils for maximum heat transfer. The images below, shows a hot water system that uses double wound technology. These coils are made from one length of copper pipe and are designed to provide hotter water than a standard single coil.

Water Pump

A water pump is used to pump the water to the Heat Exchange Unit and also to provide the water pressure for the shower. These 12 volt units are usually powered by the vehicle battery and are normally fuse protected. Not all water pumps are the same, so it’s a good idea to consider its features and match them to your requirements. Below is an outline of some typical water pump features you may expect:
  • Self priming capabilities

  • Can run dry without damage

  • Pressure cut off switch

  • Adequate pumping pressures of between 4 and 7 litres per minute

  • Can adequately draw water from a distance of between 4 and 10 metres and up an incline of several metres

  • Manufactured with stainless steel bolts and screws to prevent rusting and corrosion

  • Easy installation with rubber mounts and bolts

  • Water pump parts are easily available
There are two main types of water pumps on the market and they are the U.S made Shurflo and Flojet water pumps. Some of the features for each of these water pumps are:

Shurflo


  • Can be run dry without being damaged

  • 10.6 litres per minute, 45 PSI

  • Self priming with a vertical water lift of up to 3.6 metres

  • Pressure cut off switch

  • Commonly used in RVs

  • 3 valve pumping chambers

  • Extra quiet

  • Energy saving

  • Easy to install

  • 1/2" IPS inlet/outlet

  • Weighs 1.5kg

Flojet


  • Marine grade stainless components used

  • Very compact and only weighs 0.6 kg

  • 4.6 litres per minute, 35 PSI

  • Self priming and dry running with a vertical water lift of up to 1 metre

  • Built-in pressure switch automatically starts and stops the pump

  • Can draw water from a source up to 10 m away and up a 2m incline

  • 3/8" and 1/2" IPS inlet/outlet

Shower Rose

This component which is also known as a shower head is similar to the one in your bathroom at home. It is used to distribute the water into a wide area of water droplets to create the shower. Shower roses are available at most department, plumbing and hardware stores and there are many varieties to choose from. The ones used for vehicle showers are handheld based and the hose is usually made of rubber or brass chrome plated links. Some shower roses have an adjustable flow control which serves a dual purpose. By decreasing the water pressure will not only slow the water flow, it should also increase the water temperature because the water will flow slower through the Heat Exchange Unit.

Other Components

Depending on the manufacturer, the vehicle shower type and your vehicle model, the accessories that are provided in a vehicle shower kit should ensure a proper installation. The ‘other components’ that came with a vehicle shower kit that we came across were:
  • Fuse

  • Water and dust proof fuse holder

  • 10 amp silver contact switch

  • Wire

  • A couple of metres of heater hose in both 5/8" and 1/2"

  • T pieces

  • Nuts, bolts and washers to secure pump, eye lugs and other terminals

  • Inline filter

  • 2 to 3 metres of hospital grade shower hose

  • Stainless steel hose clamps for both 5/8" and 1/2" hose

  • Chromed brass elbow

Operating Tips

To operate a vehicle shower effectively and efficiently requires some fine tuning and practical tips. Below is a general outline of operating tips that manufacturers may state in their usage manuals.
  • First burst of water will be very hot as this was trapped in the heat exchanger. You should wait till at least 60 seconds before using the hot shower. The water temp should then drop to around 50 degrees Celsius and then be delivered continuously for showers.

  • With most vehicle shower systems, the water temperature can be increased by adjusting the heater controls in the cabin.

  • Temperature can also be increased by raising the engine revs during idle. This range as stated by one manufacturer to be in the range of between 1200 RPM and 1400 RPM.

  • Further temperature adjustment can be obtained by regulating the flow control on the shower hand piece if it has one. To decrease the pressure and ensuring less water passes through the shower will make the water hotter. On the other hand, more water passing through the shower will make it cooler.

Installation

There are manufacturers that supply vehicle showers in the full kit with installation instructions for your vehicle type. Depending on where you buy your shower system, installation might be available by a fitter. You may also seek the services of an auto mechanic to install the system or you can follow the instructions that come with most units to DIY. Whenever you decide to do it yourself; take your time, follow the instructions from the manufacturer carefully and observe any cautions. Remember, you can always obtain helpful advice by the manufacturer or maybe an auto mechanic if you’re ever in doubt about your abilities to perform the installation.

Where to Buy?

There are some auto accessory distributors for vehicle shower systems that can provide fitting while you wait. It is similar to the way tyre shops can fit and balance your tyres after a purchase and it usually takes around two hours to fit. Vehicle showers may be available from BCF, Opposite Lock, TJM, ARB and all good 4WD accessories stores. It is a good idea to shop around and consider all the pros and cons, including your budget and fitting costs. It is also worthwhile to mention about the warranties that should be included from the manufacturer and the fitter.

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