Road Diaries: The Van Shower, Reinvented

Here’s the down and dirty on how to build out the best shower in your home on the road.

By Sasha McGhee

I know when I began this column, I promised to include VanLife details—but 2020 has thrown some noteworthy curveballs that have taken precedence over the lifestyle. But we’ve been doing some van maintenance recently so I want to take a moment to talk about our shower system. 

When my partner and I first started planning our build, I read a tip somewhere that said, ‘each person living in the camper should choose one thing that must be included in the build. No matter what else changes, that one thing will always be part of the plan’. Ben chose height – at 6ft, he wanted to be able to “fit” everywhere in the van – a pretty simple ask in my opinion (though it occasionally got annoying). After choosing and discarding multiple things, I finally settled on a shower, knowing as I did that it would take a ton of ingenuity.

Ben had a lot of opposition to the idea of a shower—we would need a lot of water; it would take up a ton of space; we would have to introduce propane because it’s the most efficient way to heat water; did I mention water consumption? Faced with the need to respond to all of those objections, I poured through tons of design ideas, from a sun shower and an outside shower to a large cross-through design and a small wet bath. But the most challenging part of my job was figuring out how to build a sustainable, economical shower with a limited water supply. Until I found the recirculating shower concept. 

Showerloop was the first system I stumbled upon and after researching further, I realized the idea has been reimagined and recreated by multiple people, especially in areas of the world with limited water supply. It’s also become popular in the rv / mobile community and most recently, among campervan builders. After I got Ben on board, I reached out to a few designers to evaluate purchasing a ready-made kit. But after multiple delays and failed attempts, we finally made the decision to design one ourselves. 

The diagram above details our recirculating shower system, minus other components (radiant heated floors / forced air heater).

Key Components of the System:

  • Filters:
    • Progressively smaller
    • Flushable sediment filter placed before pump to prevent clogging
    • UV Light after filtration (for bacteria and viruses)
  • Separation of sink and shower:
    • Ball valve – stops fresh water from entering hot water heater while showering
    • One way valves – stop contamination of fresh water while showering
  • Switch in shower:
    • Turns on shower pump
    • Turns on UV light
    • Closes fresh water ball valve
  • Tanks:
    • Grey water for urine diverter (not shown) and sink drainage
    • Shower tank – Ability to store recirculated water
    • (Ability to fill shower tank from fresh water tank)

To put it simply, when water goes down the shower drain, it collects in a 5 gallon tank [shower tank]. Then a pump pulls water from the shower tank and pushes it through 4 filters (20 micron, 5 micron, 1 micron, 0.5 micron) then through a UV light. The water then hits a T joint, so either it will go directly back to the shower or through the water heater. Then the cycle repeats.

Our fresh water tank is connected to the shower tank and we usually empty and refill after each shower cycle, or whenever we think the water is dirty. We also flush all of the filters at the same time.

It’s not a perfect system – we’re still experimenting with types of soaps and non-soaps that are friendly to the filters – and there are a few other things we’ve changed in the close to 10 months we’ve been on the road to make the system better. However, given the way that 2020 has gone so far, including the closure of gyms and public showers, we’ve been incredibly grateful to have a method to get clean while on the road.

We’re always willing to answer questions if anyone’s looking to set up a similar system. Just shoot us a direct message at @threevancats.

View of our tiny wetbath (24”x32”), including the waterproof switch (black, above handles)

Partially complete recirculating shower system during van build, aka, a whole lotta brass

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