When we were considering what kind of plumbing system we wanted in our van, we researched a number of different setups and found everything ranging from just using water bottles and canteens — about as cheap as you can get — to full-on electric pumps and on-demand hot water. We weren’t looking for anything too fancy, and didn’t want to spend a bunch of money, so for our setup, we purchased a basic sink, hand-pump faucet, a couple standard camping water containers, vinyl hosing, and brass and plastic adapters for connecting it all. If you’re looking to do a simple setup like ours, hopefully this guide will save you some time and Home Depot Heartache.
Installing the sink and faucet
Our 18-inch stainless steel holeless sink came from Home Depot, which we flush mounted into our butcher block countertop with some silicone to seal it up. Cutting the hole into the butcher block (using the provided template from the sink) with a 30-year old jigsaw was a 4-person job that I can promise was not a lot of fun! There was a lot of smoking from the wood overheating and the jigsaw even managed to ooze some hot black goo onto me, which was a little terrifying.
We went with a holeless sink because our hand-pump faucet would not fit into the standard diameter holes that are cut into the edge of most sinks, and we didn’t want to have to plug existing holes, cut new ones, or have wasted space from a sink edge we didn’t need. So our faucet sits flush with the top edge of the sink, and pumps straight into the basin just great.
The faucet was purchased from Amazon. So far it has worked great for us. Pumping a lot of water through it can be a bit of a chore, but for the cost and ease of installation we think it works perfectly. We read some reviews online complaining about it leaking, but found that as long as you don’t twist the plastic connections or spout anti-clockwise, they’ll stay water tight and don’t naturally loosen much. If they do start to leak a little, we just hand-tighten them clockwise and that has worked great so far. To attach the faucet to the butcher block we measured the width of the base of the pump and drilled the appropriate hole with a holesaw. Then it’s just a case of screwing the faucet down with the provided hardware.
It turned out cutting the hole for the sink and fitting it and the faucet were the simplest part of all this. I never would have predicted that while sawing through the 1.25-inch thick butcher block, but hey! Van conversions are 50% planning and research and 50% surprise. From that point we had a lot of trial and error to find the correct pieces to connect the freshwater tank to the faucet and the graywater tank to the drain. We totally did not anticipate this being difficult, and couldn’t find a detailed enough guide online anywhere that fit our approach. The experimentation involved no less than 5 trips to the hardware store and a lot of frustration and leaky plumbing. Hopefully we can save you the effort and stress on this one, if you’re looking for a real simple setup that’ll allow you to have 5+ gallons of clean water available at a time and 5+ gallons of wastewater capacity (depending upon the containers you have room for/choose).
Connecting the faucet and sink to the water containers
To get water from our 7-gallon fresh water tank to the faucet, and from the sink drain to our graywater tank, we initially bought 3/8″ PVC tubing for both. This works great for the connection between the fresh tank and the faucet, but we came to find that this diameter wasn’t enough for the small pieces of food that inevitably make their way into the drain, despite using a basket strainer. With the 3/8″ tubing we kept getting a clog near the base of the hose as it runs into the graywater tank. In the end, 1/2″ hosing ended up performing way better.
For the faucet, the 3/8″ tubing went directly onto the bottom nozzle with a ring clamp to keep it secured. We ran the tubing directly down to the lid of the water tank, which had an optional pour spout that screwed right into it, leaving us with a hole in the top that was a little too large for the tubing. To ensure a tight fit for the tubing, we found a plastic plug that fit the hole. Once the plug was screwed into the lid along with some teflon tape, we put a 1/2″ drill bit through it, giving us a new hole that fit the outer diameter of the tubing snugly. It slides in and out of the lid quite easily, but isn’t clamped down so it’s not water tight. This prevents air pressure from building up in the tank, and we’ve never had any leaking issues, even when the tank is full and we’re on bumpy roads.
Next, we had to connect the drain down to the graywater tank. In the drain hole of the sink, we fit a basket strainer and sealed it with silicone. To go from this hardware to our gray tank, we had to troubleshoot with different plastic and brass plumbing pieces and various types of plumbing glue/adhesive. The first few times were fairly messy disasters as we couldn’t get the glue to harden properly or water to flow well and eventually a leak or a clog formed. In the end, we found we hadn’t been properly preparing the plastic piping to adhere to the glue. We also weren’t having any luck with getting PVC cement to hold everything together, and had drainage issues with anything with a bend in it.
We were finally successful with a straight PVC flanged tailpiece (using gravity as our friend) that we cut to size so it wasn’t sticking down too far, which screwed onto the bottom of the basket strainer with the included hardware. We took a wire brush to the inside of the end of the pipe and glued a reducer bushing piece into the bottom of it with Goop Plumbing Adhesive. That stuff is amazing and hardened rock solid. We then screwed a brass PEX barb thread adapter into the bushing with teflon tape to seal it (all seen in the below picture).
We pushed the 1/2″ tubing over the end of the adapter, and ran this down through the optional spout hole in the lid on the graywater tank. We didn’t plug this hole as we need to be able to remove the tubing easily – it isn’t very flexible and we didn’t want it sticking down too far into the tank and getting gross in the graywater. So it sits a few inches below the lid, and so far we’ve had no issues with spillage because of the design. Just don’t let the tank get too full! We’ve had dishwater on the floor before because of complacency in checking how full that tank is.
As for water usage, we probably fill our 7-gallon fresh tank every 3 days or so, and use it for cleaning dishes, brushing our teeth, dog water, etc. We also have an additional 5-gallon collapsible container for drinking water only, giving us 12 gallons total. We fill our fresh tank wherever we can — from municipal water, campsites, etc. — and our drinking water container at Glacier Water filling stations at Safeways and similar stores. Those filling stations are pretty much everywhere. We think the Glacier water tastes amazing, and for 35c or less a gallon of highly filtered, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet light-treated water, we consider it a bargain.
On the graywater front, we empty our tank every 3-5 days. We generally do this in city drains, campground disposal sites, or, in a pinch, a toilet actually works as the water pressure naturally flushes the toilet. Trust me on that — it won’t just fill up and overflow. At worst the water you put into the toilet will displace the existing water, because of the design of most Western plumbing, and then you can flush away the remnants. If you’ve ever been to an Asian country and used a squat toilet, you’ll know what I mean. But what isn’t kosher is just dumping your wastewater on the side of the road or anywhere it won’t make its way into a sewage system, as it can attract wildlife and make a mess.
One final note: every few weeks we throw some bleach into our graywater tank to keep it from getting nasty. It really helps with any build up of smells and I presume the inside of the tank is a lot cleaner after it has been rinsed this way.
Happy plumbing system building! We sincerely hope this post saves you some time at the hardware store.
Hardware and other materials used:
- 7-gallon fresh water tank
- 5-gallon graywater tank
- 3/8″ PVC tubing (for the hose between the faucet and fresh water tank)
- 1/2″ PVC tubing (for the hose between the sink drain and graywater tank)
- Plastic plug (for fresh water tank lid)
- Basket strainer (for sink drain)
- PVC flanged tailpiece (connects to bottom of basket strainer)
- Reducer bushing (connects to tail piece)
- Brass PEX barb thread adapter (connects drain assembly to 1/2″ hose)
- 5-gallon collapsible container (for additional water storage as needed)
- Goop Plumbing Adhesive
- Teflon tape