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With most of the country in the grips of what feels like a colder than average winter, many RV owners will be considering fitting some sort of heating to their caravan, camper or motorhome. If free camping is on the agenda, then a diesel-fuelled ducted heating system is the obvious choice. But which one do you choose? The expensive name brand or a cheap unit from China? In this article, we look at the pros and cons of both and speak to owners and repairers about their experiences so you can make an informed choice.

When it comes to diesel heaters, there are the trusted brand names in such as Erberspacher and Webasto, as well as a seemingly endless number of suppliers of cheap copies available online, predominantly sourced from China. The price difference between the two options is considerable. The entry-level Erberspacher D2, which has a rated heat output of 2200 watts, sells for around $1900 whereas the price for a 5000-watt heater from China can be as little as $270 online. It's a huge price differential and explains the appeal of the Chinese units.

However, the Chinese heaters tend to get a bad reputation for reliability, parts availability and, most importantly, safety. Chris Emmerson of CJE Caravan Repairs has seen a lot of dodgy products come through his workshop, but increasingly he is being asked to fix issues associated with cheap ducted diesel heaters.

Chris said, “Caravan and motorhome owners are tempted to purchase these units because of the huge price difference between them and the name brand equivalents. The problem is the cheap heaters are often inferior in many ways.”

They often cost less than dinner for two, but are the diesel heaters offered online hot stuff or fire risk

DON’T GET BURNED BY A CHINESE DIESEL HEATER

Hot-as or cheap-ass?

WORDS MARTY LEDWICH  IMAGES VARIOUS

FEATURE Cheap Diesel Heaters

Thanks to Richard Webb for his video of 'what's in the box?'

Offline: This content can only be displayed when online.
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Chris told us most of the issues he has are to do with replacing faulty parts, which he says are difficult, if not impossible, to source. “The companies that sell these cheap heaters are located overseas and often do not return emails if a warranty claim is made or if replacement parts are required, making repairs almost impossible.”

However, it appears it's not all bad news for buyers of the cheap heaters. For a start, there is a huge online community of owners who have posted lots of supporting material on the internet, including a vast number of YouTube videos detailing the installation process as well as troubleshooting problems.

There is also a handful of groups on Facebook dedicated to these cheap Chinese heaters. The Chinese Diesel Air Heater – Troubleshooting and Parts Sales Facebook group is by far the most popular with over 25,000 members across the world. They have developed an extensive array of documents in their files section that anyone installing one of these heaters will find extremely useful when researching what heaters to buy and how to get them working successfully.

Looking through the posts on the group, the most common issues seem to be inadequate wiring, faulty glow plugs, smoky exhaust emissions and numerous error codes on the higher end controllers. These issues are not insurmountable with many members offering any number of solutions.

Two common complaints about some cheap diesel heaters are noisy fuel pumps and the exhaust systems. It appears these units may not be supplied with adequate silencers making life for you and your neighbours particularly unpleasant. We recently camped next to another van fitted with what we suspect was a cheap diesel heater due to the rather unpleasant noise coming from the exhaust port. It was certainly much louder than many others we've encountered.

Fuel seems to be another major issue with some users finding running straight diesel fuel causes the combustion chamber to choke up with excessive carbon deposits. Some users suggest mixing the diesel fuel with various ratios of kerosene to solve this issue, although we would highly recommend you check with the supplier before making any such changes. The carbon deposits are also reported to occur in high power 5kW units bought for use in too-small spaces, meaning they’re so effective at heating they’re never run on high power – a bit like the DPF issue plaguing some turbo-diesel vehicles!

And this leads us to probably the most important question when it comes to installing any form of heating inside your RV. Just how safe are these cheap heaters?

Offline: This content can only be displayed when online.

ABOVE In no way a cheap unit, an Erberspacher heater in full flow // BELOW Though the imported online units are mimicking the technology, just in simpler terms 

Richard Webb takes us through an install of his heater, with part two below 

BELOW An interesting experience for you to share!

See the second part of Richard Webb's install

ABOVE A cracked glow plug is one common fault

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Chris told us he believes many of these cheap heaters are made from inferior quality materials. For example, the thickness of the metal used for the heat exchanger, which is prone to burning through to the heated air outlet allowing exhaust fumes to escape. Not only is this a fire risk, but it also means carbon monoxide could enter the living space of the caravan.

Carbon Monoxide poisoning is a very real danger, particularly with caravans and motorhomes. Being an enclosed space, they are required to have adequate ventilation to prevent the build-up of poisonous gasses. Unfortunately, items stored in the RV may partially or completely block these vents. If a heater is left running overnight and carbon monoxide builds up, the occupants would be completely unaware of the danger, risking brain damage or death. And considering it’s still not mandatory for carbon monoxide detectors to be fitted in recreational vehicles, this compounds the potential (even if the unwary still insist on using the gas stove to heat the van).

The brand-name heaters make much of the fact that they are very safe. For example, Webasto advertises safety features that include:

  • Under / Over voltage cut-off
  • Overheat temperature sensor (in case of a blocked vent)
  • Heater lockout after three failed start-up attempts
  • In case of an error or fault code, the pump will shut off preventing the burner chamber flooding with fuel.

Chris's advice is to check the specifications of any diesel heater to ensure it has these safety features before committing to purchase.

The DIY installation of these diesel heaters can also present overvoltage issues. Chris told me he had a customer complain that when he first used his heater, he had a strong smell of diesel fuel inside the caravan. Upon inspection, Chris found the owner had installed the unit himself and had cable-tied the fuel line to the exhaust outlet! Not the smartest move in the world.

Chris admits that these installation issues can happen with any brand diesel heater. However, he did point out that the installation instructions that come with the brand-name heaters are much clearer than the cheaper alternatives.

Chris recommends that if you do have one of these cheaper diesel heaters installed in your RV that you have it inspected by a specialist to ensure it is installed properly and working correctly. As an added safety measure, he also recommends installing a carbon monoxide alarm near the sleeping space of your RV. Most hardware stores and caravan accessory retailers sell units that are suitable for caravans and motorhomes. Follow the mounting instructions to the letter, too.

ABOVE Fault diagnosis chart // BELOW A temperature sensor shows a reading from the heater's case

ABOVE AND BELOW Mark Tyler shared pics of his well-executed installation and generous use of good clamps, and pipe shrouds

That leaves us with one question. Just how reliable are the cheap heaters? Again, it’s a mixed bag with some users having no end of problems, yet others report not having any ongoing issues at all. One friend of ours had a cheap heater installed in her caravan only for it to fail within a few weeks. She was unable to get any response from the seller and ended up purchasing a new one. She is pleased to report it has been faultless thus far.

A user from the Facebook group mentioned earlier contacted me to describe his experience with his diesel heater. He switched the unit on after installing it only to have the cabin of his motorhome fill with noxious white smoke 45 minutes later. He was unable to get any technical assistance from his supplier, instead receiving a full refund.

On the other side of the coin, a couple of members of the Roadstar Caravan Owners Group have recently installed a cheap Chinese heater into their caravans and has thus far not experienced any issues.

The reality is that as long as there are expensive name-brand goods that are popular, there will be cheap copies available online. Some will be good, and some will be very ordinary. When it comes to diesel heaters, you can almost purchase ten cheap units before you spend the same amount of money for a single name brand item. With a bit of research and good fortune, you may end up with a good one or only having to replace one faulty unit, and even then you would still be way ahead in terms of cost.

But cheap doesn't necessarily mean safe. If you intend to purchase a ducted diesel heater, we recommend that you stick to the name brands for peace of mind. However, if you cannot afford one, purchase a cheaper unit from a reputable Australian seller. Make sure it has the safety features of the more expensive brands and that it is supported by a local warranty with spare parts availability.

For added peace of mind, consider having it installed by a professional caravan repairer.

Whatever route you choose to go, read our complete guide to diesel heating here, including how to install one.

BELOW The quality of the control units varies, but they're vitally important. As is the explanation and your ease to rectify a fault. Image credit: Mark Tyler 

ABOVE Mark Tyler's tank for his heater  // BELOW A carbon copy indeed. Build-up can be a problem

FEATURE Cheap Diesel Heaters

Offline: This content can only be displayed when online.

DON’T GET BURNED BY A CHINESE DIESEL HEATER

Hot-as or cheap-ass?

WORDS MARTY LEDWICH  IMAGES VARIOUS

They often cost less than dinner for two, but are the diesel heaters offered online hot stuff or fire risk

With most of the country in the grips of what feels like a colder than average winter, many RV owners will be considering fitting some sort of heating to their caravan, camper or motorhome. If free camping is on the agenda, then a diesel-fuelled ducted heating system is the obvious choice. But which one do you choose? The expensive name brand or a cheap unit from China? In this article, we look at the pros and cons of both and speak to owners and repairers about their experiences so you can make an informed choice.

When it comes to diesel heaters, there are the trusted brand names in such as Erberspacher and Webasto, as well as a seemingly endless number of suppliers of cheap copies available online, predominantly sourced from China. The price difference between the two options is considerable. The entry-level Erberspacher D2, which has a rated heat output of 2200 watts, sells for around $1900 whereas the price for a 5000-watt heater from China can be as little as $270 online. It's a huge price differential and explains the appeal of the Chinese units.

However, the Chinese heaters tend to get a bad reputation for reliability, parts availability and, most importantly, safety. Chris Emmerson of CJE Caravan Repairs has seen a lot of dodgy products come through his workshop, but increasingly he is being asked to fix issues associated with cheap ducted diesel heaters.

Chris said, “Caravan and motorhome owners are tempted to purchase these units because of the huge price difference between them and the name brand equivalents. The problem is the cheap heaters are often inferior in many ways.”

Thanks to Richard Webb for his video of 'what's in the box?'

Chris told us most of the issues he has are to do with replacing faulty parts, which he says are difficult, if not impossible, to source. “The companies that sell these cheap heaters are located overseas and often do not return emails if a warranty claim is made or if replacement parts are required, making repairs almost impossible.”

However, it appears it's not all bad news for buyers of the cheap heaters. For a start, there is a huge online community of owners who have posted lots of supporting material on the internet, including a vast number of YouTube videos detailing the installation process as well as troubleshooting problems.

There is also a handful of groups on Facebook dedicated to these cheap Chinese heaters. The Chinese Diesel Air Heater – Troubleshooting and Parts Sales Facebook group is by far the most popular with over 25,000 members across the world. They have developed an extensive array of documents in their files section that anyone installing one of these heaters will find extremely useful when researching what heaters to buy and how to get them working successfully.

Offline: This content can only be displayed when online.

ABOVE In no way a cheap unit, an Erberspacher heater in full flow // BELOW Though the imported online units are mimicking the technology, just in simpler terms 

BELOW An interesting experience for you to share!

Looking through the posts on the group, the most common issues seem to be inadequate wiring, faulty glow plugs, smoky exhaust emissions and numerous error codes on the higher end controllers. These issues are not insurmountable with many members offering any number of solutions.

Two common complaints about some cheap diesel heaters are noisy fuel pumps and the exhaust systems. It appears these units may not be supplied with adequate silencers making life for you and your neighbours particularly unpleasant. We recently camped next to another van fitted with what we suspect was a cheap diesel heater due to the rather unpleasant noise coming from the exhaust port. It was certainly much louder than many others we've encountered.

Fuel seems to be another major issue with some users finding running straight diesel fuel causes the combustion chamber to choke up with excessive carbon deposits. Some users suggest mixing the diesel fuel with various ratios of kerosene to solve this issue, although we would highly recommend you check with the supplier before making any such changes. The carbon deposits are also reported to occur in high power 5kW units bought for use in too-small spaces, meaning they’re so effective at heating they’re never run on high power – a bit like the DPF issue plaguing some turbo-diesel vehicles!

And this leads us to probably the most important question when it comes to installing any form of heating inside your RV. Just how safe are these cheap heaters?

See the second part of Richard Webb's install

ABOVE A cracked glow plug is one common fault

Richard Webb takes us through an install of his heater, with part two below 

FROM $25,000
ADVERTISEMENT
SCROLL TO CONTINUE

Chris told us he believes many of these cheap heaters are made from inferior quality materials. For example, the thickness of the metal used for the heat exchanger, which is prone to burning through to the heated air outlet allowing exhaust fumes to escape. Not only is this a fire risk, but it also means carbon monoxide could enter the living space of the caravan.

Carbon Monoxide poisoning is a very real danger, particularly with caravans and motorhomes. Being an enclosed space, they are required to have adequate ventilation to prevent the build-up of poisonous gasses. Unfortunately, items stored in the RV may partially or completely block these vents. If a heater is left running overnight and carbon monoxide builds up, the occupants would be completely unaware of the danger, risking brain damage or death. And considering it’s still not mandatory for carbon monoxide detectors to be fitted in recreational vehicles, this compounds the potential (even if the unwary still insist on using the gas stove to heat the van).

The brand-name heaters make much of the fact that they are very safe. For example, Webasto advertises safety features that include:

  • Under / Over voltage cut-off
  • Overheat temperature sensor (in case of a blocked vent)
  • Heater lockout after three failed start-up attempts
  • In case of an error or fault code, the pump will shut off preventing the burner chamber flooding with fuel.

Chris's advice is to check the specifications of any diesel heater to ensure it has these safety features before committing to purchase.

ABOVE Fault diagnosis chart // BELOW A temperature sensor shows a reading from the heater's case

The DIY installation of these diesel heaters can also present overvoltage issues. Chris told me he had a customer complain that when he first used his heater, he had a strong smell of diesel fuel inside the caravan. Upon inspection, Chris found the owner had installed the unit himself and had cable-tied the fuel line to the exhaust outlet! Not the smartest move in the world.

Chris admits that these installation issues can happen with any brand diesel heater. However, he did point out that the installation instructions that come with the brand-name heaters are much clearer than the cheaper alternatives.

Chris recommends that if you do have one of these cheaper diesel heaters installed in your RV that you have it inspected by a specialist to ensure it is installed properly and working correctly. As an added safety measure, he also recommends installing a carbon monoxide alarm near the sleeping space of your RV. Most hardware stores and caravan accessory retailers sell units that are suitable for caravans and motorhomes. Follow the mounting instructions to the letter, too.

ABOVE AND BELOW Mark Tyler shared pics of his well-executed installation and generous use of good clamps, and pipe shrouds

That leaves us with one question. Just how reliable are the cheap heaters? Again, it’s a mixed bag with some users having no end of problems, yet others report not having any ongoing issues at all. One friend of ours had a cheap heater installed in her caravan only for it to fail within a few weeks. She was unable to get any response from the seller and ended up purchasing a new one. She is pleased to report it has been faultless thus far.

A user from the Facebook group mentioned earlier contacted me to describe his experience with his diesel heater. He switched the unit on after installing it only to have the cabin of his motorhome fill with noxious white smoke 45 minutes later. He was unable to get any technical assistance from his supplier, instead receiving a full refund.

BELOW The quality of the control units varies, but they're vitally important. As is the explanation and your ease to rectify a fault. Image credit: Mark Tyler 

On the other side of the coin, a couple of members of the Roadstar Caravan Owners Group have recently installed a cheap Chinese heater into their caravans and has thus far not experienced any issues.

The reality is that as long as there are expensive name-brand goods that are popular, there will be cheap copies available online. Some will be good, and some will be very ordinary. When it comes to diesel heaters, you can almost purchase ten cheap units before you spend the same amount of money for a single name brand item. With a bit of research and good fortune, you may end up with a good one or only having to replace one faulty unit, and even then you would still be way ahead in terms of cost.

But cheap doesn't necessarily mean safe. If you intend to purchase a ducted diesel heater, we recommend that you stick to the name brands for peace of mind. However, if you cannot afford one, purchase a cheaper unit from a reputable Australian seller. Make sure it has the safety features of the more expensive brands and that it is supported by a local warranty with spare parts availability.

For added peace of mind, consider having it installed by a professional caravan repairer.

Whatever route you choose to go, read our complete guide to diesel heating here, including how to install one.

ABOVE Mark Tyler's tank for his heater  // BELOW A carbon copy indeed. Build-up can be a problem