I get asked all the time about ways to keep warm when camping in the colder months.
You might recall a while back that I took a trip to the Alabama Hills here in California for some cold weather camping. On that trip, I tested out a cheap portable diesel heater for you guys to see if it was a viable option for keeping me warm.
As I explain in the video below, things didn’t go well with that cheap heater…
But, this isn’t a knock on all diesel heaters by any means. There are some highly reputable companies that make truly excellent heaters. It just so happens that the one I tested first wasn’t one of them!
In this diesel heater buyer’s guide, I want to explain how diesel heaters work, discuss my experience with that cheap portable diesel heater, identify what went wrong, and share with you which diesel heater I recommend instead. Let’s get started!
How Diesel Heaters Work
In the past, when we discussed diesel heaters we were talking about heating units that were installed in 18-wheelers and RVs that drew fuel from the rig’s main tank to heat the vehicle as it was parked. This enabled the vehicle to be heated without idling the engine.
This type of heater is fantastic because it’s so efficient – it brings outside air into the combustion chamber where the air mixes with a little fuel to produce heat. The exhaust exits through a pipe outside while the air inside gets drawn into the heater by a fan, where the air is warmed up by the metal heat exchanger inside. That warm air is then circulated through the vehicle by a larger fan. This kind of forced air system circulates the warm air very efficiently and keeps things nice and toasty.
Today, you can pick up a portable diesel heater that can be used for your rooftop tent, van, travel trailer or any other small space that needs some heat. It’s a convenient way to get warm when the temperature dips!
Of course, there are some concerns with diesel heaters.
First, carbon monoxide is a serious concern. If you use a portable diesel heater and it isn’t ventilated properly, you could inadvertently fill your RV or tent with poisonous gas. When setting up your diesel heater, be sure you take care to do so properly. Also install carbon monoxide detectors in your vehicle to be safe.
Another area of note in our portable diesel heater buyer’s guide is that diesel heaters are more prone to issues at high altitudes. Combustion in the heater needs a precise mixture of fuel and oxygen, which it cannot get at higher altitudes where the air is thinner. This means that the combustion chamber might have too much fuel in it and not enough oxygen, which can result in failure.
Fortunately, you can make adjustments to many diesel heaters to make them more altitude-friendly.
For example, some diesel heaters have a manual adjustment for high altitudes. Other models give you the option of installing an additional fuel pump that sends a reduced amount of fuel to the combustion chamber when you’re at higher altitudes. Yet other models have an automatic sensor built in that detects the atmospheric pressure and allows the unit to self-adjust how much fuel is being delivered, depending on the altitude.
Another factor to consider is that you don’t want to oversize your heater for your needs.
In many cases, bigger is better, but that does not hold true for diesel heaters…
While you might think that a 4kw heater is necessary, it’s simply too much for tents, camper vans, and even many travel trailers. The problem is that these big heaters seldom (if ever) go past the lowest setting, which causes soot buildup in the unit. This, in turn, means you’ll have to clean the unit constantly. As a result, many folks that buy too big of a heater end up getting a smaller one down the road.
So, unless you’re heating a diesel pusher motorhome, a converted school bus, or you like to camp in a very cold climate, opt for a smaller 2kw heater.
Portable Diesel Heater Buyer’s Guide: Why Not a Cheap Diesel Heater?
Let me summarize my experience with that cheap portable diesel heater on that cold weather trip to the Alabama Hills…
- It was poorly made.
- It was loud.
- It seldom ran.
- When it did run, it ran rich.
- Temperature control was a nightmare.
- It ran out of fuel in two hours.
Other than that, it was great!
Obviously, the primary draw with a cheap portable diesel heater is the price tag – you can pick one up on Amazon for a couple hundred bucks.
But like most things in life, you get what you pay for. If you go cheap on a diesel heater, you’re going to get one that performs like a cheap heater.
Additionally, many cheap diesel heaters (most) are made in China where there are far fewer regulations regarding how they are built. As a result, they tend to be more prone to defects, which could increase the likelihood of a build-up of carbon monoxide.
Another issue is that cheap diesel heaters often lack the features and customizability of proper diesel heaters. Like I noted earlier, they are mass-produced and often have parts that don’t quite fit, let alone features like a remote control, an exhaust silencer, or an easy-to-carry case.
So, a critical piece of this portable diesel heater buyer’s guide is this: don’t be seduced by the tiny price tag of a cheap diesel heater. It simply isn’t worth it, and you’ll be far better off if you put that money towards a high-quality heater.
Portable Diesel Heater Buyer’s Guide: Invest in the Best Heater You Can
Rather than fighting with a cheap portable diesel heater, invest in the best heater you can. Doing so will ensure you get a product that was designed and manufactured correctly, that has features that make it easy to use, and that will give you long-lasting durability and years of service.
I mentioned earlier that there are plenty of reputable companies that make diesel heaters, but for my money, no one beats Planar Heaters.
This company is a Canadian and U.S. distributor for Planar heaters. It’s a family-run company, and besides a distribution of the factory-supplied diesel heaters, they have designed and have perfected the process of building durable and reliable diesel heaters
Whether you camp in your car, a rooftop tent, a ground tent, or something in between, their 2kw portable diesel heater fits the bill.
Unlike that cheap diesel heater I first tested, the Planar Heaters 2kw model gives you 5 amps power draw during normal operation, is built like a tank, and comes in a crushproof, rain-resistant, easy-to-carry case.
This bad boy needs a 12v power source and either diesel or kerosene to get the heat flowing into your vehicle or tent.
And with a higher-quality heater you get far better performance – where that cheap heater I tested ran out of fuel in two hours, the Planar Heaters 2kw model can run for eight hours on a little more than a half a gallon of fuel.
It even comes with a wired remote controller for ease of use, a silencer for quiet operation, and can operate at altitudes of up to 8,200 feet.
This thing is so easy to pack in your vehicle and set up once you get to camp. There’s no messing around with the temperature setting or constantly refueling it. It’s intuitive and easy to use and gives you reliable heat all night long. And if 2kw isn’t enough, there’s a 4kw model that gives you 5 amps per hour draw under normal operation that’s also turnkey and ready to use right out of the box.
If you’re a DIY enthusiast, Planar Heaters also offers you the option of buying a diesel air heater kit if you want to install the heater yourself. The kits come with everything you need for installation and range in size from 2kw up to 8kw to meet virtually any heating needs you might have.
Are Good Diesel Heaters Worth the Money?
YES! The point of this portable diesel heater buyer’s guide is to show you that good diesel heaters are absolutely worth the money.
Some folks knock good diesel heaters because they are expensive. You’ll pay well over $1,000 for a solid portable diesel heater.
But from my perspective, I’d rather head out on a cold weather camping trip knowing that I have something reliable to heat my rooftop tent and that I won’t have to fight with the heater to get it to work as I did with the cheap one I tested in the Alabama Hills.
While the up front cost is more, in the long run, a good diesel heater will pay for itself, particularly one from Planar as their heaters come with a two-year warranty for added peace of mind.
Personally, I’d rather pay more to get something that will last me for years and years to come, wouldn’t you?!