Everything You Need To Know About Portable Hot Water Systems

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Jay Elliott

Chief Camping Officer

Portable Hot Water Systems

A portable hot water system will provide you with the best camping shower experience that you will be able to get while camping. Led by models such as the Joolca Hotap and Smartek Black, these units have become extremelly popular with campers in recent times.

Though they are the most expensive, and biggest of all the different camping shower options, they do provide the warmest water, at the highest flow, for the longest period of time.

If you can handle carrying the additional supplies you will need (gas bottle etc.) and can connect a few hoses to the unit, and then a portable hot water system is ideal. 

How Does A Portable Hot Water System Work?

A portable hot water system operates very similarly to a residential home gas hot water system. They use gas to power a small burner which warms up a heat exchanger. The water is pumped through this heat exchanger and warms up as it goes through. This type of system is known as a continuous hot water system.

This means the unit does not store water in a tank and heat it up (like many electric hot water systems in homes), but only heats water that is flowing through the unit, and stops heating when the flow of water stops.

They have an internal sensor that detects when water starts flowing through the pipes, and that movement triggers the gas burner to light and warm the heat exchanger, which warms the water as it flows through. 

Portable hot water systems usually require multiple different energy sources to operate. As described above, they need gas to warm the water.

In most cases, this is provided by an LPG gas bottle. They also need some power to light the pilot light (ignition), which warms up the heat exchanged. This is often powered by batteries.

Then lastly, there needs to be some form of electricity to power the pump to bring the water into the unit for heating, and push it out through the hose, and shoer rose.

How Do I Set Up My Portable Hot Water System?

Note: These instructions are relevant to typical large portable hot water systems, and may not be applicable to smaller ‘all-in-one’ solutions. 

  1. Position The Hot Water Unit

The first thing you need to do is position your hot water system. The biggest unit’s come with some sort of hook/handle you can use to hang it.

Some like to hang them on their vehicle, or a convenient branch or camping structure (gazebo, etc.). Another popular way, and the most preferred, is with a specially designed tripod.

These tripods mean you can position them anywhere, and move them around as required, but these tripods are not included with the unit and are an additional cost.

However, there are also some smaller types of hot water systems that don’t require mounting and just sit on your table, or bench, or the ground. 

  1. Connect the Gas

The gas hose has a POL fitting on one end, which is what you connect to the gas bottle, and a BSP fitting on the other end.

The BSP fitting is what you will attach to the hot water system, and the POL fitting with regular will connect to your gas bottle.

Once your gas bottle is connected, move it as far away from the unit as the hose allows, because you want to eliminate as much as possible, any chance of a spark or flame from the water unit being exposed to the gas bottle. 

Once you have hooked up your gas, spray each connection with sodium water to make sure you don’t have any gas leaks, before turning the unit on. 

  1. Connect the Shower hose/rose

Make sure the shower rose is firmly attached to the shoer hose and screw this onto the hot water outlet of the unit.

This is very important. If you attach this to the input accidentally, no water will enter your unit, and it will not work. 

  1. Ignition Batteries

Double-check that you have charged ignition batteries installed (or the pilot light won’t heat to warm the water)

  1. Connect Water Source to the Inlet

Your inlet hose is likely to have two different lengths of hose connected to a water pump.

One hose will be placed into your water source, and the other end will need to be attached to the inlet port of your hot water system.

  1. Connect Power To The Water Pump

Once all gas and water hoses are in place, it’s time to connect the power.

We always connect power last as we don’t want to accidentally start the pump when no water is connected, due to the risk of damage. Portable hot water systems vary in the way they connect to power.

Some have alligator clips you can hook up to a car battery, some have 12V car plugs, others have Anderson plugs, and others have a range of adapters you can use.

In my case, we love using our battery box, so we would opt for either alligator clips or 12v car fitting. 

Now assuming gas is on, the pump is on, batteries are installed, and power connected, your shower should be ready to use. 

Based on your unit, adjust the temperature and water flow settings to your liking, and turn on the hot water! 

Tip: You can hold the shower rose with your hands and wash while directing the water in that way, or you can also get a stand that holds the shower head up in position so you can have both hands free while showering. 

Purchase Considerations

Water Flow 

All units will have a designated water flow, expressed in ‘Litres per minute’. Many of the bigger units will have a flow of around 4 liters per minute, with the possibility to extend them up to 6 liters per minute if you want to purchase a larger pump. 

For example, the Smarttek Black has a flow of approximately 6 liters per minute and is one of the best portable hot water systems available.

Type of Gas

Some units can run on butane gas bottles (like you use for cookers etc.) but most will require an LPG gas bottle.

Make sure you double-check the gas required, and that you are willing and able to meet that need.


Make sure you are fully aware of how big a unit is, and all the moving pieces involved, so you know what you will be needing to transport around.

The selling point of some smaller units is that they are all-in-one, and easy to carry and set up, whereas some of the bigger, more effective units are bulky, and have multiple hoses in multiple directions.

They often have to carry bag accessories you can purchase to make it easy, 

Read the Reviews

Most camping websites have review sections on their websites, so look at a few of the products, then scroll down to the reviews section and see what people have said. 

Frequently Asked Questions

How hot can portable hot water system water get? 

Most systems have a maximum temperature of around 50-50 degrees celsius. However, that does not guarantee that water will get that hot.

They work by raising the temperature of the unit by a certain amount, usually around 30 degrees, not by raising any water up to the maximum temperature of 55 degrees.

That means that if the temperature of the water you are pumping in is 0 degrees, the water will come out at 30 degrees, even if you have the temperature selector set to 55 degrees.

This means you need water of at least 25 degrees temperature already to reach the maximum of 55 degrees.  

Can you use them for cold water?

Most units are designed to be used for hot water only, so it is not advisable to try and use them differently.

Technically you could turn off the gas so the water would not be heated, but the unit pilot light will still be firing every time you draw water, so it could have an adverse impact on the machine. 

Can you use an external pump? 

No, the units come with a pump, and they are designed to be used with that. Many units can be connected to an outside garden tap safely, but internal mains water is not recommended. 

Does it have a water tank?

No portable hot water systems are designed to draw water from an external water source, heat it, and push it out through a showerhead. They are not designed to include a water storage tank. 

Can you use a portable hot water system Indoors?

No, these systems are designed to be used outdoors, and the ventilation is designed accordingly. Using indoors poses a safety risk and should not be done. 

Can it suck water out of a creek or river?

Absolutely. This is a common use, but you will need to make you have enough shower hose to get from the water source to your shower spot. You can buy additional hoses if you think this will be needed.

If you are pumping out of natural water sources (creek/rivers), then it would also be wise to invest in a water filter, so no bits and pieces get sucked into your system. 

Can they be wall mounted?

No, this is not advisable. They are designed to be portable units and not mounted in a fixed way.

There is a handle on top you can use to hang them from something, use a tripod accessory, or drawbar mount. 

Can I use a portable hot water system for a shower and kitchen sink at the same time?

Some people will want to use the portable hot water service both for their shower and for their kitchen sink. Though you cannot run water to both at the same time, you can buy a tee-piece accessory that allows you to hook up two different water outlets.

You might be able to hack the tee piece to send water in two directions at once, but the water flow will be severely compromised. 

If a standard unit can pump 4 liters per minute, and you dilute that by sending the water in two directions, you will only be getting about 2 liters per minute, which will not lead to a satisfying wash. 

Can you use them in cold/freezing temperatures?

Absolutely. These units will operate in below-zero temperatures. However, it is important to empty them of water in the pipes overnight, because the pipes will freeze up, and you will need to wait for them to thaw out before using them. 

Can you recycle soapy water through a portable hot water system?

No, this is not recommended. These systems are not designed to process soapy water, so putting greywater through your portable hot water system is likely to cause damage, and at the very least, work ineffectively. 

Can it run on mains natural gas?

This would not be possible for most portable hot water systems. Most are designed to run on LPG, the same as a BBQ gas bottle, but some also include the ability to run on butane gas cylinders.