Your campervan questions answered
Thinking about buying a campervan but nervous about asking the questions that are on your mind? Well, we’ve got you covered...
If you’ve been contemplating buying a campervan, you’re not alone. Ever since the Covid-19 pandemic, the popularity of these homes-on-wheels has soared, with people increasingly interested in the idea of holidaying here in the UK, and taking shorter trips more often rather than one big summer holiday.
A camper is, of course, a brilliant way to do just that. But buying one can be a daunting proposition – after all, they’re complicated vehicles, and there’s lots to consider when it comes to running one.
So if you’re one of the many people thinking about buying a campervan, it’s natural that you’ll have some questions. To try to help, we’ve put together this guide with our experts’ answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about buying and owning a campervan.
Is a campervan classed as a commercial vehicle?
Yes. There was a short period from September 2019 during which campervans were classified as cars for tax purposes, which caused taxes to rise considerably. However, in March 2020 the legislation was scrapped, and campervans returned to commercial vehicle classification.
Is a campervan the same as a motorhome?
For most people, the terms are interchangeable and analogous – a campervan can also be called a motorhome, and vice versa. But in fact there is a subtle difference; a campervan is usually a van that’s been converted for use as a camper, either when it was new or later on in life.
A motorhome is usually built on a van or truck chassis, but with a custom-made fibreglass body grafted on top of it, which constitutes the habitable area. Motorhomes are often larger than campervans, and tend to offer more space as well as shower and toilet facilities.
Does a campervan need a habitation certificate?
No, there is no legal requirement for your campervan or motorhome to have a habitation check (or hab check as they’re usually known), though it’s a good idea to have one carried out regularly, as you’re responsible for the safe operation of your campervan, and a hab check can bring certain faults you might not have been aware of to your attention.
Is a campervan a good investment?
As with any vehicle, buying a campervan solely as an investment isn’t really advisable, purely because its value will almost certainly go down (albeit at a lower rate than most cars’ will).
However, if you intend to use it frequently in lieu of holidays and trips away on which you’d have to pay for accommodation, the money you're saving could well outweigh any depreciation, which might mean it works out as a smart buy. Just don’t forget to factor all the running costs into your calculations.
Does a campervan have a toilet?
Usually, a campervan doesn’t have a toilet, whereas a motorhome will do. However, some camper conversions may include a small chemical toilet, to help you out if you’re caught short.
Does a campervan need a gas certificate?
No, it doesn’t – unless you’re planning to rent it out, in which case you’ll need a gas safety certificate.
How do you heat a campervan in the winter?
There are three main ways of heating a campervan in the winter months. By far the most common is a gas heater, which works much like a gas fire in your home, and uses liquid gas such as butane or propane as fuel. Gas heaters can be built in or free-standing.
The second most common way of heating a campervan is a diesel heater. As its name suggests, this is a plumbed-in heating system that runs on diesel from the camper’s fuel tank, which is burned to create heat that is then dispersed into the camper using an electric fan.
Finally, there’s electric heating, usually in the form of either a free-standing fan heater or oil-filled radiator that can be plugged into the van’s 230V electrical system. In some cases, a built-in electric heater can be installed.
How does a campervan fridge work?
Most campervan or motorhome fridges can run from mains or 12V power. Mains power is self-explanatory; the fridge will run on the mains when the campervan is plugged in at a campsite. On 12V power, meanwhile, the fridge is running off the camper’s 12V system. This only supplies power when the engine is running, so is designed for keeping items cool while you’re on the road.
Some camper fridges also offer additional modes. Some run on an absorption principle, using gas to heat up a liquid refrigerant to a gaseous state, the cooling of which then absorbs heat from the fridge, cooling whatever’s inside.
Others are based on the thermoelectric principle that a change in temperature will occur when a DC current runs from one conductor to another; this is multiplied by running a current through a series of junctions between conductors between two plates, which heats one up and cools the other down. The cool plate is what keeps the fridge cool.
How does a campervan toilet work?
Almost all campervan toilets are chemical toilets. Once you’ve done your business, it gets flushed into a tank which is filled with chemicals that break it down. When the tank fills up, you have to empty it at a special disposal point – also known as an Elsan point – which is available on most campsites.
How do you empty a campervan toilet?
The toilet tank is usually in a cassette which allows you to remove it cleanly and easily, and without sight or smell of the waste, and emptying the tank into the Elsan point is normally very easy too.
Typically, you remove the lid of the cassette and use a hose to pour the waste fluid into the Elsan point’s tank. Once this is done, it’s a good idea to rinse the tank out (there’s usually a tap nearby) before refilling it with chemicals.
Note that you can’t empty a chemical toilet into the normal sewers – the chemicals aren’t suitable.
Can you sleep anywhere in a campervan?
In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, you have to obtain permission from the landowner before you camp, and that includes in a campervan or motorhome. In practice, this usually means you’re restricted to camping in campsites, though some land owners offer their fields for use by campers, effectively allowing wild camping.
In Scotland the rules are a little bit more relaxed – you’re allowed to camp in some public car parks overnight – but there are still quite a lot of guidelines and regulations, which it’s worth familiarising yourself with. Note that while wild camping is legal in Scotland, this applies to tent camping only, and doesn’t allow for motorised vehicles.
Can you build a campervan yourself?
Yes, and many people do. Popular bases include large vans like the Ford Transit, Iveco Daily and Mercedes Sprinter, and there are plenty of websites on DIY camper conversions if you’re searching for inspiration.
Just keep in mind that while you don’t legally need any qualifications to connect up gas and electrics, it’s strongly recommended that you seek professional advice before attempting to do so.
Can you take a campervan to a festival?
It depends on the festival, but most music festivals these days have a field or other space for campervans, motorhomes and caravans.
Can you take a campervan through the Eurotunnel?
Yes, though don’t forget that you’ll need to pay more than you will for taking a car across, and may have to travel in the single-deck overheight vehicle carriages.
You’ll also need to pay attention to Eurotunnel’s rules regarding carriage of LPG – there are very particular rules around the amount of gas you’re allowed to carry, and you may be asked to demonstrate that your camper’s gas tanks comply.
Can you sleep in a campervan drunk?
It’s a bit of a grey area. Technically, you can be prosecuted for being drunk in charge of a campervan in any situation. However, it becomes less of an issue if you can show there was no likelihood of you actually driving the vehicle – for example, if you’re camping in a proper campsite and your campervan is pitched and hooked up to the mains.
Where you might have more of a problem is if you’re camping overnight at the roadside or in a pub car park, at which point it becomes harder to prove. Having your bed made up and your camper set up for living in might help you – but there’s no hard and fast way of guaranteeing that you won’t be prosecuted.
How do you insulate a campervan?
There are several insulation methods you can use. The most natural is wool insulation, though you can also use reflective heat barrier material, foam insulation board, spray foam, or fibreglass wadding, such as you might use in your home.
What does a campervan need?
When you’re planning to buy a camper, it’s worth keeping in mind that it requires quite a lot more maintenance than a normal car.
On top of regular servicing, it’s a good idea to carry out regular hab checks, and to factor in the cost of replacing equipment in the habitation area. You’ll need to pay for tanks of gas, too, as well as toilet chemicals if your camper has a loo.
All of those bits of equipment need their own maintenance, too – servicing of gas appliances, for example, and maintenance of plumbing and heating systems.
On top of all this, you’ll also need to factor in tax and insurance. And if you have nowhere to keep your campervan at home, you’ll need to think about paying for storage.
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