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Old 12-29-2020, 10:38 PM   #1
Join Date: Dec 2016
Location: Berkeley, CA
Posts: 82
Help troubleshooting Espar issue?

TL;DR - Can anyone provide any pointers as to how to diagnose a seeming electrical issue in my Espar heating system?

Last summer I brought the van to SMB West and they repaired the hot water, which had failed I think at the flat plate heat exchanger. It was good to go at that point, and I ran it monthly as per recommendations. Now it will not turn on at all, after a slightly phased failure, and based on the symptoms I'd guess it's an electrical issue.

As you can tell by my description here, I'm quite ignorant in these matters (happily so when things work as expected, now not so much), so thank you for your patience...

Here are my symptoms, in case you are able to point me to any other troubleshooting steps:

-Last month, on a short trip, I turned on the heat. It started up, briefly, fan on and hot. Then, over the course of that use, at some point it started blowing only cold air. Then, trying it again later in the day, it worked intermittently, then not at all. At that point, all of the button lights on the panel were glowing red when switched on.

- -Now, at home, the heater will not turn on at all any longer. I changed the “Hydro 20A” fuse although it looked good. Doesn’t seem to make a difference. Testing it again today, unplugged from shore power, none of the lights on the Rixen panel turn on, no fan, nothing. Interestingly, I changed the “Refer 15A” fuse, even though it looked good when I pulled it. At that point, turning the system, Furnace, Fan, and Thermostat on resulted in… the light on the system button going on for a few seconds, then turning dark again. No fan, nothing.

- Nothing seems to be happening with the little Espar panel - it's just dark. I seem to remember that flickering on and off from time to time with cryptic messages. I also believe I was originally instructed that that little panel never needed to be touched. But looking at the manual again, it seems to suggest that does need to be turned on for the thermostat? I’ve never touched it to date and the heater has worked splendidly before now - please advise if I’m missing something.

-I'm doing these tests without shore power. I drained and blew out all my water lines at the beginning of winter, if that’s relevant. Van is typically parked connected to shore power and trickle charging, inverter shows 13.3 after unplugging from shore power.

-SWB West is responsive, and welcomes me to bring it in. They have never been anything short of amazing when I have done so in the past, but I am now in Colorado and doing the drive for this purpose does not make sense. But gad I would like the Espar system to work again!

Anyhow, thanks for any thoughts. I'd welcome input or pointers.

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Old 12-30-2020, 12:34 PM   #2
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Join Date: Feb 2015
Location: Durango, Colduhrado
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Try ThermoKing Denver as they work on Espars. They are on the north side of I-70 around Monaco St. if that's any help.

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Old 12-31-2020, 08:56 AM   #3
Join Date: Dec 2016
Location: Berkeley, CA
Posts: 82
Originally Posted by eddyturn View Post
Try ThermoKing Denver as they work on Espars. They are on the north side of I-70 around Monaco St. if that's any help.
Thanks for the tip. That’s only 6 hours so not quite as long know anyone on the western slope?

Still interested in other opinions...
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Old 12-31-2020, 09:43 AM   #4
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Have you tried calling Rixen?
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Old 12-31-2020, 11:19 AM   #5
Join Date: Apr 2016
Location: Bainbridge Island, WA
Posts: 93
[Warning: random, uninformed speculation ahead. NOT an expert...]

The fact that the behavior of the control panels changed when futzing with the Refer fuse suggests a more general electrical problem than an Espar problem. Are your other systems working smoothly? Is your battery holding its charge? 13.3V right after unplugging from shore power doesn't mean much, it could just be residual surface voltage. What's it like a couple hours after unplugging (and in the dark, if you have solar hooked up)?

As a total stab in the dark, what's the status of your "H2O" breaker in the circuit breaker panel? That should be OFF, always, except for the rare occasions when you're camping and plugged in and want constant heat. It controls a completely separate circuit to a 120VAC heating element that will run even if all the other system switches are off. Its main function is to completely destroy your battery if you accidentally leave it ON and then fire up your inverter. Well, that, and to provide a small amount of always-on heat (about 1/3 the BTUs of the diesel furnace, but always running) when you're plugged in. You still need to turn on the Rixen system to enable the pump and the fan.
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Old 01-03-2021, 10:50 AM   #6
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Join Date: Mar 2015
Posts: 34
Issue with Espar heater

Have had repeated issues with my Espar heater. In fact over five years have had it serviced at least 7 times. I am hoping at some point the system will work properly. To date I've only gotten about two months worth before it had to be repaired again. Perhaps some of my experience may be of help.

Regarding fuses:

There is a fuse that is located under the van near the heater. If you pull the fuse out for a few seconds and put it back in it can reset the system.

There are two fuses on the inside of the van. In my van one is marked D5 and the other alt 5. In my van both were connected to the espar control panel. I replaced the fuse as well as check both of those with the voltmeter to make sure they were working properly.

Jim also had me take a voltmeter to the control panel itself testing the yellow wire. Additionally I checked the wires coming out of the altimeter and down to the floor.

So far all of my issues were due to incorrect wiring at the beginning install. The altimeter wires were crossed and the coder was set up improperly. I am still working with Jim to resolve the current issue. I plan on taking it up to Oregon this year hoping that once he inspects the entire system it will work properly.

Regarding the coder

The coder, with the blue and red arrow is simply to read codes. It is not connected by SMW to do anything else.

If you hold the blue button down, and while holding the blue button down insert a paperclip to the small hole to the right and then release the paperclip while still holding the blue button.

It will begin cycling through and you'll see words such as firmware maintenance. Release the blue button and eventually you'll see it say read diagnosis codes. Hit the red button for yes and it will read codes to tell you what is wrong with the heater. You can provide that information to SMW or Jim.

Hopefully any of the information helps. Also would love to hear from anyone who has had a good experience with the espar heater… It'll give me hope that maybe I can get there someday.
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Old 01-03-2021, 11:27 AM   #7
Join Date: Apr 2016
Location: Bainbridge Island, WA
Posts: 93
Originally Posted by Fremebe View Post
Have had repeated issues with my Espar heater. In fact over five years have had it serviced at least 7 times. I am hoping at some point the system will work properly. To date I've only gotten about two months worth before it had to be repaired again. Perhaps some of my experience may be of help.
Ugh, that sucks. Good information on the fuses though, thanks.

Also would love to hear from anyone who has had a good experience with the espar heater… It'll give me hope that maybe I can get there someday.
Overall, our experience is good. The espar has made it possible to do cold-weather camping, especially to get an early start at ski areas. And we reliably get hot water for washing up and doing the dishes, although if we were to redesign from scratch, we'd make sure the espar and the sink were closer to each other, because we lose a lot of water just running the faucet until the hot water completes its journey across the van.

There have been challenges, of course. The first serious test in winter failed due to problems with ice clogging the exhaust pipe. And after about 1.5 years of use, we brought it to Rixen's for a check-up, where they discovered way too much build-up, and determined the altimeter wasn't working. Turns out Rixen had a run of faulty wiring harnesses for a couple months in 2017, but no way to track down who got them. They replaced it and cleaned up the build-up at no charge.

I do wish it smelled less, particularly at start-up. Most likely, I just need to run it a little longer more often to burn off the crud.
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Old 01-03-2021, 12:35 PM   #8
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Location: So Cal/Oregon
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Espar Issue?

We've had our van for about a year and no problems at all with the Espar/Rixen system (D5WS). It took us a little while to figure everything out because the tutorial from SMB West was a bit incomplete. But we downloaded a bunch of relevant info from the Rixen site and that helped a bunch. Jim Rixen is very responsive and a wealth of info. I wrote my own mini-manual for the system with diagrams and procedures for future reference.

Our only issue was workmanship related where SMB West did not seal around the hoses that go to the furnace beneath the van. This caused the furnace exhaust fumes to come into the van when the furnace was operating. I used silicone sealant to seal the gaps around the hoses myself and problem solved.

Otherwise the system has worked pretty well at various elevations and temps. We are happy campers.
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Old 01-05-2021, 11:59 PM   #9
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Join Date: Nov 2009
Location: California
Posts: 62
Espar issues

I'm not an Espar expert either, but here are some observations and fixes that seemed to work on my build.

I have a 2010 E350 6.0 diesel. SMB West did the full 4x4 drive train conversion, penthouse top install, Aluminess bumpers, and low-pro roof rack install when the van was brand new, and that was about it for SMB's work. When I took delivery of the van at SMB, it was entirely empty, with the exception of the driver and passenger captain-style chairs.

The interior build that occurred about a year after delivery from SMB reflects a design to facilitate work and family-style camping. Most of the interior build, which is admittedly quite spartan, was done by the crew at AT Overland/Adventure Trailers located in Scottsdale, AZ. Not get get off the topic, but just so you get the idea of the build, we wrote it up in the Overland Journal a few years ago, and I believe that article is posted online now at Expedition Portal. It has a very small interior sink with hot/cold water, National Luna fridge, the Espar heating system (for water and interior hot air), and two external shower ports with hot/cold water.

The Espar system (the D5) was installed by the same people at AT Overland who set up the Expeditions 7, 79 Series Land Cruisers that drove around the world. Even with the knowledge of those installs, we still had issues with the Espar in my van. It worked sometimes, but not always. It would fire up - or sound like it fired up - but then the furnace wouldn't kick on. It would flash codes that didn't make sense. The circulation pump didn't seem to push the glycol efficiently through the system. Then the small inline diesel pump went south, twice. Many calls were made to Rixen, parts were swapped out, etc. They were helpful with trouble shooting, I must say.

Ultimately, a few actions 'seemed' to make a difference. I say 'seemed', because it's still not clear what solved the issue(s), but they did clear up.

Here is what we did: First, we installed a larger pump to circulate the glycol. It pushes more volume than the one SMB uses, and the one Rixen normally recommends for vans. Our heating system components don't cover more than one sq. meter (we're just blowing the hot air out into the van interior via two big fans than are located maybe 50 cm from the circ. pump - glycol is not going through ducting around the van interior/exterior and covering some great distance). In any case, the pump that pushes more volume (and makes more noise, I will add), helped out.

The other thing that seemed to help with the Espar unit not gunking up anymore (so far, anyway) is using Cetane Boost in the van's diesel fuel. Once I started using cetane additive, issues stopped with the actual Espar furnace that burns the diesel.

I don't know if this helps, as my build isn't an SMB installed Espar system. You watch; tomorrow I'll try to turn on my Espar and it'll be all siezed up!

2010 Ford EB E350 4x4 6.0L with SMB Penthouse
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Old 02-28-2021, 12:51 PM   #10
Join Date: Dec 2016
Location: Berkeley, CA
Posts: 82
Thanks, all for the comments. Having gotten frustrated and put this aside in favor of enjoying winter locally, I'm now motivated by a impending trip to pick this up again. I'll respond below to the comments that seem most relevant.

The interesting thing is intermittency:
Thursday evening I went out to try some more troubleshooting, and the Espar fired right up first try, ran solidly for 30 minutes. I turned it off, unplugged from shore power, and again it fired right up.
Friday morning, I turned it on again, and... fan blowing cold air and no diesel burning...
Today, it started up, made noise like it was burning diesel and blew warm exhaust for a minute or two, then spun down and sat there blowing cold air from the heating element inside.

I've called around to places in SLC where I'll be tomorrow, but outfitters seem either too busy to take calls, or too busy building vans to be willing to service one not of their own provenance. Will call Rixen Monday

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