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A Guide to Self-contained Campervans

Equipped with a campervan and a sense of adventure New Zealand is not just the land of plenty but can actually be something akin to road-tripping paradise. However, whether rented or owned not all campervans are created equal - some are self-contained and some are not.

Equipped with a campervan and a sense of adventure New Zealand is not just the land of plenty but can actually be something akin to road-tripping paradise. However, whether rented or owned not all campervans are created equal – some are self-contained and some are not. Which route you decide to go down will have an impact on how much money you spend, your comfort levels and your freedom and can essentially make all the difference between having that paradise previously mentioned or finding it constantly just out of your reach. Read on to understand what a self-contained campervan actually is, why it's a great idea and how to make sure your camper is ready to go as a self-contained home on the road.

What Self-contained Means

The definition of exactly what is meant by self-contained according to the New Zealand Standard for Self-Containment of Motor Caravans and Caravans, NZS 5465:2001  is very specific. To avoid any misunderstandings it pays to be completely clear before making any decisions.

In short, in order to be deemed self-contained a campervan must have the capacity to store fresh water, to store any waste water until it is disposed of in the right place and have a toilet tank which holds all human waste until it can be disposed of appropriately. The exact requirements pertaining to this are:

1. Fresh or potable water tanks – These can be a fixed integral part of the van or appropriate portable containers although if the latter they must be able to be secured when the van is in motion. This can be in a cupboard or under the sink or even held in place by some ingenious use of a bungee cord but however they are fixed they also need to be easily accessible for refills. They also have to be capable of holding a minimum amount of water. This is 4 litres per day per person for a minimum of 3 days, in other words 12 litres per person.

It is important to note that the water-storage capacity (along with the grey waste tanks and toilet waste tank) must match the vehicle's maximum potential berth regardless of how many people are actually using the van. For example, if the van is a 2-berth it must be capable of storing a minimum of 24 litres (4 litres per day for 3 days, times the number of berths) even if in reality only one person is using the van.

2. A grey waste tank – Grey waste refers to any dirty water which results from washing dishes or showering (as opposed to black water which refers to human waste from toilets). Like the fresh water tank the grey waste tank can be a fixed integral part or portable and must also have a minimum capacity - 4 litres per day per person for a minimum of 3 days. If portable, like the fresh water containers, they must be made completely secure when the van is in motion to prevent any leakages or spills. Ideally the fresh water tank capacity should match that of the grey waste tank although in reality the freshwater tank can sometimes be greater which means keeping an extra eye on things. In purpose-built self-contained vans the grey waste storage tank is usually fitted under the chassis somewhere.

3. A sink – Although these come in varieties ranging from rustic to plumbed-in/water pump fed fancy they must in all forms be directly connected to the grey waste tank to prevent any waste spilling directly onto the ground.

4. An evacuation hose – In order to safely empty the grey water tank and dispose of its contents without any contamination or spills a self-contained camper must have an evacuation hose. For fixed tanks this will attach to a discharge valve normally sited outside the van and must have a minimum length of 3 metres. Where the grey water tank is portable no hose is needed in reality as the tank can be carried to the disposal point. However a hose is still required in these circumstances to satisfy the self-containment requirements to avoid spillage during the emptying process.

Hoses must be kept sealed and separate from the tanks when not in use.

5. A toilet – Larger motorhome type campers will have fixed toilets with flush capabilities while smaller vans will often have just a porta-loo type set up. Where the toilet is fixed the human waste storage – offered referred to as a cassette – will usually be accessed via a small door on the van's exterior. For porta-loos the waste cassette is part of the unit.

Like both the fresh water and grey water tanks it must have a minimum storage capacity which is 3 litres per person per day for 3 days. This is deemed sufficient to allow for those times you might find yourself further away from a disposal facility than you had planned on. Additionally, new amendments to the self-containment requirements state the toilet must be able to be used inside the van while the bed is in its made-up position. In other words for those moments when nature calls during the night.

6. A rubbish bin – This one is far simpler – the requirements only state the rubbish bin must have a lid and it obviously makes sense that this is secured somehow to prevent overturning when you van hits a bump in the road.

7. Satisfying the 'place of abode' criteria – In order to be awarded a self-containment certificate a vehicle must be deemed a motor caravan or caravan which serves as a place of abode. And in order to be considered a place of abode it will have cooking facilities and somewhere to sleep. While such things are part of the built-in fixtures on larger motorhomes it is a different matter with the smaller campers which are essentially little more than a large car. While there are no specific self-containment requirements pertaining to cooking and sleeping facilities you do need to be sure you fulfil the definition of a motor caravan in the first place. Where cooking is concerned this need be little more than a portable one-ring gas stove.

One last point needs mentioning here – even if your van has fulfilled every requirement listed here it is not legally deemed self-contained unless it has a current self-contained certificate awarded through an approved agent.

The Benefits of a Self-contained Campervan

If you have worked your way through the list of requirements above you might be currently thinking it is too much trouble to go down the self-contained campervan route. There are indeed many campers on the road in New Zealand without this certification so why should you bother?

There are two very good reasons – one has to do with having more freedom and saving money while the other pertains to showing respect for the beautiful natural playground of New Zealand.

More freedom and saving money

New Zealand is nothing short of a paradise for campervan users. Liberally strewn all over the country are tons of places which allow you to camp overnight for next to nothing or completely for free. Along with some public land places local councils also often set aside free designated spots for freedom campers – Auckland alone has more than 30 – and some of these are in the most stunning of settings such as the beautiful riverside Reids Farm in Taupo. Other options include Gisborne District Council's unique summer scheme which allows super-low-cost long-term camping at several absolute beach front spots along the Eastland coast while the Department of Conservation offers endless options for free or extremely low-cost campsites.

HOWEVER, none of these are accessible to those in non self-contained campervans. Of course people can and do flout the rules but when the warden should come calling checking certificates those without may suddenly realise the fine payable has made this an extremely expensive overnight camp.

It can seem a little pricey to have to fork out the money to get a van self-contained but for any of those intending staying for weeks or months a little maths will soon show the financial benefits. Official campsites can be expensive in New Zealand - stay at a Top 10 every night for three weeks and you are looking at having spent NZ$840 upwards. This represents the higher end of the campsite price scale but you can probably see the point being made.

Respect for the environment

As a visitor in New Zealand you are extremely fortunate and privileged to be able to hit the road in a campervan and have endless breathtakingly beautiful places in which to camp for free. Doing all of this in a self-contained campervan means you are doing your bit to ensure these pristine places stay pristine. Anything likely to cause negative impact on the environment – waste water full of chemical residues, human waste and litter – is all contained and only disposed of in designated places specially designed for the purpose. Those without self-contained vans risk contaminating waterways and habitats and disturbing delicate eco-systems which might never recover. In fact, the self-containment scheme was actually introduced with the very intention of slowing and ideally eliminating the disastrous damage which was previously done by disrespectful and thoughtless freedom campers. Being self-contained demonstrates you are a respectful and responsible traveller.

A final point regarding the benefits of a self-contained camper is simply to do with comfort. Having all you could possibly need inside your campervan makes for a far more enjoyable experience overall especially when the weather is not being quite so kind.

How to Tell If a Campervan is Self-contained

Campervans which have been officially deemed self-contained according to the requirements will have a blue windscreen warrant sticker with a logo of a campervan along with the registration number of the vehicle, the maximum number of occupants the self-containment pertains to, the date of issue and the issuing authority. It is mandatory to place this on the windscreen's left-hand side to make kerb-side inspection easy. A larger blue sticker with the same campervan logo is also issued at the time of certification to attach to the vehicle's exterior although it's not mandatory to display this. Additionally, the actual certificate of self-containment must be kept inside the vehicle at all times and be ready to be shown for inspection to any official asking to see it.

Occasionally a vehicle will appear to have all the requirements to be considered and certified self-contained but has never been officially inspected. If you have acquired such a van you can put the vehicle thorough an inspection yourself. Transversely, very occasionally some vehicles which obviously don't fulfil the requirements appear to have a certificate which possibly means the certificate is fake. In either case, you can check through the New Zealand Motor Caravan Association (NZMCA) – one of the scheme's designated official inspectors – to see if the vehicle is currently registered as self-contained.

How to get Your Campervan Certified as Self-contained

First and foremost of course you will need to be sure your campervan fulfils all the self-containment requirements previously detailed to avoid wasting your time and money. If you decide yes you're all set great otherwise you will need to make any necessary alterations to your camper. In this case you can either tackle the task in hand yourself or employ the skills of registered trades persons or relevant outfits such as plumbers, All Points Camping or Vanco to get a professional to do the work for you.

Much of the work you might need to do is often quite easily tackled with a touch of DIY, even for those who are not typically super-confident with such things. Going down this route can usually save money and luckily there are a mountain of folk who have been there before you which means the internet is liberally littered with advice on this score and some great step-by-step instructions. Pick you advice carefully – it ranges from the truly ingenious to the totally disastrous. You can even find specific advice specifically according to your vehicle make and model as obviously things vary considerably depending on the amount of interior space you have to play with. Additionally, many of the parts you might need such as pipes, sinks, tanks etc. are easily and quite cheaply sourced in places such as Mitre 10 which are countrywide.

Once you have decided your van has all it needs to qualify as self-contained the next step is to arrange an inspection. This has to be done through a designated authority or testing officer. Individual or company plumbers, gas fitters and drain-layers will sometimes be authorised to carry out this inspection but the two largest authorities are NZMCA and All Points Camping. Both the inspection and the certificate have applicable fees. NZMCA charge a combined fee of NZ$55 (or NZ$30 for members) while All Points Camping have a variable fee for the inspection stage and charge NZ$30 (members NZ$10) for the certificate.

Once your certificate is issued it is valid for 4 years providing no vehicle modifications are carried out in which case you will have to have it re-inspected.


Disposing of Your Waste

So, your grey waste tank and toilet waste storage are just about full – what do you do now? At this point you will need to head to a dump station and these, luckily, are really easily found in most places. Many of the New Zealand road maps provide dump station locations and any i-SITE can point you in the right direction. Additionally, in these days of instant technology, there are even apps you can download. Many of the larger campsites also provide dump station facilities.

Some dump stations allow you to park your van right over the draining point to empty your grey water while others have a different set up hence the need for a long evacuation hose.

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