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Hot Water Simply

How-to  ~  Ideas  ~  Inspiration
 From more than forty years having a good time living a sustainable life
in the northwoods of Michigan's Upper Peninsula

We are a society deeply enamored with hot water. If you stop people on the street and ask what is essential for the good life, "hot showers" will often come up at the top of the list. For many people, hot water is an out-of-the-faucet taken-for-granted given that is hardly thought of at all. Except when it is not there. It is not essential, but it is nice to have.

But what if your hot water is not so freely to be had? If it doesn’t come at the turn of a faucet? Where cold is the natural -- hot a rare treat, whether temporary or every day. Or what if you want to heat your water less expensively - economically or environmentally? Then look to the sky, your lifestyle, and your own ingenuity for your answers, and your hot water.

Whether your water comes from a spring, the rain, a well, or the water treatment plant, you can heat it without burning additional fuel. And once the routine has become habit, it can be as natural as turning the tap, and not a whole lot more trouble.

Having lived quite comfortably and happily without running hot water for twenty-five years, I’m usually at a loss when pressed to explain why it is not a problem. I’m not into martyrdom or suffering, managing our water is simply a part of our life, and not a very difficult one at that. (Not counting the occasional middle of winter pump or windmill problems.) If instant hot showers are important to you, you’ll figure out a way to have them, running hot water or not. But if you can get over that "need", your life will be a lot easier. Then the occasional hot shower will be a treat that can never be so appreciated by the "have it every day" crowd.

Hot showers aside, there are many other reasons for having a good source of hot water. Your lifestyle and place of dwelling will dictate your options for heating water. But even if you don’t live in the cold north, hopefully the following will give you some ideas and inspiration to create your own unique hot water system. Ours isn’t a one track route. As with most of our living, how we heat and use water depends on the season, the weather, and the pattern of our lives at that time.


wood heating stove soapstoneTHE WOOD STOVE: If you heat, or cook, with wood, then you are no doubt quite familiar with this basic hot water heater -- a kettle on the stove. If you are shopping for a wood heating stove, consider one with the most flat and usable top surface. Ours is always crowded when the fire is going. A large tea kettle for drinks and cooking and a well used enameled coffee pot for dish and people washing are the usual residents. When more hot water is needed for laundry, then room is made for an old chipped but still intact enameled canning kettle. We are never short of hot water in the winter.

Used pots and kettles for heating water are easily found. Since they heat only water, most any metal will do. Glass or pottery containers can work fine, if they are made for that purpose. Even if you don’t heat with wood, explore ways to use your heating source to heat some water as well, without using additional fuel.

WATER TANK: A plumber friend found us a small, glass lined, steel bladder-type water tank with burned out elements. Steve discarded (recycled) the thin metal outer jacket, then cut a large hole in the top of the inner tank (removing the bladder). A faucet was installed in the bottom. I painted all the steel areas a dark color to keep it from rusting and to better absorb heat. Then we set it up near the wood stove. Kept full of water, this provides a steady supply of warm water when the stove is going and for quite a long time after the fire has gone out. Since is isn’t insulated, it also acts as a heat storage medium, supplying gentle heat for the house as well.

This idea can also be used in an expanded way with a conventional furnace and water heater. My brother-in-law set up an extra, full sized water heater next to his furnace. Cold water is piped to this tank first where it is naturally pre-heated, then on to the regular water heater.

You can also get, or make, heating coils to go in your wood stoves. Though we’ve considered them in the past, using kettles on top of the stove is so easy and works so well we’ve never thought it worth the trouble to install inner coils. Especially considering our hard water which limes up everything it touches in short order. It’s pretty easy to shake the sheets of lime deposits out of the kettles every once in a while.

SPRING and FALL: This is our hardest time for hot water heating. The wood heating stove is not going all the time, yet there is not enough sun for good outdoor heating. The heat holding capacity of a large kettle of water comes in handy here. When either the heating or cook stove is going, water is heating. It keeps its warmth for a surprisingly long time. Washing chores are more apt to revolve around wood stove use, when the water is hot. And cookstove use is more likely to revolve around hot water needs. It is a balance that works itself out quite naturally, once the idea is in the mind.

And among all the systems can be found a constant companion . . .

pouring hot water into thermousTHERMOSES: Plain, everyday, glass lined metal thermos bottles. We make use of these year-round, using more or fewer as the season dictates. Next to the kettles and heat sources, this is the most important part of our water heating system. Whenever there is hot water, no matter how it was heated, the thermoses are filled. It is a habit that gets little thought. Instant hot water at your fingertips. No need to heat an entire kettle full of water for one cup of tea. Get the water from the thermos. And when the thermos is empty? Then heat up that kettle of water, but pour what is left in the thermos for the next cup, or for the pasta pot, or to wash dishes, or whatever.

When hot water is scarce, as when any water is scarce, one naturally finds ways to use it wisely and conservatively. When you discover how little water, hot or cold, is really needed for more than adequate washing and cooking and cleaning and living, you will wonder how the habit of gushing gallons of water over and around and down the drain ever came to be. Again, no martyrdom or suffering here, just natural conservative (with its root word, conserve) use of hot water.

SPRING and SUMMER: Now the ease of a kettle on the heating stove is over (usually), but the hot water options expand. For those in non-freezing areas, these are ideas that may be able to be used year-round.

solar ovenSOLAR OVEN: When the sun gets high enough in the sky, the patterns change and our focus moves more outside than in. The solar oven comes out of storage, the reflectors installed, and before the hour is up (assuming the sun is shining!) dinner is cooking and the water pot is heating. From here on until the short days of fall descend upon us, there is water heating in the solar oven whenever the sun is shining. Because space is limited (and the water heating has to share with the food cooking), we make use of a smaller glass coffee pot (innards removed) and a quart jar with a hole punched in the metal lid. Another thermos is hauled out from the back of a cupboard, and the heating of water and filling of thermoses ritual is soon a regular part of life. Easy, free, hot water. [Here is a link to more information on our solar oven LINK.]

Unfortunately, because our house is located in a small clearing in the woods, we lose the direct sun rays fairly early. And with the long summer days, we are usually working and playing outside until quite late. So to keep whatever is in the solar oven hot longer, when the sun goes behind the trees, I lay a folded quilt or blanket on the glass of the oven. Easy and works great.

heating black kettle with sunBLACK KETTLE: Heating water in the solar oven is fine for drinking and cooking needs, and minimal washing. But it is usually not quite enough. So we make use of the old dark enameled coffee pot, and the natural heating effect of the sun on dark material. For years we simply set the kettle on a bench in the sun. Which does a surprisingly good job, and is easy to do wherever you are. But if there is a breeze, or the weather is cool, the kettle cools off faster than you would like. We knew a reflector would concentrate more of the sun’s rays on the kettle, thereby doing a better job of heating. So we propped a scrap of corrugated metal roofing behind the kettle, which helped, but with any wind it was more often on the ground than not. So finally Steve took the time to make a simple reflector of a more permanent (and useful) design. Simple, but functional. And, important to me, easy to use with no fuss.

This was made with scraps: a 19" 1 x 10 pine board for the base, a 31" long piece of 20" aluminum flashing for the reflector, and a 1" x 30" semi-circle cut from a scrap of 5/8" plywood for the top brace. The rough pine board was planed and sanded, an arc drawn to fit the piece, then sawn to shape. The half circle base was used as a template to black kettle in sun with reflectordraw the plywood top brace (the outer edge of the base being the inner edge of the top brace). This was then bandsawn out and sanded smooth. The cut edges of the aluminum flashing were bent back and pounded flat, for rigidity and safety. Then the flashing reflector was nailed onto the pine base, and to the plywood top brace. The wood was well oiled and the reflector unit done. Simple and surprisingly sturdy.

The black kettle is set on the base and the whole thing aimed toward the sun. And before long, a kettle full of hot water is ready for use. If the sun goes down before you’re ready for the water, throw an old blanket or quilt over it to keep it warm. This works well no matter how the water has been heated.

In the summer, I use cold water for laundry so don’t worry about larger amounts of hot water for that use. (In the winter, I warm the water for myself--the clothes don’t really care). But should you want more hot water, here are a couple of other ideas.

BLACK PIPE: One year we stretched 3/4 inch black water pipe across the ground. Actually, across the roof of our house, since we have an easily accessible sod roof, but any ground that has short vegetation and is in the sun will do. One end was connected to an outside faucet on the house, the other was fitted with a regular garden hose nozzle. This did a great job of heating water very hot whenever the sun was shining. Trouble was, it cooled off pretty fast when the sun went down, and we were never ready for the hot water when it was ready. Of course, we wanted it to cool down some, as we planned to use it for outdoor showers.

Well, the romance of standing outside, naked, in the spring or summer evening, in the northwoods, showering away the day’s grime and sweat with a nice stream of warm water is pretty short lived when one actually takes part in such a ritual. Unless you are a bit of a masochist, and don’t mind being eaten alive by mosquitoes and black flies. We both minded. During this time of year, the sauna makes as much sense as in the middle of winter, just for different reasons. Building a sauna is still high on our list of things to do. Maybe in our second quarter century here we’ll get it done. Meantime, we wash within the mosquitoless comfort of our home.

Of course, not everyone has that problem, and an outdoor shower can be great, whether with bucket or hose, enclosure or not. And a Black Pipe Heater (if long enough) does get a lot of water hot in a rather short time. You can also coil the pipe loosely on a south facing sloped surface for a more compact heater.

A natural addition to the Black Pipe Water Heater would be a simple insulated water tank to run the day’s hot water into, to be used when needed after the sun has gone down. This wouldn’t be that difficult to come up with. We simply found out we didn’t need that much hot water.

BULK HOT WATER HEATER: Another style bulk water heater can also be made without a lot of cost. Although we haven’t done this (for the afore mentioned reason), friends have and it works great for them. It is, in essence, a very large solar oven, with the same requirements--an insulated box with an interior reflective surface (aluminum foil, shiny metal, gloss white paint), a glass front aimed at the sun, a metal water tank painted black, a water source going in, and a way to tap the water out. Because of the volume, the water will stay hot for quite a while. Or you can make use of an insulated cover when the sun goes down.

In the sixties and seventies there was quite a lot of interest in basic and simple alternative heating devices, and a number of designs were to be found in books and articles. Check out libraries and used bookstores for information. You can design your own out of materials you have or can get, and build it for very little cost.

INSTANT WATER HEATER: This is something that is common in Europe, and I wish it would become common here. If you desire a steady supply of hot water and have conventional heating (propane or electric) look into the instant wall mounted water heaters. Small and efficient, they make so much more sense than the usual large volume hot water heaters. Proof that environmentally friendly solutions don’t have to be difficult.

WASTEWATER: This is an aside, but certainly related. Where does the water you use go? For many readers, running water, conventional sewer or septic tank, and flush toilets are part of everyday life -- it is what your house has. But it doesn’t mean you can't be conservative in your use, hopefully you already do. Have you ever really looked at how much you use (other than that bill each month!)? Make it a game, read your water meter every day, same time, and write it down. See how much you use. Then one by one, take each area of your water usage, and reduce the amount you use. Make those numbers go down, and down, and down. Put that money saved in a fund to buy something that will help even more - a more efficient furnace? A low flush toilet? A composting toilet? And enjoy the challenge. We did this when living in a conventional house and were surprised at how much water we could comfortably live without, or how little we could comfortably live with.

Particularly nice if you can reduce that great amount of clean water that goes down the toilet. Check out alternatives, including bucket flushing. Those who live with alternate water sources are no doubt already well acquainted with the humble bucket tool. But this is something anyone can use. Put a bucket near wherever you use water -- kitchen, bathroom, utility room, mud room. Use plastic tubs or basins in your sinks. Pour the fairly clean wastewater into the bucket instead of down the sink. Then use that water to flush the toilet(s). A little more effort it is true, but it works.

Maybe the best way to appreciate fresh water or hot water is to go without for a time. It does make one more aware. And awareness often brings even more ideas, and a certain sparkle to life that cannot be seen otherwise. I hope you enjoy the sparkle, whether your water is hot or cold or comfortably lukewarm.

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Copyright 2003 by Susan Robishaw 

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Have you read  "Frost Dancing - Tips from a Northern Gardener"? A fun short read.

or "Homesteading Adventures"    Creating our backwoods homestead--the first 20 years.

and "Growing Berries for Food and Fun"   A journey you can use in your own garden.