At War With My Hot Water Heater

By Cam Mather

Alternate Blog Titles;

Do we really need THAT many buckets in the living room??

or

“The Dreaded Whoosh of the Hot Water Tank”

I loathe my propane hot water tank. With a vengeance. When I hear it come on I feel like I’ve been kicked in the gut on one of those Ultimate Fighting shows and it really pisses me off. So I’ve made it a holy crusade to keep my hot water tank from ever coming on. When it does I boo and hiss and throw a tantrum. It happens a few times a year, but I don’t like it.

When I do one of my talks I really harp on this chart.

residential-energy-use-sml

If you want to reduce your carbon footprint you have to look at heat. How you heat your house and how you heat your hot water. We’ve got our space heat covered by heating with zero-carbon wood from our property. We’ve got 60 to 70% of our hot water covered with zero-carbon renewable energy. From March to October our propane hot water tank never comes on because of our EnerWorks Solar Domestic Hot Water heater. This is the first solar panel that should go on your roof. We also use an electric hot water tank as our diversion load, where our excess electricity goes once the batteries are full.

So, our hot water is heated first by the sun, then by solar-generated electricity and then, only if necessary, by our propane hot water tank. This works great most of the year. It’s the cloudy months of the late fall and early winter that are the problem. If you’re Bill Kemp you do a lot of engineering and soldering and you automate your system. You use the heat from your woodstove and wood cook stove to heat your domestic hot water. It’s quite brilliant and he gives a full technical description of how to do it in “The Renewable Energy Handbook.” At this stage though, I’m kind of in a simplify mode so I do not want to add any new layers of complexity to my life. I know ultimately Bill’s system would be transparent and work seamlessly, but some days I have enough trouble keeping up with our satellite internet, satellite TV converter “box,” wonky charge controllers, the “Check Engine” Light on the car, and all the other complexities of daily life.

So at this time of year we use our zero-carbon woodstove to heat some of our water, but I do it the old-fashioned way. I put kettles and pots on the woodstove. Along with a small kettle for our multiple cups of tea, we keep one of those restaurant-sized kettles on the woodstove for bigger hot water needs like washing the dishes or shaving. That’s right. I pour hot water into the sink, shave, empty the sink, then pour more hot water in to rinse the soap off my face. And yes, it’s like a scene from the wild, wild west. It’s just a groove I get into at this time of the year.

But then comes the bigger issue of bathing and showering. Showering works great on Bill’s system but not ours because at this time of year we have less thermal heat from the sun to warm up our tanks. So at this time of year we switch to baths and have an array of corn/stock pots that I fill up with water and heat up on the wood stove. And when they’re hot enough, I carry them, by hand, to the bathtub. There is no automation here, just good old granola-powered manual labour. As I carry the buckets of water I remind myself of how good “load bearing exercise” is to keep your bones strong. Not that with farming and heating with wood there is no shortage of these types of activities, but when I carry the heavy water buckets I can really feel the effort on my abdominal muscles and arms. And to think that I could buy some $1,000 Bowflex machine or some other cool exercise device and sit around getting exercise accomplishing absolutely nothing of value (other than reducing the demand on our healthcare system) or I could put the same effort into my bath AND SAVE THE PLANET while I’m at it!

We’ve discovered that 4 pots is the optimal number, which actually makes the water way too hot. So I started running a few buckets of cold to add to it. Then I started realizing that the water that comes out of our well is really cold, probably 10°C or 50°F? So I began pumping the water out in advance of the bath and let it warm up to closer to room temperature. This just means we can have a much deeper, hotter bath. We have this great old claw foot bathtub with a great curved back so the deeper it is the more relaxing it is. It’s like an ad for one of those high-end hotels you can escape to, only ours is zero-carbon.

bath-water-buckets

Michelle gets the first bath so she feels a bit like a lobster hitting the scalding hot water, and after 20 minutes or half an hour the bath water is finally comfortable enough for me. And yes, there you have it – I share bath water with my wife. I used to be quite hesitant to share this publicly but two things happened. First, when I shared it with people who come to our workshops I was amazed at how many other people do the same thing for environmental reasons. That’s so awesome! The second reason is the whole climate change thing, and after seeing the movie “Chasing Ice” I’m more committed than ever to not put an ounce more carbon into the atmosphere than I have to.

So now bath time has pretty much taken over the living room. Four corn pots on the woodstove. Six buckets in the vicinity warming up. And then when the bath is done I put the empty buckets back in the living room to dry off. Then after we’ve both had our baths, I use the bath water to flush the toilet for the next day or so. And once I’m done with the toilet flushing buckets, they head to the living room for their “dry cycle.” So pretty much most of the time there are buckets of one type or another in our living room during the cold months. Not all the time. And NEVER when we have guests. What sort of backwater do you think we’re living in here? We need to keep up the pretense of civility!

All this to say I have a pretty amazing wife in that she tolerates my obsession with avoiding the burning of propane for hot water. I think it might actually be catching. I heard her doing the dishes the other day and the propane hot water tank came on. It was maybe the second or third time this fall, but I’m pretty sure I heard a mild profanity uttered when the dreaded “whoosh” of the propane flame came on.

For most people this would happen a number of times a day. If you have long-shower-loving teenagers in your home, it happens even more often. If you have an electric hot water tank (or the tank is in your basement) you won’t hear it, but it comes on often. In our case we hear it come on because the propane hot water tank is in the kitchen pantry right next to the kitchen sink. Such is life in a house built in 1888 before the advent of indoor plumbing.

I think indoor plumbing is pretty awesome. I think using fossil fuels to heat water was a huge step forward in luxury. I also think it’s not necessary, at least for a good chunk of the year, even here in our northern climate. Your hot water tank (or on-demand system) should only be a backup for those days when there’s not enough sun to heat your water. This would cut your CO2 emissions by 50 or 60% right off the top. And you don’t have to warm your water on a woodstove, and you DON’T have to have buckets warming in your living room. That’s just for the extreme types, like me. “Extreme hot water heating!” I can see it now… a reality TV show, a new line of high-end classic designer water buckets. Celebrity endorsements. I’m going to need a theme song and a new website for this baby!

9 Responses to “At War With My Hot Water Heater”

  • […] just Michelle and I are here, we use lots of tricks to keep the propane tank from coming on (see this previous blog post.) With five people showering and washing lots of dishes we heard the “whoosh” quite often. I […]

  • Linda Proudlove:

    This reminds me fondly of the years we lived in Nepal, where water, which was very scarce was often used four times (heated mainly with solar, electric backup). 1)collect the ‘clean’ cold water that comes before the hot, and run it through the Katedyn filter for drinking. 2) Shower into a large basin. 3) wash clothes with the shower water (rinse with clear) and finally 4) flush the toilet. We often opted for a bucket bath/shower ’cause it uses less water. We’ve been home four years now, and the hardest thing for me to do is wash my car – with drinking water!

  • Cam Mather:

    Thanks everyone for the comments. Yes, the kettles which sit on top of the pots only get warm, but it just makes the bath deeper. And all these other idea are great. This is just the one that works for me now. Cam

  • Mark:

    Nice! Have you considered a waste water heat recovery system?

  • Michael:

    Have you thought about using a compost pile? Check this out:

    http://youtu.be/-Jm-c9B2_ew

  • Cat:

    I see a stack behind the stove that needs a1″ copper coil wrapped around it leading to your water heater intake. Have a sheetmetal shop make you a stainless steel water tank that can sit on top of your stove with a threaded faucet to fill up your bucket or bathtub better yet, gravity feed the water on the stove to a solar/wood fired hottube .

  • Jeff:

    I agree with Jeff #2, above (j.k. Jeff, lol). We have a wood stove also, and I have found that those cast-iron kettles designed to keep on top of your wood stove to reduce humidity get rusted out WAY too quickly. Here in Arizona we have very hard water, and that’s rough on them too.

    You all are probably saying, “it gets cold in Arizona?!?” Yes it does, and 60% of the state gets snow in the wintertime, believe it or not. Here at our house we get down below the teens (Fahrenheit)in the winter, easily. Enamel or aluminum open pots work the best for us for keeping the humidity up.

  • Rick:

    Hey Cam,

    I like your idea of using the wood stove for hot bath water. Maybe you have one — but, why not get one of those outdoor shower bags, and fill that with warm/hot water? And use it in your tub shower area. It should use less water than filling the tub. Just a thought. 🙂

  • Jeff:

    Are your pots stacked on top of each other? Do the top ones get hot or just warm?

    Two other benefit to heating water as you do that you did not mention is you are adding quite a bit of thermal mass to your stove and the heat from the water will radiate out into the house after the fire is out. The second is that while heating with wood can be one of the most environmentally benign ways to keep warm it also terrible for drying out the air in your house. With all that water on the stove you are adding a lot of nice humidity to the air.

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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