Monday, July 22, 2019

(Not) in hot water: short-term alternatives to central hot water heating

A couple of weeks ago, on an ordinary Sunday evening after dinner, I turned on the hot water tap in order to fill the kitchen sink with water of the right temperature to do dishes. But hot water didn’t flow out of the tap after the usual short delay. Instead the water remained about the same temperature as the cool water coming out of the cold water tap. I told Mike this and he found that the natural gas water heater’s burner wasn’t lit. He tried lighting the pilot light, which lit the burner momentarily, but it went out almost instantaneously. After he said he’d try lighting it again the next day, I shrugged and did the dishes in cool water.

The next morning Mike attempted the same fix, obtaining the same non-result. I called our plumber’s office, only to learn they were out of the office for a week. So I left a message that we needed their services once they returned and found other means to heat water for various uses until we again had central hot water services. I thought this might be useful information to share with you my readers, hence this post.


This disruption in routine happened at the best time of year for us. Our hottest and sunniest weather is in July and August. St. Louis County’s municipal water supply is drawn from the Missouri and Meramec Rivers. While the Meramec River water is cold all year, the Missouri River water is rather warm during the summer. That meant we could tolerate washing our hands in the cool tap water, unlike in winter when incoming water is quite cold. I’d done laundry just before the water heater stopped working and two older adults don’t generate enough laundry that it needs to be done every week. Thus we needed only to find ways to heat enough water to do dishes by hand and to bathe. Furthermore, with the electricity working I could heat up water on the electric stove, and with abundant sunshine and seasonably warm temperatures I had the means to heat water by the sun. Here’s what we did that made it possible to spend a week and a half without central hot water with minimal disruption to routine.

Washing dishes

With the incoming water cool rather than cold, I found that heating water in our teakettle, which holds a little over 2 quarts / 2 liters of water, to near boiling provided enough hot water, when mixed with the cool tap water, to half fill one side of our stainless steel double-bowl sink with the right temperature of water for dish-washing. I rinsed the dishes with cool tap water, then put them in the dish drainer as usual to dry.

How much cool tap water did I use? I didn’t measure it, but I added somewhat more tap water than near boiling water. I used the thermometer next to the teakettle in the photo above to tell me when to stop adding tap water to the hot water. Using my hand to tell me wouldn’t have been a good idea: until the water was at the right temperature I risked mild to serious burns, and if I added too much tap water I would have had to heat more water. Instead, I started by adding enough tap water to cover the bottom of the sink, to minimize thermal shock when I poured in the hot water. Then I turned on the tap and started adding tap water, while holding the thermometer’s sensitive end in the water with one hand and stirring the water with a long-handled plastic or wooden spoon with the other. I added cold water until the thermometer dropped below 120F / 49C. Then I washed the dishes. Other than waiting for the teakettle of water to heat up and rinsing with cooler water than usual, I experienced no disruption to the dish-washing routine.


As I mentioned, washing my hands or face with cool water wasn’t too unpleasant. But showering or bathing in it would have been. I am not a fan of cold/cool showers. Since it was sunny and seasonably hot, however, we could use a simple alternative technology: the camp shower. You’ll see one of ours (we have two) in the photo below.

Heating the water is simple – if you have a flat spot in a yard that will stay sunny for a few hours. You’ll notice a red circle just below the handle of the camp shower. This is the same type of opening that an air mattress has to admit air. Open the flap and add tap water through the hole till the shower is as full as you think is necessary. It can hold up to 5 gallons / 20 liters of water, which I found to be more than enough water. Then take the camp shower to the aforementioned sunny area and lay it flat on its back (the black side) so the clear side is up, facing the sun. Wait a few hours on a sunny summer day and you’ll have 120F / 49C water. The wording on the camp shower claims it’ll get the water in the bag this hot even if the air temperature is 60F / 15.6C. I don’t how low the air temperature can get and the water inside still heat up to a comfortable temperature. When it gets colder than 60F again, I’ll try it and report back.

In a camping situation, you would have a sturdy rope with you and a sound and sturdy tree branch above you so that you can tie one end of the rope to the handle at the top of the camp shower and pull on the other end of the rope to suspend the camp shower high enough to provide the showering experience. That’s what the plastic tube coming out of the bottom is for. You pull out on the red end, which is a valve that allows water to flow through small holes punched in a disk. Then you take your shower in the flow of water.

That had better be one very sturdy tree limb that you hang the camp shower from, because 5 gallons of water weighs about 40 pounds / 18 kg. Do not hang the camp shower from a towel rack, a shower curtain rod, or a picture hook! None of these are strong enough to hold it up and you’ll have an expensive mess to fix.

So if you can’t hang the shower up, what good is all that heated water? That’s what your 10 gallon / 40 liter blue plastic tub is for, as seen in the photo above. Set the plastic tub on the floor of your tub or shower and empty the now-heated water into the plastic tub through the same opening that you filled the camp shower with. I found the water was hot enough from the camp shower that I had to add some tap water to it to cool it to the right showering temperature. Now grab a plastic or metal cup (I used a 1 quart / 1 liter plastic container) to fill with water from the plastic tub and pour the water over yourself. I had more than enough water to get just as clean as I would have using a regular shower. You can use any leftover water to wash clothes and, as long as you still have electricity, you can then spin them dry in your washer and dry them in the usual way. If I’d needed to wash clothes, I would have done so by this method. You can use a metal washtub instead of a plastic tub, but it might leave rust stains on the porcelain. A plastic tub won’t leave stains.

Why not use the same method to make hot water for washing dishes? Because the water will no longer be potable once it contacts the inside of the camp shower. The shower water is clean enough to wash clothes or to wash you as long as you don’t get it in your mouth, but don’t use it to wash anything that holds food you’ll put in your mouth. You don’t know what’s growing in that shower, and it doesn’t get hot enough to kill whatever it is.

What if … ?

I know some of you are grumbling under your breath, “But what if it’s not sunny for that many hours before I need the water? What if it’s too cold to use the camp shower? What if I don’t have a camp shower or a sunny place to put it if I did have one? What if I can’t heat water on my electric or gas stove because I lost that utility service?” Here are some suggestions.

If you don’t have a camp shower, your favorite bricks-and-mortar or online camping supplier will be happy to sell you one. The Coleman shower I used can be purchased from Coleman’s website.

If you don’t have a thermometer, get one! You can use a meat thermometer from the grocery store.

If you can’t use a camp shower (no sun, not enough time to let the sun heat water before you need it, it’s too cold outside for the water to heat up), then you’ll have to heat water for washing yourself or clothes some other way. As long as your gas or electric stove works, you can heat the water on it. In this case I suggest heating the water in larger pots such as stock pots and only to 120F / 49C, because you’ll need to carry the pots to the plastic tub, and you don’t want to risk the burns you’ll get if you splash hotter water on you. I suspect you’ll quickly figure out how little water you really need to get yourself or your clothes clean. If you don’t have electricity or natural gas, heat the water on a grill (it’ll heat water as well as it grills burgers) or a wood stove.

Bottom line: because we have the camp shower, plastic tub, grill, and assorted large stock pots, we can easily deal with a short-term loss of central hot water. If you don’t have them, the time to get them is now, before you need them. And practicing with them before you need to use them makes sense.


  1. Hi Claire,

    What a great experiment borne out of necessity. It is genuinely amazing to experience how little energy is required to enjoy an outwardly appearing 'this modern life'. Well done you two!

    Solar hot water is an amazing technology and I believe that it has better returns for the investment than solar Photovoltaic technology. For your info it works about 8 months of the year - and the firewood heats the hot water during the other months. Firewood I feel is just another form of stored and concentrated sunlight after all.

    But your central point that the techniques take a little time to learn, is a truly great point that is somewhat lost in the noise.

    Incidentally, just for your info, I've never washed clothes in warm or hot water. Mind you, I only purchase natural fibres and we soak clothes in a vinegar solution before and during the wash process. Also we add in soap nuts (and there are plenty of plant sources for saponin's including soapwort and horse chestnut just to name two). I tend to feel that the results are better than detergents, but you know it all sounds a bit hippy dippy. Museum's use the products to launder and clean older fabrics, so they might be onto something? Anyway we had to be mindful of the chemicals that enter the worm farm sewage system as the worms don't much like chemicals in excess.



    1. Hi Chris,

      Thanks for your comment! I have to admit that figuring out a new way to get by with no or minimal fossil fuel use feels quite good, in the same way that figuring out how to outwit someone who is trying to fool you feels good. ;-)

      I looked at solar hot water heating systems a couple decades ago. The ones available then either had to be drained when the temperature dropped below freezing - that's half the year here - or were complex, delicate, and costly affairs with heat exchangers required to transfer heat from the working fluid that won't freeze to the water being heated. Add to that the east-facing roof it would need to be perched on, and I decided against it. But there may be something more appropriate out there now.

      Do you get ground-in soil in the clothes you do outdoor work in? I usually kneel directly on the ground when I garden, thus grinding soil into the knees of the old jeans that I wear. I don't think I could get the soil out with a vinegar soak and cold water washing, but I'll admit I haven't tried it. It might be that using a washboard to rub extra soaking solution through the stained areas would work. As for the saponins, I haven't tried them for laundry use, but I understand why you use them.