Act: Inspiration

Solar Shower Blues

December 3, 2019

It’s only the first of October and I already miss my garden shower. If you don’t have a garden shower because you live in the frigid north, I feel you. I used to live there too. There’s probably one good showering-outside day per year in Anchorage, Alaska, where I grew up.

But I live in North Carolina now, where a garden shower is the height of luxury. Why is that? Oh, the many, many reasons.

First of all, it’s murderously hot here for six months of the year. This sounds like a bad thing, but I have honestly learned to love sweating. I never got to sweat as a child, except in the sauna. I love sweating while planting tomatoes in May. I love sweating while harvesting cucumbers in July. Okay, by the end of September I’m done and so is everyone else.

Butterfly pollinating a zinnia

This guy couldn’t care less that it’s murderously hot. Muuust poooollinate!

But when it’s so hot, an outside shower is the perfect way to cool off. There’s nothing better than stripping off sweaty, muddy work clothes on the patio, and feeling the warm sun on my bare skin as I walk out through the garden with my soap and towel. There’s nothing more delicious than getting all wet and letting the warm breeze strip the heat out of my body. Standing in front of the blowing AC doesn’t even come close.

The orange and pink sky over my garden at sunset is so much more beautiful than my admittedly awesome bathroom ceiling (it’s made of upcycled galvanized metal roofing, a.k.a. trash). The stars winking on are like magic. The last time I showered, a dragonfly stopped to look me in the eye. That never happens in the bathroom.

Showering my two little people (age four and six) is an exercise in rage control, as they adorably put soap in each other’s eyes. If, while I repeat myself for literally the millionth time, I can look out over my growing beets, their scarlet veins and emerald leaves catching the sun like a stained glass window, I might not explode. (Then again, I might. Parenting is hard.)

My shower soundtrack is the absolute best. As I soap my stinky armpits, there’s a woodpecker hammering in the drooping river birches over the ravine. There’s a mourning dove saying hoo-HOO-woo-woo off to the south near the pond. And right behind me is an indigo bunting, the bluest blue bird on Earth. I can’t see him, but I can hear him insistently calling his mate, or possibly calling out his rival: chip-chip!

Solar-heated shower from repurposed materialsA comfy, low-carbon way to get clean. Bonus: check out my baby figs in the lower left corner. More about them later.

From April through September we shower outside in the garden, with solar heated, gravity-fed water. PEX piping from the house climbs a two-by-four scaffold with a 20-gallon black tank from Tractor Supply sitting on top. Glued to the top of the tank with silicone caulk is an old window pane, one of ten thousand pieces of trash left on our land by previous owners. Total cost: about $40. In North Carolina, this setup gets my shower water extremely hot on any partly or mostly sunny day from May through most of September, and plenty warm enough in April and into October.

The benefits are spectacular, but there are a few genuine drawbacks. On entirely overcast days it doesn’t work. Luckily there aren’t many of those in the summer. This year I think there were two. I also can’t have a warm shower at two in the morning, although the water stays plenty warm until well after dark in midsummer. When we built it, we couldn’t guess that we might be able to use the shower into October, so we placed it in the corner of the garden that gets shaded through mid-day after the fall equinox. Rookie mistake.

It’s not a perfect fit for everyone. The water pressure is lower than what most folks are used to. My very hairy houseguest last week turned the cold on himself just to get enough volume. But for most of us it only takes a small adjustment in showering technique to get clean in that thin stream, which is a huge water savings. And we often turn the cold on anyway. The hot is just too hot.

The tank is currently filled by city water, which bothers me from both a cost and an environmental damage standpoint. I hate to pay for things that fall out of the sky for free, like water does here. It’s pretty silly to chemically treat water to a drinkable standard, pump it for miles, and then wash my butt in it. Actually, put that way, it’s morally wrong.

Garden gate with a solar garden showerA garden gate you can walk naked through. The scarlet runner beans climbing over the top have had a hard time with the drought, but the sweet potatoes (framed by gate) and the malabar spinach (on fence at left) have thrived.

For now, this is the only arrangement that works because gravity prevents me from making use of that free water out of the sky for showering (“catchment water,” in sustainability parlance). See, we built our little house as near as possible to some beautiful black walnuts, to get the benefit of their shade during the summer and the best view of our pond. But that means it’s too shady to place a solar-heated shower anywhere it could gravity feed from the house.

I plan to have a greenhouse someday and move the shower in there. It will catch water off the transparent roof instead of using city water. We’ll use it from March through November and virtually never turn on our water heater (in the coldest months our hot water is drawn off the wood stove; more about that later). This will level up my showering from “almost free” to “completely free,” both in terms of cost to my bank account and cost to the planet. Did you know Americans spend 14% of their household energy to heat water?

Like with every piece of our homestead, I can look forward to the benefits of the next project and still revel in the luxury of the imperfect first try. At least, I can next April, when I’m showering back in the garden.

Close-up of a solar-heated garden shower

A close-up of the plumbing. Note the fill valve on the ascending line. PEX is cheap, folks, and you can probably borrow a crimper to make the connections from your local plumbing supply place.

Do you have a warm season and a cozy corner of your yard that would make a nice shower? Maybe the only thing holding you back is you don’t have a day or two to cobble together a repurposed system like mine. Normally I think buying stuff is for suckers, but in this case, a solar shower bag could get you out there immediately. I’ve used them outside in New Zealand and in a greenhouse in Alaska, and they work pretty well.

For people who don’t want to shower outside, there are at least a half-dozen other ways to green your clean. When we are running the water heater in the shoulder seasons (like right now), we actually mostly leave it off. We turn it on at the breaker for about 15 minutes before the first person showers, and off before they get in. That 40 warm gallons does everybody, and then the dishes, and sometimes everybody again the next night before it’s unpleasantly cool. It might work even better if I put a blanket around the water heater.

There are other options:

  1. Some people limit their time in the shower to three or five minutes. I hear it’s easier on dry skin.
  2. Some folks get wet, shut off the water to lather and then turn it back on, like when brushing teeth. Many shower heads already have a feature to stop the water flow, so you don’t even have to fiddle with the knobs! I also hear the soap works better if it isn’t continually rinsing off you.
  3. People who are less stinky than me go two days or more between bathing. This really helped our infant daughter with her sensitive skin.
  4. Some people with curly hair evidently don’t wash it, and I am super envious.

All of these options don’t just save you time and money, they also help our fresh water and atmosphere. But hey, if you have tried the alternatives and you really need your long hot shower, I don’t begrudge you at all. It’s up to each of us to figure out which life is best for us.

Kara Stiff

Kara Stiff

I have a BS in Sustainable Agriculture from the University of Maine, and I worked on sustainability issues in Native Alaskan communities through Cooperative Extension before moving to North Carolina. My goal with my writing and in my life is to inspire others to think critically about their choices in order to build communities that are happier, healthier and gentler on the planet.

Tags: solar hot water