Some of you don’t know that I went without hot running water for 5 years and any indoor plumbing at all for more than 4 years. That may sound crazy but we were young and building a house together and trying to comply with all the building codes too.
So what did we do for all that time? This post is going to cover that but it is also going to give some more reasonable options too. Looking back there are things we could have done differently so that we didn’t go without hot water that long.
Let’s take a trip back to 2008. Matt and I are straight back from living in Ketchikan, Alaska. We decided it was not for us and that we would be better of back in North Carolina where we could do things and also where we could build a house at some point. We were not exactly sure when that would happen. We stayed with parents for a few months and then decided we needed to get our own space. We were not used to living with other people and the sooner we got started on our place the better.
In the beginning, hot water was achieved by either boiling water on a propane stove or heating a barrel over a woodfire. This is how we bathed at times too. I actually have fond memories of using a 55-gallon metal juice barrel to heat water for a big bath under the stars. We are out in the country and on a mountain at 3,000 feet so a hot bath outside is a great experience. Unfortunately, it requires a lot of work. We would heat the water and then dunk it out into an 80-gallon stock tank and then cool it off a little with the garden hose. We always left enough water to refresh it as it cooled down.
My Bengal cat, Felix, would sometimes come and try to paw me over the edge of the tub. It was his game. Since Bengals like water so much, I was always afraid he was going to jump in with me or fall in trying to play.
While I am glad to have hot water at the turn of a tap now, I don’t regret the 5 years that wasn’t an option for me. I appreciate it more now and we have a house to live in.
How much hot water do you really need?
Don’t make the mistake of underestimating how much hot water you need. While it is admirable to try to reduce the amount of hot water you use, don’t assume that you can cut it down a lot. On-demand hot water heaters have flow rates and you need to pay attention to that before buying a heater. Get a little more than you need to avoid frustration.
How cold is your incoming water?
Water comes out of the ground at different temperatures in different areas. On-demand hot water heaters are rated to increase water temperature by so many degrees at a particular gallons per minute flow rate. There is a big difference between heating water that has an incoming temperature of 40 degrees when entering the on-demand system and water that has an incoming temperature of 60 degrees.
Propane On Demand
There are many brands of these units out there. Some are made to be more portable while others are designed to be installed and left in place indefinitely. I am going to include a few choices so you get the idea of what is out there but keep in mind that there are so many of these out there that you should look around a bit before deciding.
I wish that Matt and I had one of the portable on-demand hot water heaters when we were living in the camper and building the house and after we moved in but didn’t have hot running water.
Note: Always follow the guidelines for venting any propane hot water heater. Some units are not designed to be installed or use in an enclosed space. Make sure you are aware of limitations before purchasing so that you get a heater that actually meets your needs! I include some that require ventilation because there are plenty of people with small cabins and camps that are fine with an outdoor shower or water situation.
Camp Chef offers some reliable products. My husband and I use their stoves and grills regularly for outdoor cooking. This hot water heater is a solution for those that want something very portable. You could stash this and a tank at a cabin and enjoy a total of 11 hours of hot water with a single 20 lb grill tank. That is quite a few showers when you think about it. The price is very affordable too making it a bit more approachable than some larger systems.
This is a reasonable solution for a small off-grid cabin. It is portable and even comes with a showerhead. Plenty of people use these smaller systems for outdoor showers or even to bathe animals. You can attach this to the outside of an RV as well for some extra hot water on demand.
This unit is rated to produce 2.1 gallons of hot water a minute and can heat water up to 140 F. I could not find out any info on how incoming temperature affects flow.
Note: This unit must be vented so you need to install it where there is some ventilation to the outside.
Solar or Solar Supported Systems
Anything that you can do to increase the temperature of water before it goes into or travels through a heater is going to be a big help. Solar water collectors can be very innovative. Copper piping is a popular choice for building a solar collector.
These are more complicated systems in a way. I will briefly explain a few things but I am going to link to other sites that can offer you a more experienced description.
Direct Circulation Systems
If you don’t get freezing temperatures then this is the best system for you. If you use this type of system in areas with freezing temps, you may need to drain it and use another method for part of the year. This is not something a lot of people are going to want to deal with.
These systems work by using pumps to circulate water from collectors and into the home.
Indirect Circulation Systems
Colder climates need to think in terms of indirect circulation to keep the hot water flowing. These systems operate with the use of a heat transfer fluid such as glycol. Pumps circulate this fluid through a heat exchanger that heats up the water that flows into your home. This is probably the system that most of those reading this would choose.
Direct systems are nice but from what I can tell, they are really only useful in places where it is pretty warm most of the year or for summer getaway cabins or similar.
With passive solar hot water systems, cold water is heated in a solar collector and then flows into a conventional style hot water heater within the home. This allows for some savings since the water is preheated before entering the home. So your hot water heater doesn’t have to do as much work. So if you have a propane hot water heater, then you will use less propane. This system is most suitable for climates where temperatures rarely lead to freezing. Otherwise, the system would need to be drained during the cold months.
In my email buddy James Kuntsler’s “The World Made By Hand” Series, they use homemade wood-fired hot water heaters. Without fossil fuels, this method and solar heat collection would be all that was possible.
Where wood is scarce this could be problematic or impossible. One method that those that wish to use wood heat or wood cookstoves use is a water jacket that fits onto the stove and allows water to heat while heating your home or cooking meals. This is a great idea. Even small barrel stoves that are made for portable hunting camps can feature a water tank with a spicket. Here is a great example I found that is affordable for a bug out cabin or even just stashing back with some stovepipe in case you need some backup heat and hot water if there is a long emergency.
I am a big fan of Camp Chef products. They are really reliable and made to last. We cook a lot of food using their products. I have not had a chance to try out the Alpine Barrel Stove but I imagine it is made with the same quality and attention to detail that I have come to expect from them. This stove comes with a pipe and chimney that packs into the stove body for storage and transport. While I would not use this stove for all of my heating and hot water needs in a regular home, it is a good supplement and would be excellent for use in a bug out cabin or wilderness retreat.
Note that the water jacket with spicket is sold separately from the stove but the whole package together still comes in at a reasonable cost for what you get. If I wanted to have a small getaway, this is what I would get.
Old Fashioned Wood Cookstoves
I am including these because they are tried and true but I have to say that they are big, expensive, and harder to find. If you find a used wood cookstove or have the ability to refurbish one, then it might be an option. These will really heat your house up and it takes a while to get it to where you can actually cook anything so they are for those that can be patient when it comes to household duties.
I know they used these in the South a lot years ago but I cannot imagine having to cook on a stove like this when it is really hot outside. This is why some people sat up summer kitchens outside and didn’t use their cookstoves.
Actual wood fired hot water heaters that have a traditional shape are out there but I have not been able to find a dealer in USA.
I found wood hot water heaters years ago that are available in India but I cannot find them in the USA. I suppose this is simply due to lack of demand but I think they are pretty neat in a way. If you have a lot of wood around you, this could work for SHTF.
Lehman’s offers and Amish Made Hot Water Heater Sometimes
A Samovar is a neat small off-grid solution. I could see this being something nice to have at a bug out cabin. This little wood-fired unit not only heats water, but it can also be used for an emergency stove for cooking and will provide some heat. Yes, you will have to use it outside but it is an inexpensive survival stove that works.
The unit shown in the picture is a 5-liter model. Some samovars are smaller. I saw one model that was just 1.5 liters. For survival and off-grid purposes, the larger unit would be my pick.
Please note that not all samovars use wood for fuel. A lot of electric ones exist. Most of the wood-fueled samovars are a basic silver color.
I did not know that oil-powered hot water heater’s existed until Matt showed me the John Wood Heaters website. Oil could work off-grid in some cases.
When I lived in Alaska, oil was what was used to heat almost all the apartment buildings. Oil was delivered to remote communities. Yes, it does make you dependent on fossil fuels, delivery, or hauling a lot of oil yourself occasionally.
Consider just having showers and no bathtubs in your off-grid home.
Matt and I chose to have just a large shower in our small house so I could have a bigger kitchen. I miss having a tub in some ways and eventually it would be nice to have one again but it is a way to guarantee that you will use less hot water, especially if you have a low flow shower fixture.
Conserving Hot Water Off-Grid
There are somethings you can do to conserve hot water.
- Although most people take more showers than a full soaking bath some may like to soak more than others. The more baths you take the more water you use.
- If you boil water for cooking and have some leftover, use it to wash something when you can or use to rinse or soak pots and pans. You can always make some iced tea for later too!
- Pay better attention to clothing labels and wash items in cold water when you can.
- Do full loads of laundry and not small ones. People often leave the load selector set to a higher level than they should and that means more hot water is used than really needed.
- Rinse dishes with cold water to get rid of most food residue. A lot of plates really don’t need hot water to remove a lot of food. Save the hot water for the final scrub.
- Use cast iron pans. You can survive using a lot less hot water by cooking in cast iron.
- Set up an outdoor shower and use the sun to heat a shower bag in the summertime when you can. Every shower you do this way is one that is not coming from your main system.
How do you heat water off-grid? What lessons have you learned over the years?