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Off-grid hot showers: Seven solutions to get you started

A few months ago, a colleague commented in passing that he “wouldn’t be able to live without a hot shower every day, and would go feral within a week”. It made me laugh, but it also made me think.

First, I think it’s crazy that we are all so used to hot water just coming out of the tap that we don’t give a second thought about taking a shower every day, sometimes even twice a day for those with a daily habit that also go to the gym. We really don’t need to shower daily, and worse, doing so strips your skin of essential oils that can lead to dryness and sometimes even skin inflammation or eczema! Our hair doesn’t like it any better, by the way.

Ever since we started traveling and volunteering on farms back in 2016, we adjusted our showering habits, and typically shower twice a week. There are exceptions of course, like when we were in sweltering Cambodia and rinsed daily.

Second, it made me realize that yet another assumption is that if you live off-grid, your life is stripped of luxurious and essential comforts including hot showers.

So, here’s how we do it, and then – for anyone who is curious or thinking about living off-grid but afraid to give up hot showers – here are seven off-grid solutions to get you started.

Hot water at Casa Beatrix: Current setup & our vision

We have two main hot water solutions right now: “bailarinas” (100L metal cylinders with a compartment at the bottom to make a fire), and black tube coils (80m of black piping set up as a snail-coil and placed in the sun for passive hot water).

The black tube coils only work in summer; otherwise the air and water are too cold, and the setup doesn’t generate more than not-freezing or maybe lukewarm water. From May to September or October, however, this system is glorious. 

We have one such coil set up in the donkey field and connected to an outside shower – and that’s my absolute favorite when the weather is right, because showering under the blue sky, with the sun shining, and with butterflies – or, occasionally, curious donkeys – coming by, is brilliant. It works best between 11am and 5pm on sunny days.

The second such setup is on top of the “Baywatch” bathhouse roof, and is connected to an inside shower. Because the walls aren’t insulated, this is the setup we use and let volunteers use in summer only, but it extends to evenings as you’re out of the wind. There’s also a “bailarina” connected to that shower, for weather curveballs or evening showers.

Our year-round solution is a “bailarina” set up at the Tiny House / Chateau Cramooz. On any given day – but usually twice a week – we make a fire in the bottom compartment, and 20-60min later we have water that’s as hot as 80C.

Longer term, we will combine these options and others to ensure that our house and rental units/spaces all have hot water available year-round, with emphasis placed on more sustainable solutions.

Off-grid hot water solutions: Six solutions to get you started

Overall, there are three types of solution that have various options each: 

  1. Passive water heating, which uses the power of the sun
  2. Wood-burning water heating
  3. Gas water heating

Passive water heating can be as simple as one of the options found in camping stores: A bag made of thick black plastic, with a tube and a hook to hang it. You fill it with water, put it in the sun in the morning, and if the conditions are right, by the afternoon you have enough hot water for one or two showers depending on how long or short they are.

A more reliable setup is the black pipe coil described above (and in this blog), where you have 80L heating up at any one time – enough for 4-8 showers depending on how long or short they are. As the water gets used up, the coil refills and the new water is heated. So, if used right and the showers spaced out a bit, you can get quite a few in.

The third option in this category is a setup whereby one or two solar panels are connected to an insulated water cylinder. These are often referred to as a solar water heater or a solar domestic hot water system. Their price can range tremendously, but in my experience – at Happy Toes Farm in South Africa – they are a wonderful option for nice hot showers.

Wood burning is what we use for the “bailarina” setup, which as mentioned is a large metal cylinder with capacity for 100L of water. It has a compartment at the bottom where you can start a fire that will heat up the water above. On cold days this can take a while (the longest we’ve experienced is about 40min for decent hot water and 1h for piping hot water), and the same is true for rainy days as the compartment tends to get humid and that affects the potency of the fire.

The other wood burning option is a wood burning stove that can connect to a water system. I don’t know the technical details, but have heard that Rayburns are a high-end example, and that old-school wood-burning stoves often have an option to heat up water as well.

Rocket stoves are a third option that I don’t know much about but are a super efficient way to heat up rooms (rocket-mass heaters) or even to cook with (rocket-stoves), using very little wood to achieve optimal heat distribution. I’ve seen one used for a shower at Tiger Hill Permaculture (we volunteered there back in 2016), so if you’re curious definitely look it up.

Last but not least, gas water heaters are quite common here in Portugal. They come in different sizes, but heat up the water instantly. Two notes on this solution: first, we tried using one but the pressure wasn’t enough for the gas heater to work properly (that’s because our system is gravity fed, in case that’s relevant to you). Second, gas is not the most sustainable alternative for obvious reasons especially nowadays with everything going on in Ukraine and with Russia. However, for the purpose of this blog, it counts as an off-grid solution to have hot water.

So, there you have it! Hope you’ll come visit and see for yourself that off-grid showers can be le best.

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