Build a Bathhouse for Your Homestead

Bring hot water bathing to your homestead with these tips for purchased or homemade water heaters.

| January/February 1974

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    Wood-burning laundry stove. Note inlet and outlet at rear if water jacket. The holding tank behind the heater will store about 20 gallons of warmed liquid and, even though the drum is uninsulated, the water it contains will remain hot all day from a single firing. This particular installation is temporary and will soon be replaced.
    THE MOTHER EARTH NEWS EDITORS
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    Bathhouse interior. The "chips" set in the plaster around the tub are potsherds found at a nearby Pueblo Indian ruin. Mexican tiles cover the area below the tub and woodbox.
    THE MOTHER EARTH NEWS EDITORS
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    The DeKorne combination root cellar and bathhouse under construction. The 55-gallon drum on the roof of the bathing facility is connected via plastic pipe to a water heater inside. Jim says that the system's pressure is quite sufficient for the satisfactory operation of a shower. Eventually, the root cellar portion of this structure will be banked with dirt. The still-under-construction stone wall in the photo will hold that earth in place.
    PHOTO: THE MOTHER EARTH NEWS EDITORS
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    This schematic shows the inner workings of the laundry stove water heater described in this article. Note both the placement of the holding tank in relation to the stove and the circulation of the water.
    THE MOTHER EARTH NEWS EDITORS
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    Schematic of homemade wood-burning heater. Note that cold water is piped into bottom of unit and hot out from top.
    THE MOTHER EARTH NEWS EDITORS
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    Many folks seem to think about making solar collectors from two sheets of corrugated roofing, but few seem to succeed. Riveting, bolting, spot welding and brazing the pieces of metal together so that all joints are watertight isn't quite as easy as it might look. If you do want to try your hand at this kind of sun-powered water heater, the diagram shows how to go about it.
    THE MOTHER EARTH NEWS EDITORS
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    This solar water heater was designed by Peter van Dresser, a alternative energy enthusiast who moved to New Mexico and began experimenting with solar heated houses and windmills in 1949 (long before the current revival of interest in renewable energy resources). Mr. Mr. van Dresser, a fascinating individual in his own right, is credited by James B. DeKorne, Steve Baer and other southwestern alternative energy movers and shakers as being a major source of inspiration and encouragement. For photos of solar heated houses built by van Dresser as long ago as 1949, a projection of today's energy crisis that he wrote in 1938 and other facts about the man, see the James B. DeKorne interview with Peter van Dresser in Lifestyle! No. 7. 
    THE MOTHER EARTH NEWS EDITORS
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    This solar water heater is currently in everyday operation at a New Mexico commune. The copper tubing visible through the glass is brazed into the zig-zag pattern you see. The corrugated roofing behind the tubing is painted black (to help collect heat) and insulation-in turn-behind the roofing makes the unit more efficient. Note also the insulation (which is nothing but a wooden box filled with sawdust) around the storage tank on this homemade setup and around the water heater's connecting pipes. Holding tanks, particularly if they're outdoors and exposed to chilling winds, should always be protected this way. It's foolish to collect the sun's warmth and then just dissipate it to the atmosphere.
    THE MOTHER EARTH NEWS EDITORS
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    Mexican-made wood-burning water heater. The faucet was added by the DeKornes.
    THE MOTHER EARTH NEWS EDITORS
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    This side view of the solar collector now in operation on a New Mexico commune shows some of the construction details of the unit's underpinnings. As you can see, there's nothing at all complicated about the piece of hardware, which illustrates one of the most exciting aspects of today's move to harness the sun: Everyone can get in on the act. Complicated labs and expensive equipment are all very nice, but for point-of-use, practical applications of solar energy, it's still hard to beat a freak with some old window panes, salvaged sheets of roofing, some 2 X 4's scrounged pipe and a can of black paint.
    THE MOTHER EARTH NEWS EDITORS
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    Schematic of Steve Baer's all-season water heater in which an anti-freeze-treated fluid is first warmed and then used to heat water for washing, bathing and other purposes. This setup is a little more complicated to construct but not really any more difficult to understand, and it works in fair weather or foul.
    THE MOTHER EARTH NEWS EDITORS
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    Simple schematic showing, again, that the rule of thumb for most solar water heaters is locate the holding tank above the collector.
    THE MOTHER EARTH NEWS EDITORS

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Like "Mom and apple pie," "the Saturday night bath" is a catch phrase that comes straight out of America's rural past. Until only recently most of our parents and grandparents — like their ancestors before them — went through the weekly ritual of hauling a battered tin tub down from its peg on the back porch for that "once-a-week whether-you-need-it-or-not" hot water bath.

This event was accompanied by much sloshing of water in galvanized buckets, steaming of kettles and pots on the wood range and oozing of soapsuds all over the kitchen floor, and often Junior wound up with the lukewarm and none-too-clean liquid that was left after all the higher-ups in the family pecking order had done their thing. It's little wonder that America took to the gas- or electric-fired domestic water heater like, well, like ducks to water.

Now, of course, we take that convenience for granted. In fact, today's new homesteader is likely to find that if there's one single thing he really misses about "civilization," it's a hot shower at the end of the day. It might be argued with justice that the American preoccupation with cleanliness is schizophrenic, since — as a people — we seem to be more concerned with clean restrooms than clean air. Even so, when you've been pouring cement, haying or weeding the garden the better part of a July afternoon, it's pure bliss to greet the sunset with a hot bath or shower.

But Reddy Kilowatt, like it or not, is a very messy fellow. The dirt washed down the drain by the bath water from an electric heater probably doesn't equal the amount of dirt spewed into the air in order to produce that heat. And every cubic inch of gas burned in the only other commonly available water heater is one cubic inch of gas the world will never use again. In any case, many homesteaders live so far from both gas and electric lines that their choice boils down to either [1] going the Saturday night bath route or [2] going dirty.



Still — as we've found on our place — there are other solutions. For almost three years we hassled with the tin tub and, while the ritual at first seemed a mildly adventurous experience out of an earlier and less hectic era, it soon became very old stuff indeed. (This was particularly so during the winter, when baths were confined to that portion of the living room floor immediately in front of the Ashley heater.) We soon found ourselves taking advantage of our infrequent trips to town by bathing at the homes of friends, until they began to wonder whether we came to visit them or to steam up their bathrooms. Finally we decided that a rural organic life didn't have to include feeling grubby most of the time, and the fabrication of a bathhouse became our top priority project.

Building the Bathhouse

Construction materials for our new luxury were no problem. We live on the edge of a national forest where, every year, crews with chain saws thin out the smaller trees so that the remaining timber can grow to a marketable size. These thinnings are left where they fall to eventually rot back into the forest floor. They're free for the taking, and, if gathered while still green, make fine log-cabin-type buildings. An axe, a chain saw and a copy of Bradford Angier's book How To Build Your Home In the Woods were all I needed to put up a 10' x 12' bathhouse.






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