Compost-Heated Outdoor Shower

Reader Contribution by Anneli Carter-Sundqvist
1 / 3
2 / 3
3 / 3

Summer on Deer Isle, Maine, is an absolutely magical time with an incredible fireworks display of colors and flowers. One of many good things with summer here at our homestead is that our outdoor shower is warm enough to provide that quick shower we so often miss in the winter.

Solar Water Pump

Last year we installed an electric water pump that runs off our solar electricity. It’s a supplement to our hand pump – our only source of water until then – and the main purpose was to be able to develop an alternative and sustainable water-heating system through a compost pile for our outdoor shower. A comfortable and convenient shower with warm, running water is highly sought by our Hostel guests and the pressurized water enabled us to set up a system that was all that, but still met our standards for low maintenance, sustainability and use of alternative technology. And our guests seem to love it – how many other inn’s have photos taken of their shower?

Making Compost for Heating Water

We build the compost pile 6 feet at the base and 6 feet tall, using natural materials found right here: seaweed, grass cuttings and wood chips. We layer the materials flat like a stack of pancakes so it takes the shape of a cylinder. We use a 100 foot roll of 1/2 inch black water line and as we build the pile we lay one circle – about two and a half feet in diameter – of the pipe between every 6-8 inch layer of material. The pile quickly heats up to 140 to degrees 150 Fahrenheit and that thermophilic process is what will heat up the water in the pipe. The small pipe diameter allows the water to pick up the heat even more efficiently and it makes for a flexible line that is easy to work with.

Inside the shower we have two taps – one coming from the pile with steaming hot water and one coming directly from the well with cold water to temper the hot water down with. We use a 2 gallon watering can that we fill with water and a rope and pulley to hoist it up with. A cam cleat typically found in sail boats secures the rope and we simply tip the water can with our hand to create the shower. I find those 2 gallons to be enough for a good wash, including my hair. Surely one could fill the water can again and again, but this is an encouraged limitation and most of our hostel guests are surprised to find that one can is sufficient. The water can can be refilled just about every 10-15 min with hot water – perfect when we have a lot of guests here.

Our well is deep with plenty of water even in the dry season and a conventional shower system with the pressurized water going straight to the shower head would not be a matter of too much water being used, but could have a negative impact on the vegetation around the shower stall and make the ground muddy since the water drain right down on the ground.

Not taking the water tank and the installation of that in account, we spent about $25 on plumbing parts for the shower, including the pipe.

Ongoing Maintenance

It takes two of us the better part of a day to gather materials and build the pile for the first time and last summer we found that within a month, the pile cooled off and needed to be rebuilt. We’re still learning how to create a pile that burn slow for a long time – last year we had problems with the pile first being too dry and then too wet. One theory is that the rich seaweed acts as rocket fuel and burns very hot but for a limited time. An alteration of the proportions of seaweed to grass for example might be one way for a longer lasting heater.

Summer is to me the season of easy living. No wool socks to dry by the wood stove, no damp winter coats, mittens and hats to deal with after every work day, no trudging through knee deep snow to the wood shed. And no hour long project of heating water on the stove, thawing out the rubber tub and mopping up the mess on our kitchen floor afterward when all you want is just to get clean. Fill the water can, shower, done. A homesteader’s life just got so much easier and a hostel guest’s stay so much more memorable.