Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Living Better on Less Energy: Hot Tubs and Motorcycles
The other evening, over a pizza, I was telling a fellow MOTHER EARTH NEWS reader about some wonderful hot tub inventions I had made years ago. He only knew me as a motorcycle designer. What would be the connection between motorcycles and hot tubs, he wondered.
Simple… It is all about living better with less energy.
I thought you might like to hear the story, too.
It begins in Illinois in the summer of 1976 when I was recovering from an awful motorcycle road race crash at Road Atlanta, Georgia. I had broken my pelvis and was in a lot of pain. As winter approached, it hurt even more. I had heard about the therapeutic effects of natural hot springs so, when Carol and I visited our friends in Seattle, they took us to a remote, mud hole hot springs in the mountains above Seattle:
Mud bottomed natural hot springs above Seattle
Snow… hot water… wine. It sure made my aches and pains go away. This was great! Could I recreate this at home?
MOTHER EARTH NEWS had made me aware of California redwood hot tubs. They seemed to be the perfect solution.
I ordered a redwood hot tub kit and installed it outside on my deck at my factory in Illinois. The 103 degree water was fantastic, especially when the temp dropped below zero outside. I spent many happy hours dreaming about how hot tubs might also improve the lives of my freezing neighbors. If it solved my problems, it might solve the problems of others, too. This could be lifestyle changing.
The bliss did not last for long. One very cold Illinois night the temp dropped to minus 15 degrees, the power went out, and the tub and all its heater/filter/plumbing froze up. That was the end of winter hot-tubbing for me.
But not the end of my hot tub dreams.
It was obvious to me that hot tubs would have to be moved indoors to keep them from freezing. While this might be contrary to the West Coast outdoor lifestyle, consider the benefits:
From my Notebook #38 of 1977, Showing a Hot Tub Located Inside a House.
Indoor hot tubs could dramatically reduce the energy costs for heating a home. The thermal mass heat from the hot tub alone could help the house stay a warm and even temp. While it would take energy to heat the water to 103, any heat loss would escape into the house, not be lost outside. The regular house heater would not have to work as hard. Even better, an indoor hot tub would release needed humidity into the dry air. Anybody who lives in extreme cold climates knows that the air inside homes gets very dry in the winter. Static electrical shocks, while not fatal, are no fun. The water vapor naturally released from an indoor hot tub would end this problem. What a relaxing thing to look forward to at home after work. I began making plans to cut a 6 foot round hole in the living room of my new Illinois house.
California Cooperage Hot Tub Company
But it was not to be. It was easier to move to California where the problems of extreme cold would not exist. Once settled on the West coast, I found a struggling hot tub company that needed help and bought it. I knew hot tubbing was a good idea. But, I really wanted it to develop my hot tub dreams for the midwest. There was more: Eventually, I figured that hot tubs would be made of plastic. I had one of the biggest plastic vacuum forming machines in the country. I would make them. The California people did not have a clue what I was up to.
Designing, Patenting and Marketing the Roll-Top Insulated Cover
My first goal was to make my hot tubs hold their heat in longer. I focused on designing an insulated top that was “not more trouble than it was worth” (a favorite design-saying of mine). It was important that one small person could operate it… or else, it would not be used. In 1977, there was no such device. The result was the marvelous insulated Roll-Top.
Next I wanted to heat my tubs from the sun. Burning wood seemed to be the most appropriate solution. Oak pallets were everywhere, and free. They still are. How many oak pallets would it take to heat up a hot tub to 103 degrees? I was about to find out. I pulled a tub from inventory and cut a hole in the bottom, designed and built a special wood-burning fire box and bolted it into the bottom:
Wood-Fired Hot Tub Heater
The firebox was very simple: a 55 gallon drum welded into a box with a door to put the wood in at the end. The hot tub water totally surrounded the drum and the chimney. All the heat came from the bottom up, going directly into the hot tub water. No pumps or motors were needed. Best of all, it was totally sun powered.
One oak pallet would take a cold tub up to 100 degrees in about an hour. Then it would be time to get in. The only downside was that the temp kept on climbing. Hot tubbing is no fun above 104 degrees. We learned to plan ahead. Actually, living on our wood cookstove also requires us to plan ahead, too.
I must point out that this was the period when PG&E was trying to open their Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. It was important to demonstrate that we could live without their gas or electricity.
“If the motorcycles don’t get them, the hot tubs will”
(A memorable quote about girlfriends from a 1978 interview on NBC TV)
There can be no doubt that hot tubs can represent a step-up in quality of life. Wood fired hot tubs allow us to live better on less energy. Streamlined, 17 hp motorcycles allow us to live better on less energy, too.
It is all part of the same mission in life.
Next: Writing this story made me yearn for a hot tub again. When the nearby Diablo Canyon Nuclear power plant opened, we sold the house with the wood fired tub and moved away. I have missed that tub, especially as my hip is getting worse. What if I could make a low-cost, low-maintenance, solar-powered hot tub? What if we could control the temp to keep it at the desired 103 degrees?
Not only is it possible, I did it last week in 8 hours for less than $300. In every way, my new sun-powered tub is superior to the old redwood tubs of the '70s. In my next post, I’ll show you how you can do it, too.
It is raining now. This is my favorite time to do a “test tub.” Craig Vetter signing off.