Harley L. Sachs 2/23/09
Its easy to forget, living in a Great Lakes state, that many millions of people in the world lack that most precious resource -- fresh water. In Bangladesh, even water from newly-dug wells is tainted with arsenic. One of the dreary, back-breaking chores of women and girls in Africa is to walk miles every day to fetch a few gallons of unsafe water for cooking and drinking. In parts of the world lacking safe water, dysentery and cholera are common; yet we take an abundance of water for granted.
Maybe your teenager takes a 20-minute hot shower, but thats hardly the norm around the world. On board U.S. Navy ships a great luxury is the so-called Hollywood shower. Five minutes! Im told that in Greece the shower standard is 1.) turn on the water and get wet; 2.) turn off the water and soap your wet body; 3.) turn on the water and rinse off the soap.
In our own home, we have a five-minute egg timer stuck on the shower wall as a reminder not to waste water.
But its not only the water itself being wasted. Its the heat it takes to warm it up in the traditional tank-style hot water heater. A better alternative is a tankless, flash hot water system.
WHAT A WASTE
Try this experiment: put a gallon jug under the faucet and see how much water runs into it before the water runs hot. All that cold water just goes down the drain. Multiply the amount by every time the hot tap is turned on and youll see that your water bill is simply wasted. If that poor African were standing behind your shoulder, shed be horrified. So should you be.
Take another step. If your home has a conventional hot water heater -- gas or electric, insulated or not -- it stands full of hot water all night and most of the day without being tapped. It doesnt make sense to let that energy go to waste.
You can eliminate the waste of water run through the pipes before the hot water arrives and the wasted heat of water standing unused in the tank by installing a tankless, flash hot water system. These are common in Europe, with their cousins (the so-called suicide shower systems) found in Asia and Latin America.
You also find them in some locations in the U.S., like campgrounds, where the way to get a hot shower is to drop coins in the flash hot water meter: Clink, clink, and away you go with hot water on demand. Running out of change while covered with soap in those places is frustrating.
The modern, gas-operated flash heaters dont even have a pilot light. The flow of the water and the gas self-ignites the burner for instant hot water. No waiting. No waste.
Of course, flash hot water systems cost more than the old fashioned, conventional tank water heaters, which require little more than a burner or an immersed electric coil and a thermostat. An ordinary water heater, installed, might cost a couple of hundred dollars while a flash, tankless heater will run about $1,000.
The issue is how long does it take for the difference in cost to justify the expense? What the break-even point is depends on local water rates and your own household use. Availability is important, too. In desert cities like Albuquerque, New Mexico or Phoenix, Arizona where the population surge has driven down the aquifer, every drop of water is precious. My daughter in Albuquerque got special recognition from the city for removing the lawns from her properties and installing natural desert plants. The desert is no place for the luxury of a green lawn.
There are scores of models of flash water heaters on the market, some small enough to fit under your kitchen sink. Google flash hot water heaters and you will be astonished at the number of choices.
Compared to the Europeans who have used tankless heaters for many years, we Michiganders are primitive, not much advanced from the native who collects cow patties for fuel and fetches water from a muddy puddle five miles away.