In the beginning there was cold water, and people didn’t bathe much. They masked body odor with perfumes and oils, or just went around smelly. Even as recently as the turn of the last century, running hot water was a luxury. It was available only to those who were well off. These days, in the United States, a personal supply of hot water is thought of as a necessity, right up there with food and shelter. Just try going without it!
Over time, people have heated water in a great many ways. A brief look at some of these methods can give perspective, and you will see how some of these older and now unused techniques could have application today.
From Stove to Storage tank -- When wood and coal were the prevalent fuels, water was usually heated in a pot over the fire or in a kettle over the cook stove. Some stoves had a reservoir lined with tin, copper or porcelain. This would be filled with water for heating. Heating enough water for a bath was a time-consuming ordeal. Much of Saturday was spent getting cleaned up for church on Sunday.
Later, when running water came indoors, a chamber or pipe loop called a water back (or water front) was installed in the firebox of the stove. Heated water would move by convection through this chamber to a storage tank. For reasons which can only be guessed at, these tanks were called range boilers, even though it was the stove which did the heating. Some of these old systems are still operating out there today. The oldest water-back/range boiler we’ve seen (pictured above) still hooked up and in use dates back to the early1920s.
A variation of the stove/storage tank idea was the “scuttle-a-day” heater which used coal. This was a small cast-iron device. Short and squat, with a rounded top, it looked more like Star Wars’ R2-D2 than a water heater. Hooked up to a storage tank in the same way as a water back, it used one scuttle (bucket) of coal per day to keep the water hot, more or less. Using the scuttle-a-day eliminated the need to fire up the kitchen stove when hot water was needed. It saved fuel and avoided turning the house into a sauna during hot weather. This heater had damper controls to adjust the rate of burning, but fully automatic water heating was yet to come.
Another interesting type of heater was the side-arm. It usually had a gas burner placed underneath a copper coil. These were commonly “holstered” in a cast iron shell. Water would be heated in the coil, and then convection would drive the heated water to a storage tank, just as it did in the water-back and scuttle-a-day coal burner.
Originally, side-arm heaters simply had a gas valve which operated by hand. The gas was lit with a match when you wanted a bath. Forgetting to shut if off when done with the bath “triggered” a potentially explosive situation. Later, automatic controls and safeties were developed which made the side-arm heaters easier to live with. One advantage of the side-arm heater was that if its storage tank rusted out, you could simply replace that one component. You’d transfer the burner and other pieces to your new tank, keeping costs down. Planned obsolescence had not yet become a way of life.
It’s interesting to note that one of the most efficient water heaters (no longer available) was the Marathon gas fired heater. It was an updated side-arm heater. One of the main reasons it was so efficient is that the burner was separated from the storage tank. Because there was no flue running up through the stored hot water, standby heat loss form the heater was greatly reduced.
Hot water in an instant -- Up until the 1890’s, all forms of water heating both heated and stored the water. Kerosene, gasoline and a variety of gasses have been used to heat water. Some gasses, such as acetylene and producers gas could even be made on site. With the advent of high-energy liquid and gaseous fuels, instantaneous heating became possible. These fuels were much easier to regulate automatically than wood or coal.
The bath heater was one of the first instantaneous types. We find one variety particularly interesting. Once a pilot was lit, turning on the water would also turn on the gas burner. Water flowed up through a pipe to a sprinkler inside the top of the unit. As water sprayed out through the combustion gasses, it collected heat (and combustion byproducts). From there the water cascaded over metal that was being heater by the flame, collecting more heat. The water then travelled around to a spigot and into the tub.
Ad copy in the 1906 Sweet’s Catalog boasted that this method utilized “92 units of heat out of a possible 100, a feat never before accomplished in heater construction”. This heater was extremely efficient, though it did result in slightly tainted bath water. Perhaps the somewhat acidic water cleaned better! Today, the most efficient furnaces and boilers also condense flue gasses.
As the century turned -- At present, only three manufacturers produce most of the water heaters in the United States. In the early 1900s there were over 150 manufacturers. Many types of heaters were competing for business. The two major camps were automatic instantaneous and automatic storage heaters. You already know which type prevailed.
It may have to do with how people bathe. For many reasons, precise temperature control has always been difficult with instantaneous heaters. That didn’t matter when filling a tub, which is what most everybody used to do. As toes tested the water, hot or cold was added until the bather was satisfied. When the “rain bath” or shower became more common, if the water temperature fluctuated, it was noticed … and not much appreciated. Tank-type heaters seemed to gain in popularity around this time.
Galvanized steel tanks were common, but longer lasting copper, bronze and Monel (a copper-nickel mix) were available also. Performance was improved dramatically when insulation was added to the tank. Surprise! What seems obvious to us now was innovation back then. Like the side-arm heater, some of the early tank-type heaters were designed so you could replace just the tank and re-use the rest of the components, even the insulation.
Because tankless heaters could produce hot water as soon as the pilot was lit, we imagine tank-type heater makers felt at a competitive disadvantage. They came up with some innovative ways of getting hot water from a tank within a few minutes after heating had begun.
One method placed a coil of pipe in the combustion chamber. Water was fed into the coil from the bottom of the heater. A tube ran from the coil up the flue and connected to the hot outlet pipe. Water was heated in the coil almost immediately; it could either be used right then or go to storage.
Another method wrapped a jacket about an inch away from and completely around the flue, surrounding it inside the tank. This jacket was open both top and bottom, creating a rising current of heated water. Like the previous method, hot water, although limited in quantity, was almost instantly available for use.
These heaters still took just as long as ever to heat their entire contents, but they could provide a small amount of hot water quickly for chores. That meant the heater could be turned on briefly and then kept off most of the time, greatly cutting standby heat losses.
Early solar -- Solar water heating started catching on around the turn of the century (end of the 1800s). Originally there were batch heaters, now called internal collector and storage (ICS) units. These heaters had one or more tanks placed behind glass, in an enclosed box. They are very simple with no moving parts and little risk of freeze damage. Their main drawback is substantial overnight heat loss.
Thermosyphon systems were an improvement. This method placed the tank above the collector and used convection to move heated water into the tank (just like the side-arm heater). One manufacturer was Day and Night, so called because their heaters provided hot water both day and night. Their insulated tanks kept stored water hot after the sun went down, and that was a solar first.
The company suffered when unusually cold weather caused freeze damage to many of their collectors. Their remedy was to install a heat exchanger between the tank and collector and fill the collector with alcohol and water. We personally feel this was one of the most elegantly simple and efficient solar systems ever devised.
A second problem occurred as solar tanks aged and began to leak. A major cause of leaks then, as now, was using different metals together in water. When metals are mixed in this way, one of them always corrodes to protect the other. One metal turns bodyguard to the more “noble” metal, and it sacrifices itself. Thus, steel rusts away to protect copper. When these metals were used together, plumbing corroded and holes developed. Water leaked out and caused havoc. Today, plastic lined steel nipples and dielectric unions can be used effectively to separate the metals and prevent this problem.
These solar tanks were usually installed in attics, up under the peak, so thermosyphoning with the roof mounted solar collectors could work. When tanks leaked, it was always a major headache. Even if they had not been packed in boxes with cork bits all around, access to attic tanks was difficult. Replacement would have been a nightmare, and it probably was seldom attempted. Instead, tanks or their plumbing failed, houses flooded, and solar developed a black eye. If only solar system owners had been informed about galvanic corrosion and the use of sacrificial anodes to protect their tanks!
At this time, gas was becoming more widely available, and its price was very attractive. Utility companies even got into the business of selling water heaters (free bath towels included) to build demand for their product. Solar was not able to compete against low cost gas prices or the freedom from involvement that abundant utility energy offered. Solar water heating slowly disappeared.
Tank evolution -- In the meantime, tank-type heaters had become dominant. Various methods and energy sources existed, but electric and gas tank-type heaters took over the lions’ share of the market. Tank building technology was changing, and some interesting things happened. As gas prices started going up, attempts were made to make tanks more efficient.
One such tank was the “U” tube heater. It’s enlightening to compare it to present-day heaters. Modern gas heaters have a flue, usually three or four inch diameter pipe running from the combustion chamber right up through the center of the tank. It also acts like a chimney, and heated air is constantly flowing up and out. This is all lost heat.
In the “U” tube heater, the flue went up, inside the tank, until it got near the top. Then it made a 180 degree turn and headed back down. It exited near the bottom and connected to an external vent pipe. This inverted U created a heat trap. It would vent only when the burner fired and so lost much less heat. Also, since the U doubled the surface area of the pipe inside the tank, more heat was captured by the water. It was very efficient.
Another change in manufacturing was the advent of glass lining. This glass coating is similar to ceramic glazing. Baked onto the inside of a steel tank, it provides a very good defense against rusting. Because a perfect process for glass lining tanks has yet to be developed, sacrificial anode rods are used to protect the steel at any “holidays” or imperfections in the lining.
This system worked so well that manufacturers eventually stopped making tanks of expensive metals such as copper and Monel. Instead, their better tanks were made with extra-heavy steel lined with a double coating of glass. With such good protection and thick steel, a tank could last decades after its anode was used up. In fact we recently ran across a 42 year old heater that is still in good condition.
As the business of making and selling water heaters grew ever more competitive, ways were found to cut costs. Tank quality began to deteriorate as tanks were made of thinner steel and double glass lining was no longer offered. Metal drains were replaced with plastic.
Experience has shown us that modern tanks are more delicate than their predecessors, but with maintenance, their service lives can be greatly extended. More expensive tanks today may have a second anode, or they may have a plastic lining or be entirely plastic to prevent corrosion. Still, glass-lined tanks make up the vast majority of tanks in service and sold today.
Safety and energy upgrades -- Efforts have been ongoing to make water heaters safer. The results have been so successful that at one point, it was suggested we didn’t need to install relief valves anymore because tanks had quit blowing up! Tanks do explode less often today precisely because relief valves DO get installed and because heaters have better controls.
Manufacturers have also been fine tuning heaters for better energy performance to meet stringent federal energy codes. This has pros and cons. Yes, plastic drain valves lose less heat than brass ones, but very often they simply don’t work. Yes, some small amount of heat is lost through the anode’s exposed hex head. However proposals to insulate and cover the hex head may do more damage than good. Unless they specify that access to the anode remain, anode replacement and water heater maintenance will become much more difficult.
One area which is likely to get even more attention in the future of water heating is conservation. Once the heaters themselves have been tweaked for every BTU of performance, it will make sense to zero in on the antiquated distribution systems where many of those BTUs are being lost. Other areas for improvement include heat recovery and reducing consumption of hot water.
Because they work so well, water heaters are generally the least thought about piece of equipment in most homes. But it’s useful to take time to understand them, learn a little about their past, and guess at their future. That way we’re in a good position to do what’s needed to get the best performance and longest life from our water heating systems. It’s the best way to stay in hot water!
PS. I originally wrote this article in 1995. It’s interesting just how much remains true.
I live in Northern California where PG&E has recently been shutting off power to large areas and populations because of the fire risk PG&E’s infrastructure poses, particularly when the weather is dry and windy. This has been causing all sorts of trouble for people. What if you are on medical equipment that must not be shut down? What if everything in the fridge/freezer in your restaurant spoils? Does your business need electricity to function?! There are so many what-ifs.
There is uncertainty and even fear around the concept of going off grid, yet with our ageing, inadequate and poorly maintained grid, now is a perfect time to make yourself immune from grid troubles like outages and rising rates. Many people fear that going off-grid is prohibitively expensive, but with planning the costs can be quite manageable.
Energy efficiency is the key! The less energy you need, the less equipment you’ll have to buy and the lower your initial costs. With a thoughtful approach, cutting 50% of your usage is not too difficult, while more aggressive measures can get you an 80% reduction.
The best way to begin is to measure your electrical loads and use that to guide you in cutting down the demand. There is a range of equipment for doing this, but a simple Kill-A-Watt meter is an inexpensive way to measure plug loads. The other load you want to know about is your base load. With everything turned off, what power use do you have? I keep mine under 15 watts, while it’s not uncommon to find homes with a steady 300-watt draw. This comes from things like cable boxes and TVs with a remote control (power strips can help here). With 50% or 80% savings, filling in the remaining need with homemade power doesn’t have to be particularly hard or expensive. Even if you live in a city, as long as you have some solar access, unhooking from the grid need be no more difficult than it is in a rural setting.
There was actually a time before the power grid! Maybe a look back in time could help us to better understand what has already been done to better inform our becoming more independent now. Things like water wheels and gas generators existed for creating your own energy. Bypassing the need for energy came from items like windmills for pumping water and appropriate building design--think shady porches in warm climates. People going off grid in rural settings could actually help utilities manage their systems better if the many power lines in forested areas could gradually be eliminated rather than going through the expense of undergrounding them for safety. Locally made and distributed power, often referred to as a microgrid, is another way of getting power for you and your neighbors. Going off the big grid could even benefit those who remain on it, as it helps reduce peak loads, which the grumpy old grid has trouble with.
One interesting idea for being immune from power outages is to drive an electric car than not only charges from your (or other) system, but can also put power back into your electrical system. The energy stored in a Tesla could easily power my efficient home for nearly a month!
Cost does not have to be a barrier to having a substantially more efficient home. Retrofitting existing homes to use far less energy is not simple, but has been done many times and in very different circumstances, and using different approaches. True efficiency is not pie-in-the-sky! When I built my own off-grid home, which I designed around the necessity of being very efficient, the going cost per square foot for new construction was about $250. My house came in at $100, yet uses only about one tenth the energy of what conventional housing does--without any discomfort or freezing in the dark. This demonstrates that efficiency does not have to cost more, but in fact can be much less. Amory Lovins once described it as “Tunneling through the cost barrier.” Of course, new construction is far simpler to make efficient, but we are unlikely to tear down all those existing homes in the name of efficiency.
Managing my home’s power system takes on average, just a few minutes per week. With more modern batteries, even that number would go down. If I looked at what I would have to pay out in energy bills and compare it to the time I spend on managing the system, it’s a well-paying job!
There are lots of grids we’re part of, like food, transportation and the economy. These are difficult or even illegal to separate from, but ultimately, getting and living off the power grid is manageable, and can be cheaper and safer than staying on it.
I’m just out from crawling around under a seventy year old house where the space is tight and obstructed with plumbing, ducting, low hanging beams, piers and of course broken concrete bits to crawl on. This reminds me in part why I decided to focus on hot water… Water heaters usually live in nicer places! Anyway, part of what I’m doing under the house is replacing some of the old steel water and drain line with ABS drain and PEX water service.
Some would say this is “just plumbing”, but I feel it deserves a bit more respect. Let’s think about what goes into installing new or making repairs in difficult to access places, or any places. The technician needs to know what work is to be accomplished, how to make sure it’s efficient, what parts will be needed, what the codes and physics are around doing the work, what order the work is best done in, and importantly, how to improvise successfully. Safety and durability matter too. Doing “just plumbing” just might involve multitasking!
The way I prefer to begin work is to simply stare at the job to be done and ponder the approaches and variables until a clear picture comes to mind showing me the cleanest and simplest way of making it happen. It’s helpful to know what the “fixed points” are. These are the bits that must be a certain way, or material, or in a certain place. Knowing these gives you places to build from and to. I’ve learned over time that if I just start plumbing without that clear picture in mind, I wind up unhappy with the result as there inevitably will be something I missed taking into consideration. I’ve mostly learned that if I don’t have that clear picture, don’t start the job! Sometimes it’s not so simple. Other people around the job may wonder how you’re earning your keep when you are just sitting there, but don’t let them distract or hurry you. Show them a copy of this blog post! Get that clear picture in your head to work from. You’ll actually be working smarter and faster this way. A tight crawl space is hard to just sit and stare at, so I must try to imagine the job without that visual help. Toting a big pile of fittings and tools around under a house isn’t much fun, as you can imagine, so I aim to have only what I’ll need. Actually knowing what you’ll need for this sort of job just may be an art form. One of the most frustrating things for a tradesperson is to have to make multiple shopping runs in a day for a single job.
This is where improvisation can be a good thing. Imagine you’re under that house, with limited fittings. You run pipe and find that you don’t have the right fitting to complete the job. Ug! I was bringing a drain line down but found I had only one correctly sized 45 degree bend and needed two. What I was able to do was cut the main line and install a coupling so the pipe could be rotated 45 degrees. This allowed me to get things hooked up using just the one 45. It actually made the flow path a little easier by eliminating one bend. That might have been a combination of good luck and lots of field experience, but I’ll take it!
Plumbing frustrates and scares many people. I believe that if we slow down and recognize the challenges in doing good plumbing, we’ll be giving it the respect and consideration it deserves. By doing this, the plumbing task at hand will become easier and much more manageable. Sometimes respect is in doing good prep work. For example, if you’re not too confident in your soldering abilities, practice some first. It’ll make doing the soldering under a home, much less threatening. Breaking jobs down into manageable pieces and finding ways to always stay in control of the job will make life nicer too. Just imagine cutting into a pipe to learn the water wasn’t turned off. That’s when the plumbing is controlling you! Additionally finding a mentor, or someone willing to share tips and tricks won’t hurt either.
I think you know by now that it seldom is “just plumbing”. There is so much more to it! Knowing what I know now still doesn’t make crawling under houses any more physically comfortable, but it does give me reason to believe that I won’t need to spend any more time down there than is truly necessary and that is comforting!
I was just listening to news on the radio while driving around. There was a short discussion of tankless water heaters, talking about how they save energy compared to tank-type heaters. There was no mention of the cost of installation compared to tank type. No mention of the extra service a tankless needs to perform well and maintain warranty. No mention of how one can expect “different” hot water delivery, depending on flow rate. Nothing on condensing efficiency vs non-condensing. And lastly, they said tankless last twice as long as tanks, with no mention of maintenance. It seemed to this hot water nerd to be poorly informed news.
I used to be on a crusade to correct and educate the media about all the mis-statements and half-truths concerning hot water that I learned of. Turns out that’s a never ending job! (Just because, I did write to the radio station. We’ll see if they respond.) Mostly I seemed to upset media people and their writers, though some got into the habit of contacting me about hot water stuff. The plumbing industry is full of “old wife’s tales” and “that’s how it’s always been done” sorts of thinking. With good reason, plumbers are slow to change as there is a long history of new ideas being thrown out there for plumbers to try and then these things fail. The plumber is often left to deal with it.
Sadly, much of what the media gives us is simply a rehash of the old tales. Plenty of engineering and physics is involved in getting hot water right, and the sound bites we get from the media can’t give us the detail we need to make good decisions. No doubt the radio mention today will help with tankless sales, but there will be plenty the happy new owners of this technology will have to learn on their own in dealing with unexpected problems, and that won’t make the news.
Clearly, education is the key. If there were only, say one thousand people in North America who learned and became expert in hot water, all the mis-information wouldn’t go unchallenged. Also, when more than one person is telling a magazine that they missed some points, the magazine will probably notice and attempt to make things better and more accurate, at least in the future. As the field of hot water is big and complex, it’s tricky to put universally useful information down in a way that truly works for all. Understand that there are many thousands of different waters around the world and different waters affect plastics, metals and mineral build up in different ways. Heat alone is a game changer as it can speed up chemical processes and affect how and when metals corrode. I have only a plumber’s understanding of the chemistry, based on personal study and what I’ve met in the field. To me, it’s easy to understand why becoming a master plumber can easily take ten years. I’ve been doing plumbing for over fifty years and still there is something to learn (or re-learn) most every day.
I suppose it all boils down to the phrase “knowledge is power”. We need to educate ourselves and from there can educate the media and anyone else who cares enough to listen. For me, the education has come from mentors, old and new books, old and new equipment, manufacturers and people with different points of view. Sometimes it comes from simply looking at a question from a different perspective. Thanks for bearing with me!
There are, or should be some guiding lights to follow when designing and building good plumbing systems. The basic concepts are simple.
The first point sounds simple, but did you know that over 70% of the hot water draws in most homes do not deliver hot water? Who is willing to wait for hot water when rinsing hands? Most of us aren’t, but we turn on the hot tap anyway and finish before the hot water arrives.
And, have you ever heard of or done the “shower dance”? That’s when you are showering and somebody flushes a toilet, unbalancing the system and giving you a jolt of hotter or colder water than you were using, causing you to do the limbo away from the shower water. Extrapolating from this article: https://blog.aarp.org/healthy-living/beware-the-most-dangerous-room-in-the-house there are about 188,000 injuries in the US requiring an emergency room visit each year from falls in the bathroom, many around bathing. If you have to do the shower dance, now is the time to install a pressure balancing shower valve! So in addition to being inconvenient and unpleasant, unsteady temperatures can lead to life threatening falls. That’s rather unhealthy and it leads us to the second point about safety.
Uneven temperatures can lead to falls, but also scalding. Old and very young people may not be able to sense or communicate it when they are getting burned. Another thing that plumbing can give us is bad bugs, like legionella or ultimately Legionnaire’s disease. The balance between scalding and bad bugs is something the plumbing community has been struggling with for decades. Temperatures over 130 F effectively deal with most bad bugs, but that temperature also can burn people in not very many seconds. This problem can be helped with anti-scald shower valves and mixing valves, but ultimately, education of the populace in general is probably the best defense, so people don’t unknowingly put themselves in harm’s way. This leads me to the next topic, being energy and water efficient.
Probably the first thing to keep on top of mind when looking for efficient plumbing systems is to keep the volume of water between heater and end use as small as possible. Why? Well, if there isn’t a lot of cooled water in the hot line, you don’t need to run as much water or wait as long for hot water to arrive. Also, you haven’t spent so much money to heat water that simply cooled off in the pipes. One can reduce volume by having shorter or skinnier pipes, … or both! Shorter pipes means putting all the wet rooms close together and keeping the water heater close by as well. That’s best done in new construction or when a gut remodel is being done. Skinnier pipes can happen when it’s time to re-pipe or just because you’re tired of waiting for hot water. A rule of thumb is that for every size up in piping materials, you roughly double the volume of water in the line. So, if you go from ½” to 3/8” pipe, you’ve cut the volume in half. That means you’ll wait half as long to get hot water :~) This also means you will have needed to heat only half as much water for the plumbing. So, there is a 50% savings in the plumbing without even mentioning insulation. But now that I’ve used the “I” word, let’s think about what that can do for you. Here is an article written by my friend Gary Klein: http://www.garykleinassociates.com/PDFs/15%20-%20Efficient%20Hot-Water%20Piping-JLC.pdf He goes into some detail on insulation and the benefits of having it. The main point to me is that good insulation will slow cool down of the piping (and water in it), so after the first draw of hot water you will get much more time where the water in the lines remains at a usable temperature, essentially giving you hot water immediately on subsequent draws. This also saves water, which actually matters in some places…
It seems most plumbers don’t carry a pressure gauge, but they should! If you know what the static water pressure is, you can size the piping appropriately to the use. Now, should you install a really low flow showerhead and you know what the water pressure is, you’ll know just how small the piping or tubing to the shower valve can be. I would not be surprised to find lots of places where ¼” tube would be sufficient to supply a shower with good pressure if you had a not-too-long run of tubing. One health benefit of smaller tubing is that water flow in it speeds up and this scrubs off bio-films that can harbor those bad bugs we don’t want. There are lots of benefits from using right-sized plumbing including lower cost to buy and install. How does that relate to my next topic, being simple and durable?
Every piping material is good for a certain flow rate through it before any damage happens to the pipe. With copper it’s about four feet per second and with cross-linked polyethylene or PEX, it’s more like ten feet per second. With copper if you exceed that rate, erosion corrosion begins to happen.It’s like running sand through the line. The pipe gets worn down internally, getting thinner over time. Eventually you start to get pinhole leaks. PEX, which is particularly smooth on the inside, gives you two and a half times that flow rate before damage starts. So, if there is adequate pressure, using small diameter PEX tubing can give you good flow without affecting the life of the tube. Also, it’s much easier to run than rigid pipe as it can be snaked through walls much like wiring. Another thing about using resilient PEX is that it helps with the problems of water hammer and also freezing. It can expand slightly when necessary to take up some of the shock of water hammer or enough to allow ice to form. When the hammer or freezing is done, PEX returns to its original size with no damage. PEX is still not freeze proof, but is much more tolerant of freezing than copper. Good design can help by keeping the piping away from areas more subject to freezing. That sounds pretty durable to me! Good design will also keep the system simple so there are fewer moving parts to get stuck or fail.
The four categories listed above each influence the other. When thinking about good plumbing it helps to take your time and make sure you have enough information to be able to meet all four goals. Then you can think about other important things, like cats!
I’ve been thinking about housing much of my life. Simply put, one of the big problems with housing is that most people in the US cannot afford to own it. We are not given much that’s useful in school about how to manage money or how to think about it, so the majority of us have little stashed away for emergencies or retirement and cannot come up with even the down payment on a conventional home. That’s sad as it makes us slaves to the lack of money. For most folks, a home is the biggest investment or indebtedness they will ever take on. So, I’ve been thinking about how to “do” housing in a way that costs far less yet still meets our needs. We have lots of expectations around housing, but to drastically reduce the cost of it, we’ll need to adjust some of those expectations. The “standard” expectation is to have a nice, stick built home on a nice lot. What I’ll propose here is to have some sort of manufactured housing in a small development. There are many other ways to chip away at the cost of housing, but this way has so many benefits, I thought I’d start with it. The recent interest in tiny homes just might be helping to do that.
I just did a search on my local Craigslist for Recreational Vehicles, (RVs) at up to $10,000. There were lots of them! I imagine it will be pretty much the same across the country. Certainly many will need work, but even if it doubles the cost, things could be worse. Mobile homes are another place to look. It’s not uncommon that people owning mobile homes in parks fail to pay their space rent for any number of reasons. One main reason is they up and die and no relatives can be found or the relatives have no interest in the mobile home. These homes can sometimes be had for free or just for the back space rent. Another thing that happens with mobiles is they sit on private land which gets sold or changes in some other way and the home needs to go. These homes will be cheap or free. The costs of ownership are in having a place to move one to, and then moving it.
If you step back and think about it, these two types of dwellings (RVs and mobile homes) are the tiny home of yesteryear. But think about the cost. These homes may be had for very roughly $40 or less per square foot and in livable condition. Note that the $40 number comes from one of those $10,000 RVs, that looked to be in great shape. It’s easy to find older mobile homes for ¼ that amount per square foot. Tiny homes are often over $500 per foot.
None of those costs include land. The normal approach of owning a lot and putting utilities on it isn’t cheap. How about changing things up a little and following the cohousing model? Here’s an interesting primer on cohousing: https://www.aarp.org/home-family/your-home/info-2018/cohousing-community-fd.html And, here’s another link that will take you much deeper: http://www.cohousingco.com/ A good cohousing development has up to about 35 homes. Let’s imagine something between a mobile home park and co-housing. If the development were designed following cohousing guidelines; like being people-centric rather than car-centric and if it had a main building that housed a kitchen, room for gatherings, laundry facilities, maybe a shop and even some guest bedrooms, that building would get a lot of use and help eliminate the need for those functions in the private homes, which could then be simpler and smaller (read less expensive!). Buying into a development like this could cost far less than your normal single family home. Also, you get a community where people know and learn to care for each other, making things safer and potentially far more enjoyable. It’s normal that when a cohousing community is built, property values around it go up, so neighbors are happy too. Splitting infrastructure costs 35 ways does help cut the individual cost of owning. I’ll add that if the “tiny home” idea just sounds too small to be comfortable in, there are ways to create inexpensive transitional spaces that bring the outdoors inside and give you more real living space that can change with the seasons. It’s a fun and interesting approach that blurs the line between inside and outside. I hope to discuss this more in a future post. But back to the benefits of cohousing; other things like a community garden, playground, teaching classes based on the skills of the residents, and sharing responsibilities, like child-sitting or elder-care could be woven into the fabric of life at such a place. These things all add up to the potential for a richer life than the usual, semi-isolated single family home can give.
Unfortunately, many of the biggest hurdles to overcoming expensive housing are baked into our regulations and how they are enforced. Many places discourage manufactured housing of all sorts because they think it’s substandard or will bring adjacent property values down… or will not yield as much property tax as conventional construction! Still, public officials decry our lack of affordable housing. Perhaps they need to encourage, rather than put up barriers to novel thinking about low cost housing, so that we can test and learn what really does work in the real world.
This article is bit of a divergence from my normal fare. Perhaps being in a plane, miles above the Earth, makes my thinking want a larger perspective and a longer view. So this is more of a ramble into what ifs, rather than something directly actionable. Hope you find it of interest!
Just took photos of badlands while flying to Denver from San Jose. Got to wondering about the challenge of building and living in 'hostile' places like this. With the sun and wind, energy would be little to no problem. Water might be, depending on the amount needed and how effectively it was kept and reused. Rain catchment with lots of storage would be a good thing. “Water from air” devices exist. Would those sources be enough? On the space station they use about three and a quarter gallons per day per person. Clearly the technology exists. How difficult might it be to bring it down to Earth? Then there is transportation to deal with. Assuming no roads, will travel be by land or air? Hmmm. How about growing food? A greenhouse would greatly cut water use. Or perhaps there is a way to grow plankton or another tiny food source. Would an earth sheltered home be best? As long as it’s not in a place that could flood! Too much water is just as unhappy as not enough! What about communication? Could be a satellite based phone...rather than smoke signals. And would this living in the sticks, really work for an individual or family? Seems a community would be longer lived and more stable, in addition to having more useful talent available. Might be fun to see how a solar decathlon home would work so far off grid. Suppose the question of how much land would be needed isn’t very important as whatever the acreage, it probably could be had for next to nothing. Or, maybe it makes more sense to do something that’s easy to move. A portable community would be a very different design. Teepee’s are fairly portable!
A bigger question is why even bother with this idea? What are the benefits of it? What are the downsides? Quality of life in a big city is certainly a question. Real quiet doesn’t seem to exist there. A bunch of people you don’t know might be riskier than being tested by a strange land. It certainly would be fun to see if any wildlife were around and how it/they would deal with the new kid on the block. Maybe tarantulas could be our new best friends! Shade, water feature, relative warmth, and whatever else, could be good ways to be a better neighbor to the locals. I prefer to think of animals, not as a resource to be exploited, but rather as individual beings who just might be willing to show us what they know and how they see the world. It's likely that humans have only a tiny understanding of the world around us and generally don’t see the full spectrum of its richness.
Could this living apart be made self-supporting? What does that really mean? Earn money? One hot idea would be to focus the sun to be able to melt rock and make useful or decorative things from your homemade lava. Alexander Weygers wrote a book “The Making of Tools", years ago. He described how to build a work shop and all of the tools in it by creating a tool that could be used to build the next, slightly more complex tool. From hand tools, to power tools, and so on. Perhaps that approach would work for building a small community too.
That brings us back to transportation and the question of by land or by air. Without knowing the specific piece of land and the terrain around it, we’re best off now considering air transport. How about a solar powered electric plane? Sounds good, but that would require some sort of landing strip. Better, a “fat” solar plane that would be filled with helium so that less energy was required to fly and also a much smaller landing area would be needed. Hmmm, suppose building that plane is yet another project.
Let’s add the question of keeping your health, far from any doctors or hospitals. Keep a great first aid kit around? Build a holographic doctor? This is one place where having a community and a larger range of skills present, rather than just an individual or family, could be of benefit.
Finally, one could look at how people can and do survive in the Antarctic or the desert, or even what thinking has gone into moon or Mars bases. Those might be productive areas to explore for ideas. Sitting in a plane is a good time for mulling ideas. Now I’m sitting in a motel room in Westford Massachusetts, where a gathering of many of the best building scientists in the Northern Hemisphere will begin tomorrow. It’s called simply, Summer Camp. Some attendees have arrived and we’ve been talking. So many of the “problems” our world currently faces, like energy supply, building durability, and affordable housing, have long ago been understood and solved. The problem is that the know-how hasn’t been spread and utilized. Fixing these problems would help fix bigger problems, like climate change and ultimately our living world’s survival. :~)
In Berkeley, California, they just banned future gas hookups in new construction. It’s causing quite the uproar. Here’s a link to a discussion on it: https://www.kqed.org/forum/2010101872275/berkeley-phases-out-natural-gas-in-new-buildings It seems there are already roughly fifty other jurisdictions considering a similar move. I’m in an interesting position as I’m a member of a decarbonization group, which is essentially against burning fossil fuels, (for a number of reasons, like people’s health and safety, climate change, and saving money) and I’m also a member of an online community of technicians who do heating/cooling of all sorts (and life without burning any gas or oil would be a major shift for them). The views of the two groups are rather different, or perhaps I should say they are based on different sets of facts.
For decades, gas has been sold to us with the idea that it was clean. It has been considered clean compared to coal, and if you look only at emissions from combustion, that’s true. Now if you also consider gas leakage, the story is different. There are leaks where gas is generated, in the distribution system and where it’s being used. Looking only at the distribution system, it’s generally agreed that on average the leakage rate is 4% of what goes into the system leaks out before making it to the end users. Natural gas is basically methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas. Depending on the source, it’s thought to be 25 to 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide, meaning that 4% leakage makes gas a dirtier fuel than coal. Who woulda thunk?! Gas utilities have not kept up with the maintenance of their aging infrastructure, so it leaks. A couple of big, unhappy examples of this are from San Bruno CA, and Aliso Canyon, near Los Angeles, CA. Here is a link to a document from the National Fire Protection Association: https://www.nfpa.org/-/media/Files/News-and-Research/Fire-statistics-and-reports/Fact-sheets/FiresStartingGasFactSheet.pdf Did you know that between natural gas and propane we get this?
*168 civilian deaths per year
*1,029 civilian injuries per year
* $644 million per year in direct property damage
Perhaps Berkeley is different in that there just might be some residual memory of the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. Leaking gas was the catalyst for the fires, which destroyed about 500 city blocks with 28,000 buildings, so perhaps the present inhabitants are more sensitive to the dangers of gas than populations in other areas.
And then we can get into the health effects of burning gas in our homes. Here’s a report on the effects of cooking with gas: https://heetma.org/gas-cooking-and-asthma/ I'll quote this from the report: "The analysis showed that children living in a home with a gas cooking stove have a 42% increased risk of current asthma (95% confidence interval [CI] 1.23, 1.64), and a 24% increased lifetime risk of asthma (CI 1.04, 1.47)". Might it be time to consider induction cooking? (Let’s not forget to investigate any electromagnetic pollution these cookers may cause!) Lawrence Berkeley National Labs has done a bunch of research on the pollution caused by gas cooking. Apparently it’s common for indoor levels of nitrous oxide and other pollutants to reach levels that would require abatement actions if they were outside. Nobody would knowingly subject their children (or themselves) to this.
There is another concept floating around out there called bio-gas or renewable gas (or similar things). Landfills, cattle ranches and sewer plants all produce methane, which normally just escapes into the atmosphere. Capturing that gas and putting it to work could do plenty of good. It could fuel fleets and/or be used to generate electricity. As it wouldn’t need to go into a leaky distribution system, that problem would go away and the gas would go from being a source of climate change trouble to being a useful energy source. Monterey County has a landfill in Marina CA, which has been doing this successfully for years. It clearly works!
I’m a proponent of efficiency. With some work, I’ve found that properties can be made from 60-80% more energy efficient. This isn’t pie-in-the-sky imagining, but rather just intelligent use of technologies we all have access to, along with plentiful helpings of elbow grease. Now if we begin by making things efficient, switching to electric heat pumps for both space and water heating becomes easy in part because the power supply system doesn’t need to be enlarged. Oh, by the way, those efficiency measures can pay for themselves at roughly 25%. That’s FAR better than most any traditional investment :~)
Looking ahead, I see there will be a need to make most of the existing buildings we have far more efficient and healthier to live in. We may also want to prepare for the inevitable change away from gasoline powered to electric vehicles. Fixing up our buildings to make them efficient and even capable of being self-powered, (or off-grid) while making provision for charging vehicles would drive an entire efficiency industry. Making our buildings safer and healthier would also improve quality of life while cutting health costs.
Here is where we can utilize those smart tradespeople who want to do the best for their clients. They already have a good grasp of the essential concepts of building science and can put them to use in the massive undertaking of making our world safer, healthier and more prosperous than ever before, while keeping an eye on the long term benefits to all of life. Now THAT’S “cooking with gas”*!
*“Cooking with Gas” Origin. In the 1930’s, the catch phrase Now you’re cooking with gas, meaning “you’re on the right track,” was heard on popular radio shows at the behest of the natural gas industry, as part of a quiet marketing push for gas-powered stoves.
What is this? A plumber type, writing an article on money?? The world is indeed a mysterious place… Well, you may remember that I wrote an article about “Asking the Right Questions”. That was from this blog, September, 2017. It seems to me that asking a good question about the way we view costs could be useful. You know that in our basic schooling in America, we get next to no education on finances and how money works. It’s up to us to figure it out for ourselves or find people good at money who can mentor us. I’m some mix of the two.
To define some terms here, “first cost” is just what it sounds like… “Life cycle cost” is different in that it takes all costs over time, and factors them in, to help one see what is a deal and what isn’t. What does something really cost? Let’s use a current example. Let’s say you want to buy a car, but you don’t imagine you have budget for something expensive, like a Tesla, so you’re looking at older Chevys. Just for fun, in comparing prices, you find a used Chevy for $10,000 and a used Tesla for $30,000. Let’s assume both cars already have 100,000 miles on them. Well, it seems obvious that you’ll save $20,000 by getting the Chevy. That’s first cost thinking!
Now let’s do this a different way. How many years will you get from the Chevy? If you maintain it well, you might get 100,000 more miles from it before it turns into a pile of oily rust. If you drive 20,000 miles per year, that’s five years before starting over again. The Tesla, because it’s mechanically far simpler than the Chevy should be good for 1,000,000 miles. (I did not make that up!) That means you’ll have 900,000 miles of driving before it turns to e-dust. That’s a good 45 years of driving at 20,000 miles per year. So, just from a replacement point of view, for $10,000 you get five years, or the cost of the Chevy is $2000 per year. Now, for $30,000 you get 45 years with the Tesla.That yearly cost is $667. Hmm, a savings of over $1300 per year! But wait, there’s more :~)
Let’s say the Chevy gets 15 miles per gallon. That’s 1,333 gallons of gas at $4 per gallon or $5332 for gas for one year. Some of the older Teslas come with free power for life… even for subsequent owners. So, that’s another chunk of yearly savings. There are other costs, like insurance and maintenance. To simplify this discussion, let’s just say those are the same for both cars, but we know that the gas vehicle will have higher maintenance costs than the electric one.
So, now let’s look at the yearly costs for both vehicles and determine how the life cycle costs compare. Initial cost are $10,000 for gas and $30,000 for electric.Gas vehicle costs are $5332 more per year than electric, but we can only extend this out for five years because the gas car then turns to rust. Then we repeat the cycle.
So, over ten years, the Tesla costs $30,000 and the Chevy (replaced once) costs $73,320! If you kept the Tesla for its full million miles, you would save something close to $300,000. That’s a nice little nest egg! The price of admittance was the $20,000 more for the Tesla, but it saved you $5332 in fuel every year along with purchase price savings of over $1300 per year. In fact, the break-even point is just around four years. After that you’ll be money ahead. Ultimately, that $20,000 investment made you $43,320 after ten years, or as much as $300,000.Not bad!
Oh wait! That money doesn’t need to sit there just getting moldy earning the same or less than the rate of inflation in a bank account. You get to invest it in something you know a lot about, like your business. I’ll be bringing up a tool (a saw) I got long ago in a little bit.With that saw, I built lots of things that people paid me for. I built decks, houses, and did remodel work… all using that saw. Way back when, the saw cost me around $35 or $40.It has helped to make me many tens of thousands of dollars. It really pays to invest in things that make you worth more to others, whether physical things or education. Doing this, that $300,000 could easily become millions. I like to ask myself when looking to buy something, “How cost effective will this be?” It’s a good way to differentiate between investment and entertainment.
It may be said that this was an extreme example, using cars chosen to make the point, but it applies to so many areas of life. When I buy tools that I know I’ll use a lot over time, I get good ones. I still have a Skillsaw that I got over 45 years ago. A cheap saw would have worn out many times over. When I’m looking for a tool for one time or rare usage, something cheap is just fine.
Investments that save energy also fall into the category where they can be judged for cost effectiveness. Yes, saving energy helps save the planet too, but I don’t wish to descend into politics. For this talk, we can look at “simple payback”, where, if a ten dollar investment in energy conservation saves a dollar per year, it pays for itself in ten years. But, also consider that if this was invested in your home, when the home is sold, you likely will get the entire ten dollars back as efficiency is something the new owners are likely to be interested in because it will save them money too.So, very roughly, instead of just paying for itself, your money was doubled.
So, consider asking the life cycle cost vs first cost question when you are looking at purchases, big and small. And know that investing in you is likely one of the best investments you can ever make.
Most people don’t really want to be thinking about plumbing materials… We just want plumbing to work flawlessly, forever! That’s nice, but reality does intervene sometimes and we then need to understand the practical considerations so we can get closer to our goals of flawless and forever.
So, here we go! Each piping material has different strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes the conditions piping will live in, or job site considerations affect which material or materials are best. Here I’ll go over some of the considerations that help to create a long lived, efficient and trouble-free system. I’ll take it one material at a time except where there may be interactions.
To start, we’re looking only at water distribution piping here. Drainage, fuels, or compressed air all have different considerations.
Let’s start with Galvanized Steel pipe, Pros:
PVC/CPVC Pipe Pros:
As a rule, it’s always easier to install smaller diameter piping. So, consider low flow fixtures when you remodel. This way you might be able to run really small stuff like 3/8” PEX, or soft copper (or smaller if allowed!). This becomes very much like running wiring, it’s so small and flexible. Also, it can be put in places that larger pipe wouldn’t fit, like flat raceway or hollowed baseboard.
This was just a quick overview, but hopefully it will help you to think less about and spend less time with plumbing. For fun, here’s a quote from Thomas Drummond, 1797-1840; “Property has its duties as well as its rights.”
Looking back over my working life of 50+ years, it seems clear that self sufficiency has always been the best way for me to be useful. Now, mix in a strong interest in water in its many forms and the wide world of animals and you'll know what's important to me.