By Edward Shultz – I’m not sure when I decided to construct an outdoor solar shower for my family, but I do know that I was inspired by an article in either Countryside and Small Stock Journal or one of the other homesteading magazines. I remember thinking, “What a neat idea,” and with five active little boys to clean up every day, I knew that it could be a very practical and money-saving tool, as well as just a nice way to cool off at the end of a hot summer day.
As I researched the subject on the internet, I soon learned that most of the commercially available outdoor solar showers are of the small, five-gallon, camping type designed to be hung in the sun for a few hours. These are simple, convenient, quite expensive, but hardly adequate for a large family. Among do-it-yourselfers, water heater cores painted black seem to be popular as water reservoirs. One imaginative fellow was using rainwater harvesting and channeling it through long lengths of black polyethylene pipe coiled in the sun (this shower was actually too hot!). I found many inventive examples, but none, I felt, were right for me.
Gradually, however, I formed an idea of what I wanted and a set of principles for its construction. I wanted my outdoor solar shower to be totally unique (to my knowledge). I wanted it to be very rustic, with the appearance that it “had been there forever.” I wanted it to have great capacity because five dirty, sweaty kids use a lot of water at the end of a hot summer day. And finally, I wanted to use only materials that were available to me on the farm (zero expense).
This last rule was the most difficult to stick to, but perhaps the most important. As the prices of everything continue to rise, I find myself almost unconsciously looking for low-cost construction techniques and alternative ways of doing things. We have switched to wood heat, we rarely use our clothes dryer anymore, and I have been accumulating a pile of hardwood trees and branches for potential future use in construction projects. The outdoor solar shower idea was my own little personal challenge – could I build something unique and useful just by recycling items that I already had gathering dust in my barns and by using some of the natural resources of my property? Well, I came close to pulling it off.
The rustic frame of my outdoor solar shower is made from treated landscape timbers that spent many years as a child’s sandbox. Likewise, the treated 4 x 4s that I used as floor and upper deck joists worked in our orchard for 20 years supporting two long rows of Concord grapes. The wood is remarkably sturdy considering how long it has been exposed to the elements, but it is just that exposure that gives the finished shower its instantly aged, weathered look. Enhancing that look are the gnarly branches taken from trees in our yard and orchard, and used as cross braces.
For hardware, I scrounged through the barn until I found eight 3/4 x 10″ bolts to fasten the frame. I assembled the rest of the structure with an assortment of galvanized screws and nails. (In other words, whatever I could find.) Obviously, I chose to flare out the legs in two directions for stability because of the high center of gravity (most of the weight on top). I have done a lot of building over the past 16 years, but I assure you, no advanced construction techniques were utilized in this little project. Tools required: hammer, screwdriver, drill, two wrenches, a level, an adjustable bevel, and some scrap wood to prop up the frame while I leveled and braced it. I don’t think I even used a tape measure. My main concern was getting the angles of the flared legs reasonably similar and the top fairly level. Aside from that, I built the thing mostly by eye, right where it stands next to the garden.
The water supply required a bit of creative thinking because I wanted a large reservoir that would be easy to fill. And open container was out of the question because of debris and insects, but a sealed container would not work, because, in this type of unpressurized system, air has to flow in to replace the water that flows out. As I searched the barns once again, the only items that satisfied all the criteria were two seldom-used, rustproof metal garbage cans. They hold a lot of water, and the lids keep out foreign material while allowing for plenty of airflow.
The next problem was how to deliver the water (remember my self-imposed, rule-only what is available on the farm). Fortunately, years of plumbing projects have netted me quite a collection of spare parts. A simple 3/4″ CPVC threaded adaptor, two locking nuts, two large washers, and two pieces of rubber cut from an old inner tube brought the water from the bottom of each can without leaks. The only usable showerhead I would find was an old metal watering can, but since I had no plumbing fittings that it would adapt to, I decided to hang the entire can horizontally from two small branches. I routed the tubing down from the garbage cans, through a simple valve, and right into the water can. It works perfectly, believe it or not, and the rustic “hillbilly” appearance is just priceless.
In the end, for the floor, I was forced to throw up my hands and buy treated deck boards from the lumber yard, but I mollified this violation of my construction principles by purchasing a package of culled decking and other assorted treated wood for pennies on the dollar. That’s a good tip for those of you who don’t mind working with imperfect lumber. The big box home centers in this area, especially Lowes, don’t seem to like messing with damaged, twisted, etc., lumber. They regularly pull it out of their racks and offer it for sale in assorted lots. In my experience, if you make them an offer, they will practically give it to you rather than let it sit around very long. The 12′-16′ deck boards that I bought were badly warped but cut into shorter lengths, they are more than adequate for my purposes.
The shower has a capacity of 50-plus gallons and will provide full flow for about 20 minutes, plenty of time for us to clean up every night. I am still experimenting with temperature regulation, however. I currently have one can painted black, and yes, there is a noticeable difference in temperature between the cans after a sunny day. I will probably paint the other can as well. I have no detailed readings to report, but in general, if the outside temperature is 90°F or higher, the water is very warm-indistinguishable from an indoor shower. At 80°F, it is very comfortable, but cool enough to be refreshing. With temperatures in the 70s, it is like jumping into an unheated swimming pool, but you get used to it. When the outdoor temperature is in the 60s or lower, well, that separates the men from the boys, but not around here, because the boys have to shower outside with me regardless of the temperature. (Insert evil laughter here.)
The great thing about a project like this is that it never really has to be finished; there are always additions and modifications that can be made. For example, my wife, Stephanie (the solar rebel) refuses to use it for a “real” shower because it still has no curtain (the boys and I wear bathing suits). So next on the agenda will be finding some nice straight apple suckers to nail up around the inside for curtain rods. I currently fill the cans from the top, but one of these days I intend to run flexible tubing down from the top to a hose adapter at the bottom to make refilling a snap. A soap and shampoo holder fashioned from branches is also on the list, along with a small tree, mounted vertically, with stubbed off branches for use as a clothes and towel rack. I might even get around to building removable mini-greenhouse boxes for each can to warm the water even more and extend the season earlier into the spring and later into the fall. Imagination is the only limitation.
I’m very proud of my outdoor solar shower, simple as it is, probably because there is no better feeling than conceiving of a unique, practical, money-saving idea and then having the freedom and ability to build, use and enjoy it with your family. In a way, that is what country life is really all about.
Originally published in Countryside November/December 2006 and regularly vetted for accuracy.