Thursday, December 17, 2015

A "Hot" Shower

My family and close friends know that I have a tendency to be frugal, especially with energy costs. For example, the two cars I owned during the past decade and a half (a 2001 VW Jetta diesel and a 2009 Toyota Prius) both averaged nearly 50 miles per gallon.

My home electric bills were also notoriously low, in part because of my avoidance of whole house air conditioning. However, it was my gas bill that was perhaps the most surprising.

Besides keeping the thermostat ridiculously low in the winter (I didn't mind wearing layers inside my house, and I enjoyed sleeping under heavy blankets), I also made a point of not lighting my furnace until the first of December—and then turning it off as early in the spring as I dared.

Life in the Caribbean is a lot different for me this winter. As we near Christmas, the high temperatures continue to reach the mid- to upper-80s. However, there does seem to be a bit of a chill in the air at night, as the low temperatures overnight are nearing the 60s. The villagers are wearing long sleeves, sweaters, and other clothing to keep warm, although it doesn't seem to be quite that cold to me.

There is no such thing here as furnaces, clothes dryers, or hot water heaters as we know them. You only have one option at most water outlets, rather than both hot or cold options. During warm weather, there is no problem with a tepid shower. As the morning temperatures dipped lower, I started dreading that cold morning shower (but at least we have showers because of the good water supply on Dominica from all the fresh water lakes here, rather than the bucket baths I had to use in St. Lucia). However, I decided I wanted to wait until that same December 1st date I always targeted in previous winters before I dared to take a chance with the electric water heater in my little cottage. This heater is located in the shower head itself.

It wasn't just the impact on my electricity bill that made me put off using this option. There is something disconcerting to me to see electric wires running into my shower head. In the USA, we have been warned for generations about the danger of electrical appliances around water. There was even a James Bond movie I remember where he electrocuted a bad guy in a bathtub in this manner.

What makes it even worse down here is that the electric grid here is based on 220 volts (as in Europe and other locations), rather than the 110 volts that you find in the USA. There are efficiency advantages to the higher voltage, but it is also more lethal. That is one reason why these showerhead water heaters get a grisly (but apparently undeserved) nickname—suicide showers.

Everyone uses them, however, and the folks I talked with about them told me not to worry. Seeing that there were three wires running to my shower head made me feel a bit better, because that meant it had a ground wire. Hopefully the 220 volt electricity would not run through my wet body to get to the ground.

I held off as long as I could, but eventually I decided to give it a try. Since the start of December, I've been flipping the wall switch and heating my shower water on cooler mornings. So far, I haven't had any problems. There may even be some good arguments for using on-demand electrical water heaters, rather than trying to keep a 40 gallon hot water tank constantly heated in your basement.

Needless to say, though, I make sure that I keep my hands down and away from that strange shower head when it is turned on. But even here in the tropics, that extra warmth in the morning is pretty nice!

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