Water Works- Part 3, by JSP

Hot Water Grid Down or When the Schumer Hits The Fan

Let’s all agree that we can survive without hot water. Yet, as some have successfully argued on this blog that when it comes to food “variety is the spice of life”, I would ask why it is important, especially in a survival situation. “Morale” would be my answer. We could all survive on rice and beans, but it would be hard to keep group morale up if after a supper of rice and beans the group only could look forward to a breakfast of rice and beans.

My personal bias is certainly involved in this, as I can go without a lot of modern or “creature” comforts. I look forward to no cell phones, Internet, and television, and I can get by without a microwave. However, without an occasional hot water shower, I could get grumpy. Even more to the point, I want my team, my group, to never question that they are in the right place doing the right things and that we have thought about their sanitation and comfort. Additionally, I can use hot water showers as a reward for acts and work that is above and beyond the call of duty.

In this article, I am going to explain three ways to obtain flowing hot water without electricity or much electricity. The first two methods require some form of flowing water (like gravity feed for example). The third method is best with some water flow; it can function without it, but you won’t be taking showers in the traditional sense. If you look at non-electric communities, like the Amish, it is the third method that they use.

The methods are:

1) Single point, battery fired, on-demand, propane water heaters

2) Whole house, 110, fired on-demand, propane (or natural gas) water heaters

3) Wood fired range boilers

Let’s take them one at a time.

Single Point Propane Water Heater for Hot Water

The vast majority of on-demand water heaters take 110 volts to fire them and then a fuel source to heat the water, which is typically propane or natural gas. The only company that I am aware of that offers something different is the EZ Tankless people. They offer two water heaters which have an ignition source of two “D” batteries, so consequently they don’t have to be “plugged in” to anything. They have two different models that do this, and I have purchased six of their units. Two of them had problems, and in the end had nothing to do with the manufacturer. I once saw a “Camp Chef” (a brand I have respect for) version of one of these, but it looked to me like it was made by EZ Tankless and branded for them. In the next part of this article, I will highlight a few projects and identify how I have implemented these units. However, what I mean by single point is that they will heat plenty of water for one appliance, whether it is one shower head, one sink, et cetera.

Let’s talk about the problems I have had with these units. First, the usual application is to attach a water source and a fuel source, commonly a garden hose and then a 5-gallon propane tank. To do this you need a pressure regulator on the propane tank, and it turns out that most pressure regulators are now China garbage.

I typically have purchased the heaters directly from EZ Tankless and the pressure regulators online. I had problems with a heater, so my first thought was to switch out the regulator hose, but it still didn’t work. I switched out another one, and it still didn’t work. Long story short, I had three brand new propane regulator hose assemblies that were all defective, and one of them was purchased six months prior to the other ones from another supplier. The EZ Tankless people were very helpful working through this, even though it was annoying at times. When we finally figured out the problem, they suggested that I buy (online) a two-stage regulator.

The second problem I had was all my fault, as it was in a location that froze during winter, which I knew. I thought I drained it well, but I didn’t. (There’s more on that later).

Standard, Whole House Water Heater for Hot Water

Our standard hot water tank is an electric basic unit. I have always wanted a whole house on-demand unit, so I did some research and purchased a Navien. What I liked about them was their efficiency. For example, most whole house on-demand units require some type of metal exhaust pipe, and the Navien is so efficient you can use PVC for exhaust. Also, they don’t take that much flow to make them turn on or electricity to make them fire. They are not cheap though, and I am not sure how much use it will see in a Schumer situation, but it’s possible.

Just to back up for a second “on demand” just means that the units sense water movement and fire up to heat the water. If you turn on the hot water valve in the shower, water will flow past the on-demand unit, which will cause it to fire up and heat the water. So that means that as long as you don’t run out of water or fuel, you will never run out of hot water. Our whole house on-demand unit is probably best used grid up, when we have a house full of people taking showers and doing laundry, dishes, et cetera. It is a tool in our “kit bag” though, as it and other things are attached to a 1000-gallon, buried, propane tank, and a simple inverter and battery will fire it.

Wood-fired Range Boiler for Hot Water

We have two Range Boilers that I was skeptical about at first, but they really do work well. With the right configuration, the saying is totally true that with a good wood stove you can “heat your house, cook your food, and heat your water”.

Range Boilers work on the concept of “thermo siphon”. What that means is that just as hot air rises and cold air descends, so too does hot water rise and cold water descend.

A Range Boiler is typically a stone-lined steel tank designed to hold water, especially hot water. To work effectively you need a wood burning stove that has stainless steel coils inside the fire box. The fire heats the water in the coils and circulates it into and out of the Range Boiler Tank. We have had wood stoves that try to heat water using convection (without coils in the fire box), and frankly they are lame and don’t work.

I have seen a video online of a gentleman retrofitting an existing wood stove with stainless steel coils to heat water, so it is “doable”. However, it’s way easier to just order them as an add-on accessory when you order your stove. A review of stoves is beyond the scope of this article, but I will let the readers know what we are running. Our main stove that is in the house near the kitchen is a Flame View with a 80-gallon Range Boiler and 20-gallon water jacket. On the patio (there’s more on this later), we have an Ashland Delux (40-gallon Range Boiler), and then two Lopi stoves that are in the house and are wood burners only.

When you order products like those stoves and Range Boilers, they are typically made by Amish craftsman custom to order, so I hope you’re not in a hurry! The Amish make amazing products, but they don’t use computers so you’re not going to get much in the way of instructions or diagrams. The one page set of “instructions” we got with our Range Boiler was obviously typed on a manual typewriter and the diagrams were hand-drawn. They were helpful but certainly didn’t tell the whole story.

Range Boiler Installation

If you are serious about a long-term ability to heat your house, cook, and heat your water, then a wood stove with heating coils and a Range Boiler is the only way to go. Consequently, I want to spend a minute on the details of installation that is not found in the instructions we received. A Range Boiler typically has five threaded holes that are plugged when they arrive. There are two holes on the top, one on the bottom, and two on the side. The side holes are what comes and goes from the stove fire box coils. The side hole at the top is for hot water in from the stove (thermo siphon), and the bottom side hole is for cold water out of the tank to the stove. If you look closely at the back of your stove where the coils come out, you will notice that one threaded end is lower (cold in) than the other end (hot out).

When you are connecting your range boiler to your stove, it is absolutely imperative that you only use galvanized steel pipe. I am going to admit it is a first-class pain in the rear to get everything lined up and attached, especially in this day of products like copper compression fittings, PEX, copper and stainless flex hoses, and so on. Those products are just not going to hold up long term to the type of heat you’re going to be generating, and if you have a pipe failure while under pressure, the water can be so hot that things can get real ugly real fast. You can go to copper for water coming out of the boiler for domestic use but not between the stove and boiler. The last safety point is that one of the top holes on the boiler must be a pressure relief valve (just like you see on regular home water heaters) that is plumbed to a safe place outside. You can use PEX-type products for this.

The hole in the bottom of the tank is where the house water supply comes in, and the second hole at the top is where the hot water is taken off. Where does the hot water go? You plum that to your regular house hot water tank to the cold water “in” side of that tank. Yes, I said cold water in. We shut off the standard cold water in to the electric heater and everything that we will use for hot water first cycles through the Boiler and then into the house hot water tank.

The reasons we do it that way are as follows:

  1. If the water from the range boiler is sufficiently hot, then the home hot water heater doesn’t have to expend any energy to heat the water. It simply won’t kick on, thereby saving electricity and wear on your standard hot water tank.
  2. The home hot water heater is already plumbed to all your hot water fixtures in the home, so you don’t have to redo any of that. For example, say you’re going to take a shower and the range boiler has hot water. The stove is heating the water in the range boiler, which goes to your standard electric (or gas) hot water tank and then into the shower hot water faucet. Even grid down all that your standard hot water tank is doing is storing more hot water for you.
  3. Even if you’re not using your wood stove, you still route all hot water through the range boiler because, at that point it becomes what is called a “tempering tank”. What that means is that water is pulled from the well (or wherever), entering the house at 50 degrees and then sits in the Range Boiler inside the house that’s 70 degrees. While the water sits in the Range Boiler prior to going into the home hot water tank, it will rise in temperature possibly 20 degrees (tempering). That, then, is 20 degrees less that your home water heater has to raise the temperature of that water.

On paper this may sound complicated, but it really is just understanding the concept of Thermo-siphoning, which is using quality materials to put it together and some basic plumbing. You will be surprised how much hot water you can generate. Just like wood heat is unlike any other, wood heated water is like no other. When taking a shower, I can tell if it’s wood heated water, electric heated, or gas heated.

Our household size ranges from sometimes just two of us to at times a lot of us. Yesterday there were just two of us, and the main Range Boiler got sufficiently hot, so much so that I was concerned about the pressure valve opening to “let off some steam”. So I told my wife that I needed her to go take a long, hot shower… as long as she wanted! That’s a good problem to have.

In the next and final part of this series I will highlight some water-related projects we have done and try to answer a few questions that I imagine the reader might be wondering about.