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Everyone loves hot water in the home, but the ecological cost of long, hot showers powered by fossil fueled water heaters add some guilt to those long hours in the bathroom. What if you could have a huge supply of hot water heated by the compost pile in your garden? Instead of greenhouses gasses, the by-product of your hot water would be more fertile soil.

The ecological cost of heating water with fossil fuels

For people who live in cold climates, the thought of taking a cold shower at 5:00 in the morning before heading to work on a December morning is a frightening proposition to say the least. For people in most parts of the world who live with limited access to electricity and fresh water, a water source of any type, whether it be hot or cold, is a cause for thankfulness.

A recent United Nations report found that over 780 million people have absolutely no access to clean water and 2.5 billion people lack adequate sanitation, including access to showers. For these people, cold water showers would be a godsend.

Nonetheless, it is undeniable that a home without hot water in the United States and most of the other industrial countries is considered to be a poverty-stricken household. Hot water is an indispensable feature of our homes that we have come to depend upon.

What few people realize, however, is that the process of heating water in homes is extremely energy intensive. According to one report, hot water heaters are the second biggest users of hot water in the home. Furthermore, most modern built homes have massive water heaters installed so that you can enjoy unlimited access to hot water at any time of the day.

As with other aspects of our industrial society, the bigger something is, the more energy it uses. While small, on demand water heaters that don’t come with huge tanks are much more energy efficient, almost nobody chooses these options over other more common industrial sized water heaters.

Since energy use is doubling every 20 years or so in the United States, and since we still depend on non-renewable fossil fuels for the majority of our energy consumption needs, the ecological cost of water heating is enormous. The warm showers that you so much enjoy are most likely at the same time contributing to massive greenhouse gas emissions leading to global warming.

The United States Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy offers an easy to use calculator to help you discover the overall energy cost for your electric or gas powered water heater. By changing the data input for the average daily use in gallons, you can see how your ecological footprint increases the more hot water you use.

Wood stove for alternative hot water heating

An outline of the Jean Paine method of heating water

Luckily, there are other ways to heat the water that you use. If you heat your home with a wood stove (one of the most ecological and sustainable ways to heat a home), you can easily adapt your wood stove to also heat the water you use. If you live in areas that receive ample sunlight, a solar powered water heater is another option that can get you the hot water you need without dependence on fossil fuels.

Whereas some people might live in areas without access to abundant sunlight or timber for wood fuel, you can make up a compost pile pretty much anywhere. Compost is nothing more than the art of putting together certain organic materials in such a way so as to help speed up the process of decomposition in order to get quality top soil.

The mixture of organic materials high in nitrogen (such as animal manure and green grass clippings) and high in carbon (dead materials like leaves, sawdust, etc.…) is the golden combination to start up a steaming compost pile.

Most all gardeners and many environmentally conscious people have some sort of compost pile brewing somewhere around their house. There simply is no better soil for plants than well-made compost. However, very few of us have ever considered other uses we can get from that slow decomposition process of our compost piles.

If you have ever turned over a compost pile, you know that inadvertently sticking your hand into the middle of pile can cause minor burns. Thermophilic microorganisms, or tiny heat-loving “bugs”, take over a well-made compost pile and help to break down the organic matter into rich, nutrient dense humus.

Thermophilic microorganisms are critical to quality compost because they help to kill off any potential pathogens that could exist. This is especially important for people using composting toilets since human feces, when improperly composted, can be a source of pathogens negatively affecting human health.

Since thermophilic organisms will work inside a compost pile for several weeks or months (depending on the size of the pile) during the slow process of decomposition, right outside your home is a sustainable source of heat that is naturally occurring, renewable, and about as “green” as can be.

Jean Pain was a French inventor who developed a compost-based energy system. Pain saw the excess heat produced by compost piles as a potential energy source for our homes. His water heating method, known as the Jean Pain Way, or the Jean Pain Method, basically runs water piping through the inside of a thermophilic compost pile before directing it inside towards a shower head or water faucet.

If you have ever turned on a water hose that has been left sitting in the hot sun for several hours, the first bit of water that comes out is usually pleasantly warm to the touch before the cold water comes bursting through. The Jean Pain water heating method works on this principal and in its simplest form, can be nothing more than a long, plastic water hose coiled through a compost pile and leading to an outdoor shower.

How to set up your compost powered hot water heater

For people who are looking for a more advanced system than simply showering underneath a hose, the Jean Pain method can be adapted to pretty much any home. If your home already has a plumbing system installed, the most important step would be to reconsider whether or not you need hot water available to all of the different faucets and other areas of water use in your home.

Washing dishes with cool water is a whole lot more bearable than taking a cold shower. Instead of redoing your entire plumbing system to allow for compost powered hot water, you could simply redirect the pipes heading to your bathroom to allow for hot water into your shower. Another option would be to simply run water from an outdoor spigot through your compost pile and into your bathroom where it can be connected to the shower piping.

In order to increase the efficiency of the water that moves through your compost, it is preferable to invest in copper piping. A copper pipe that is coiled throughout a compost pile will heat up faster and hold heat longer as it travels to your showerhead. Furthermore, the longer the water is inside the compost pile, the hotter it will become. Building a bigger compost pile and coiling your piping as much as you can will help to increase the amount of hot water available.

Additionally, you will need to think about where to place your compost pile. If, for example, your compost pile is on the far side of your yard, you will lose considerable heat as the water travels through the piping. Placing a compost pile near your home will improve the overall efficiency of your heater.

wood chips for hot water heating

Wood chips versus other compostable materials

Another important consideration for your compost powered water heater system is what types of materials to use in your compost pile. The more traditional garden compost pile is mostly an assortment of materials that are easily decomposed such as animal manure, leaves, kitchen waste, etc. In the gardening world, the quicker the compost is ready, the better. Turning your compost several times a week is a strategy many people use to increase the rate and speed of decomposition.

If you are building a compost pile for hot water heating, however, you will want a slower decomposition process. Ramial chipped wood, more commonly known as wood chips or landscape mulch, is a great option for your compost water heater.

Wood chips decay much more slowly than other organic materials such as leaves, hay, straw, etc. The lignin in wood can only be broken down by fungi; meaning that your wood chip compost pile will be a fungal dominated compost instead of the more common bacterially-dominated compost preferred by gardeners.

A large pile of wood chips will take anywhere from 1-2 years to break down (depending on the size of the pile). Jean Pain preferred to use saplings, branches and underbrush for his compost piles when he was developing his bioenergy heating system.

In our industrialized world, wood chips are abundantly available, especially from energy companies and local governments who are continually trimming trees to keep power lines clear. One call to your local energy company might get you a dump truck load of free wood chips which could heat your water for several years.

Greenhouse gas emissions or fertile top soil?

The first step to a more sustainable livelihood is questioning whether or not the excesses of our industrial lifestyles are necessary. While hot water in our homes is a nice luxury, do we really need 30 minute showers or hot water laundry? If we are willing to embrace a lifestyle of necessary limitations, we will find that there are a number of ways to continue to enjoy the necessities and comforts of life in a more sustainable way.

The compost pile behind our home can easily be adapted to offer us all the hot water we need for our showers. Instead of greenhouse gas emissions the by-product of our hot showers would be fertile top soil to spread on our gardens.

About Author

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Tobias Roberts is a writer and permaculture farmer based in the mountains of El Salvador. He runs a natural building cooperative in the Central American region as well as a diversified permaculture orchard.