Sorry, but solar sucks

Posted on November 5, 2010


Bleeding green won’t give you a hot shower. At least not in Nepal.

This was a hard lesson to learn, as I’m a fairly devoted environmentalist. And sadly, today marks my household’s cession to the powers of non-efficient energy use: As I type this, there are men in my bathroom installing a gas-powered water heater.

new water heater

A very exciting picture of a very exciting topic.

And what’s wrong with gas water heaters? It’s all relative, really. Our new, compact, heat-on-demand wall unit sure beats burning coal. But this isn’t the 1920s either, and nobody burns coal to heat water anymore. What makes me uncomfortable is that our new water heater uses propane gas, a derivative of natural gas. And regardless of the myriad ecological beliefs jousting in the world today, everyone can agree that natural gas is a finite resource. That’s just a fact of life—just like “The dodo is extinct.” But I believe that in this day and age, we should try pretty hard to conserve any natural resource we can. So this is what bugs me the most: Our new water heater uses up a crazy amount of gas per shower.

The new water heater has to heat a constantly flowing supply of water. To achieve this, a little gas flame in the unit has to instantly heat the cold water coming through for as long as the shower is running. That takes a lot of gas! Apparently, the storage-type water heaters that live in some dusty closet somewhere in the laundry room of most American homes don’t require this constant burning of gas. The heat of the stored water contributes to warming new supplies of cold water, requiring less gas to heat. Anyway. Without getting mired in the science of all this, my conclusion is that my lack of adaptation skills to living in a third-world country is making me a bad environmentalist.

I feel both sad and guilty that I’m such a wimp and can’t handle cold showers. Heck, most Nepalis bathe in cold water everyday! But my spoiled American butt can’t handle it on cold autumn mornings — boohoo!

gas tank

There's literally a propane gas tank sitting in our bathroom now.

However, aside from my general wimpiness, the crux of the problem here seems to be the engineering of the solar water heaters installed at this house. I believe wholeheartedly that solar is the answer to this problem. But solar scientists have to come up with a better product than what we’ve got installed on our roof here. ‘Cause it blows. One cloudy day means you’ll either be washing yourself with water that makes your nails turn blue, or you won’t be washing yourself at all.

Apparently, there are awesome, reliable solar water heaters in other parts of the world. What’s more, they’re on the rise in third-world areas like rural China, India, Ghana, and Kenya. Can Nepal please get in on some of that?! Please?!

Thankfully, we have the option to switch the gas heater on or off, so on sunny days, this household will be going solar all the way. But until I grow temperature-insensitive skin or until our landlord replaces our janky solar water heater with one that actually works, we’ll be burning that propane on cold days.