Showering WIthout Guilt

2012_09_fleet.jpgOne of the things I remember my father saying about Mundy Point, a small peninsula of land on Virginia’s coastal plain that I’ve been visiting since before I had braces, was that it was blessed with an artesian water system. At the time I didn’t fully understand what that meant, but I knew it was good. I now know that it meant that the groundwater was confined beneath an impervious confining layer (in this case, thick clay), and was plentiful enough that when a well was drilled, the water would rise to the surface on its own, not needing an electric or hand pump. The natural pressure, coming from the surrounding water table, was sufficient to give it the “oomph” needed to come up to the surface.

2013_07_11_shower_and_reservoir.jpgIt was nice while it lasted. Today the groundwater levels and relative pressure (“hydraulic head”) have dropped enough that artesian wells on Mundy Point are a quaint memory of a bygone day. Water tables have dropped regionally to the point where the state is starting to sit up and pay attention. Theories have been put forward and analyzed, but at its core it’s quite simple: Groundwater has been taken for granted, and large-scale pumping has been allowed to continue relatively unchecked.

The coastal plain of Virginia is not unique in this regard. Dropping groundwater tables are a national (global, actually) crisis, one that I’d love to address at another time. But what perhaps is a little different is how my husband and I chose to deal with it on our small patch of Virginia, to which we return a few times a year to see family and unplug. Not wanting to contribute to the declining water table any more than necessary, we took a different approach to water supply last year when we finally built what we call our “boatshed.”

The primary purpose of our shed is indeed to provide shelter to our growing fleet of non-motorized watercraft. But we also wanted it to provide an alternative to tent camping, with indoor shelter and outdoor social space. Along with this we wanted to have a source of water that wouldn’t further exacerbate the groundwater drawdown, but also one that wouldn’t require electric power or permit applications. The shed has a metal roof and no overhanging trees, so capturing rainwater in a cistern was the obvious answer. In addition, we wanted an outdoor shower to replace our beloved but arduous system of filling a black-bag camping shower, leaving it in the sun for the day, and then hoisting it into a tree for our ritual ablutions.

Our patient and skilled contractor, Bruce Medlin of Old Orchard Builders, had never constructed anything quite like this, but he was game and helped us figure out something that could work. Because some of our visitors have been 2013_07_11_hand_pump.jpgfascinated with the set-up, and because we had to sort of invent this as we went (and are still tinkering with it), I thought it would be of value to share it with others. By no means am I claiming that this is the ideal system, but perhaps our experiment in rainwater harvest and simple showering can help someone else. Here is a brief explanation of how ours works:

  1. We have a metal roof, traditional for this region, and gutter which collect rainwater and send it down into a 220-gallon, above-ground vertical cistern. Ours is set on a concrete slab at grade. Having it a bit higher would be a nice modification.
  2. There is a (undersized) hose at the top of the cistern, serving as a relief valve when the cistern fills (which happens very quickly during a rainstorm).
  3. We have two outlets at the base of the cistern. One (you can’t see it in the photo) is a hose coming out of the base of the cistern which we run to another, lower, area where we wash dishes and clothes (by hand), water plants, and can drain the cistern as winter approaches. The other (on the bottom left of the cistern) feeds into the pump system.
  4. To get water up to a higher level we have a hand pump. We learned the hard way that metal pumps are preferable to plastic. There is a small, wooden platform to which the pump is bolted. Water is fed into the base of the pump by hose from the cistern, and then flows out the top, into another hose and pipe system, up to a smaller, higher tank that sits on the wall of our outdoor shower.
  5. We painted the small tank black so that the water will heat up in direct sunlight. A shower head is attached to the other side, and has a simple on/off lever. There is also a hose from this point so that we can fill other containers with water as needed without having to go around to the cistern. There is a bit of an art to using this shower and getting the temperature just right (since we don’t have a hot and cold mixing system), but judging from the popularity of the shower by friends and family who have other options (my aunt and uncle live only about 300 yards away on the neighboring property), it seems quite sufficient.
  6. For potable water we have a filter system (not pictured) that we bought from REI. It’s quick, convenient, and seems to work (i.e. we haven’t gotten sick).

This isn’t for everyone, I realize. My sister-in-law has it right when she says we’re playing “Swiss Family Robinson.” But it’s the one place on the planet I feel like I can take a long, hot shower and not feel the least bit guilty.

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