Several friends have posted lately about having to deal with water-heater repair or replacement, an expensive proposition. I sometimes forget about the existence of water heaters, especially now, in the dead of summer, when I wouldn’t use one even if I had one.
I went water-heater-free a few years ago and never looked back. For showers I use sun-heated or just plain cold water (which I’m fine with; actually prefer cold showers for most of the year in TX and FL, and can tolerate them even in the cold months if I’ve been jogging, doing manual labor etc).
The easiest and cheapest way to get hot water is by letting a hose full of water sit in the sun. It’s easy to rig up an outdoor shower or dishwashing stand. Myself, I tend to just go with the “Peace Corps” method — filling a pot with rainwater, then scooping out cupfuls and dumping them on myself. For some reason this is delightful to me, especially on a super hot day but even on some cooler days. But if I wanted something a bit fancier I’d use the hose method, with a shower-head hooked up. (Outdoor shower cabanas/stalls are a very common thing here on the Atlantic coast of Florida, as I imagine they are in most warm-weather beach towns. But no reason you couldn’t have one, at least in summer, wherever you live.)
For washing dishes, I mostly just use cold water except if it’s a greasy dish or something, then I boil up some water in a kettle.
I wash my laundry in cold water.
As I type this I think it seems old-fashioned, but then again most people throughout history lived this way. And I love the money savings and love never having to think about a water heater leaking, breaking down, etc.
On a trip through rural Japan in the 1990s, I met and was invited to stay with a family. They had a wood-heated bathtub. (I remember the tub itself being made of wood but my memory is notoriously unreliable and I could be totally making that part up.) Their kitchen just had a tiny on-demand water heater, same as the one in my minuscule Tokyo apartment. Those tankless heaters can be OK for low-volume use and right at the tap; not so great for large volumes or if the water has to travel far.
If you’ve never tried living without a water heater, try it out! You might be surprised. Back before I started my “low-footprint living lab” thing, I used to be terrified of someday not being able to have hot showers, due to the Zombie Apocalypse or some other TEOTWAWKI event. Though I still hope never to encounter the flesh-eating undead, particularly while bathing, at least I’ve lost my terror of living without hot showers. (I used to be really skinny and was terrified of cold weather in general. “Cold weather” being anything below 70 Fahrenheit. I’m not so skinny now, just a normal healthy weight, which helps.)
Whether or not you choose to have a water heater, it’s freeing to know you could live without one if you needed to. “Emergency” appliance repairs (water heaters, dishwashers, etc.) rack up a lot of expense and cause great anxiety, which for me tends to outweigh whatever comfort and convenience I would get from big appliances like a water heater. Plus, well, I’m hardcore into the ultra-low-footprint thing! And a water heater is among the top electricity users in a household.
Michael Bluejay’s article about how to save money on water heating was written some years back but is still very helpful. As is his whole website, which is my #1 go-to resource on saving electricity.