Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Boat Showers

The true cost of a boat shower.

Something most of us take for granted at home in Canada is the daily hot shower. However, out here we rarely enjoy a hot shower. In fact, Rani tells me that the last one she had was on August 3rd, over 3 months ago. Strangely, we have come to accept this and a simple but pleasurable alternative in these warmer climates is the 'balti bath' (the Punjabi term for bucket bath). On sunny days, we usually fill our small orange bucket with between 6 and 8 litres of collected rain water and place this in the sun to warm up. On a cloudy day or when we are impatient, we heat up about 1/4 of this water in a saucepan over the propane stove to take the edge off it.

Many cruisers we know, especially on smaller boats do something similar, perhaps using a camp solar shower (a black plastic bag with a small shower head hose). On larger boats, even where there is an indoor shower, the owners often use an outdoor alternative to avoid filling the boat with mildew-causing steamy air. Many newer boats are fitted with a wash down hose near the transom for just this purpose.

Initially, especially in colder weather, we discussed the merits of installing a shower on Ladybug. However, when the true costs are added up, I think most people would think twice about this. For a start you ideally need a boat large enough for a separate shower stall. The smallest boat we have seen with this was a Pearson 365 at around 36 feet, but the shower is often combined with the toilet on boats even as large as 40 feet. This is inconvenient because you need to put away all toiletries before and then wipe down everything after you shower. You could easily add tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of your boat to buy one large enough for a separate shower stall.

Next you need a way to heat the shower water. On most of the boats we looked at buying, the hot water heater (combined AC and engine heated) was in need of repair, so this is clearly both a capital cost and one that requires regular maintenance or replacement. We looked at an on-demand propane solution, but this is neither legal nor practical on a smaller tilty sail boat and would probably succumb to corrosion fairly quickly in this salty environment.

You also need pressure water and the pumps and (optional) accumulator tank needed for this are not cheap. We use foot pumps on Ladybug that are now 25 years old and as far as I know have not required any servicing. The pressure pump on my last boat was quite reliable, but did require a rebuild after a year or two.

Often overlooked, is the cost of obtaining enough water to take even a short shower. At 9 litres per minute, a 2 minute shower will use nearly 5 gallons. Two people will need about 10 gallons per day. Assuming a typical boat tankage of between 50 and 100 gallons, you are likely going to need a water maker to keep up with this demand on any but the shortest cruise. Water makers are expensive and require a surprising amount of care because they work best with regular (every day or two) running and need to be run in clean water only and to be preserved if not used for a week. The membranes have a finite life and can be expensive to replace in out of the way places. Also the high pressures these systems run at and the exposure to salt water means that all parts of the system must be rugged and made of the right materials. On the system we used until last year we had issues with leaks and membrane failure.

Hot water and water making requires a lot of power. Our Village Marine water maker drew 14 amps and made about 24-25 litres of water (6.5 US gallons) an hour. Other water makers require that you run the engine (direct drive) or a generator (AC motor) and will consume similar power. Even the most efficient systems (such as Spectra water makers) consume at least half as much power. Assuming we ran the engine at low speeds solely to make water, we would burn at least a litre of diesel to make 25 litres of water. That works out to about 1.5 litres for 2 short daily showers. To be fair, you should be able to generate a lot more electricity than is needed to make water while running the engine or generator, so let's just count half of this. At $1.25 a litre those showers are still costing about $1 just to make the water. As a bonus, we can use the engine to heat the water too, so we get this for 'free'.

Now we need to look at the capital costs for the water maker, heater, and pressure water system. Let's say $2500 for the water maker, $1000 for the heater, and $500 for the pressure water system. Add on $1000 to pay someone to install or help us install these systems. Assuming we own the boat for 5 years and to keep things simple, depreciate these systems to $0 over this time, that works out at $5000 or $1000/year.

Running costs for the water maker include filters, membranes, and cleaning/preserving chemicals. Let's assume about $500 for these over the 5 years, so we can add on $125/year. With no breakdowns, we are spending nearly $4 per day to buy and maintain these systems. This assumes you live on board for 365 days a year for 5 years - not particularly realistic in our experience, since most of us are away from the boat for months each year. Adding in the $1 a day fuel costs, we are up to about $5/day or over nearly $1500 per year for hot showers. In addition to this we need to consider the time required to run the water maker, maintain and install the systems, and the daily shower stall clean up to keep down the mildew issue.

Contrast this to the simplicity and low cost of a solar heated bucket bath. Admittedly you have to have some way to collect rain water or to bring it from a shore-based supply. In the south seas we have found it simple for about 3/4 of our cruise to collect enough rain water. When we run low, we bring about 20 gallons at a time from shore in containers in our dinghy. This can be a pain, but is at least good exercise and has at times been an adventure and a good way to meet local people.

In cooler climes or on cloudy days, heating a couple of litres of water on the stove top costs pennies and uses equipment found in any galley. The self-draining cockpit is easy to clean out and the humidity escapes immediately. Often we are salty from swimming anyway, so we combine our cockpit balti bath with a post-swim and snorkelling gear wash-off and wash our smalls at the same time. Pretty effective use of a gallon or two of water.

1 comment:

Michael said...

A very in depth analysis of "boat showers" but after any amount of time on a boat (or camping) what do most people say is the first thing they are going to do when they get home - "Have a nice hot shower" - Pricele$$.

Maybe I am just jaded after spending a bunch of money fixing up the hot water system on the J35 despite the fact that it has never been used... just always hopeful that someday Patricia and the kids will want to go for an overnight and it would make things more pleasant - and that would be priceless :).

I guess it is all relative...