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Hot Water, Water Heaters, Heating Water, and the Good Old Days

Monday 31 October 2016 at 8:54 pm.

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for October 27, 2016, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            It’s amazing how much life teaches you about things you don’t know much about and you really don’t want to know anything at all about. Today, I’m talking about water heaters! I know there are some men who love hardware stores and can actually enjoy looking at and talking about water heaters in a hardware store. I, too, love hardware stores and could spend a whole day browsing through hardware stores, but I guarantee you I would never want to look at the water heater section, nor any so-called “plumbing section,” for that matter.

            Recently, the bathroom and alcove floors of my studio bathroom flooded a bit (not a lot, but enough to be annoying). It turned out to be the small, 20-gallon electric water heater dying. This little water heater and its predecessor had been a problem for as long as I can remember. The first time it acted up, there was talk about it being a 120 unit plugged into a 220 outlet (whatever that is) or vice versa. The new water heater I purchased was supposed to be a good one, but it wasn’t too long before it started acting strange. Had a plumber look at it, and they said the hot water was coupled to the cold water and the cold water coupled to the hot water. They fixed it, they said.

            Saturday, Water Heater Number Two impertinently watered my floors, -- yes, I do think water heaters have personalities, and they’re diabolical. And it chose to do it on a Saturday, which means all plumbers charge time and a half for weekend visits. The outside cutoff valve to the studio was so corroded I couldn’t turn it off without breaking it off, so what could I do without calling a plumber (turn the water off at the city meter in the alleyway and do without water until Monday?)

            So I called a plumber. Needed a new water heater. The cost of a new twenty-gallon was high enough to give an old man a stroke. If I lived in Scandinavia or Finland, I could have cheap district heating of hot water coming from waste heat from industrial power plants. In 21st Century Texas, I have a choice of a tank system, an electric shower head (which doesn’t heat the water at the wash basin), or a small, tank-less heater (which doesn’t heat the water to the shower). Since no one has used the studio shower in four years, I chose to go with the tank-less heater. Cost determined my decision.

Believe me, I gave some thought to doing without a water heater. When I was growing up in Dime Box in the 1930’s and 1940’s, we didn’t have expensive problems like water heaters. In town, where my parents lived, we had running water piped to our back porch. Out on the farm, my grandparents had to hand pump their water at the horse trough, and carry it in buckets to the back porch. You see, most people had a built-in table on the back porch under the water faucet (or just a table if you didn’t have running water). On the table was placed a bucket of water with a dipper in it, out of which everyone drank, even visitors (that’s why we have such good immunity today). Next to the bucket was an enamel bowl and an enamel pitcher of water. This is where you washed your hands before you went into the house, -- and winter or summer, there was no HOT water.

            So what did we do about bathing in those days? We took a bath once a week, on Saturday (so you’d be squeaky clean for church), in a galvanized wash tub. Realizing the value of bathing in warm water, we heated the water on the stove, one bucketful at a time. If the whole family was going to bathe about the same time, you built a fire under the wash kettle and heated a large kettle full. You get a roaring fire going under a wash kettle, and you can get the water hot enough to scald the hair off a pig’s belly (which you had to do at hog-killing time).

            You know, the older and more de-energized I get, the more I like that old timey idea of a once-a-week bath! Look how much time you saved in those days, and how much time you’d save if you did it today! Not to mention money . . . on a water heater that costs as much as a diamond ring! That gives me an idea. I have my grandmother’s wash kettle, currently filled with water poppies. It’s about ten steps from the studio.

            But is that even necessary? In the good old days, we washed our hands in cold water, winter or summer. Come to think of it, do I even need hot water in the studio? Picasso didn’t have hot water in his Montmartre studio. Neither did Van Gogh. Do I even need water out there? In the good old days, we had an outhouse, which, unlike a commode, didn’t require running water. I could build an outhouse for less than the cost of the cheapest water heater available.

            Yes, I’m joking, . .. . however . . .


 Ray Spitzenberger serves as pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wallis, after retiring from Wharton County Junior College, where he taught English and speech and served as chairman of Communications and Fine Arts for many years.

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